I am a dog trainer, and I frequently hear the question, “How long will it take to train my dog?” I do not have a stock answer, because there are too many variables to consider.
Teaching a new behavior is usually much quicker and easier than trying to stop a behavior that has become habitual. It is not so much that an old dog cannot learn new tricks, the problem lies with trying to get him to forget the old unacceptable behaviors.
Starting out training a puppy is a good idea because training can begin BEFORE it has had enough time to develop bad habits, and you are essentially working with a clean slate.
When owners ask this question, they are usually referring to specific behaviors that they deem unacceptable, such as eliminating indoors and jumping on family and friends.
I receive calls all the time from people who want immediate results with a minimum of effort on their end. I was actually called about a 7 year old dog that has been eliminating in their rental house all of his life. Now that the family is moving into their own home, they want the dog house broken, immediately! It is safe to say that it is going to be a big task to stop the inappropriate behavior when the dog as had an opportunity to practice the behavior for a long period of time. It is much easier to teach a dog to do something new, rather than extinguish a behavior that has already become a habit.
Another common problem that is annoying--if not downright dangerous-- is a dog that jumps on people. It would be safe to say that 75% of the dogs that come to me for behavior modification have a jumping problem. When an 8-10 week old puppy jumps on people, it’s cute and so the owners encourage it by petting or otherwise engaging with the dog. When an 80 lb. lab is flying across the floor for a greeting, it is no longer so cute. By the time the owners decide to fix the problem, they no longer even notice when the dog is jumping on them. This creates an even more difficult situation because the owner only scolds the dog intermittently. If jumping is something that the dog enjoys and the dog is allowed to do it occasionally, he will always continue to try! Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful training tool. Unfortunately in this situation, it is working against the owner.
Sometimes the easiest way to break a bad habit is to teach an incompatible behavior to occur in its place. For instance, if your Labrador retriever is a seasoned jumper, you could teach him to sit for love and affection, until sit becomes his default behavior. He can’t do both, so you won’t even have to address the jumping once he discovers how much more pleasant things are when he assumes the sit position.
This is a good time to bring up breed specific training problems. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are notorious jumpers. Smaller breeds, such as Jack Russell terriers, certainly have a propensity to jump, but they do so in a vertical pattern. I really don’t mind jumping so much if the dog does not land on me, but it is still a behavior that is more than a little annoying. Some toy breeds like Shih Tzu’s and Maltese, will stand on their hind legs and paw at the air with their front feet. It is something they do readily and every owner that I have come across thinks that behavior is adorable. Anytime a dog is rewarded for its antics, it will repeat them again and again. Herding dogs have a propensity to nip, which can be a problem in a house full of fast moving small children. Some breeds are amazingly intelligent and incredibly active and need a full time job to keep them out of trouble. The length of time that it will take before the dog is house trained, or walks properly on leash, or doesn’t jump on everyone is highly dependent upon its breed as well as many other factors.
I would like to get back to the difficulty/ease of house training specific breeds. Toy breeds seem to be the most difficult to train in this regard. This is likely due to the fact that many owners of tiny breeds consider the minimal puddles left behind to be a mere inconvenience, so urinating in the house is tolerated until it is no longer cute or simply inconvenient. Once again, that little puppy had many occasions to practice the wrong behavior. Getting off to a solid start on training is really the best practice and will save a lot of time and frustration for you and your dog, down the road.
When starting off with a young puppy, training is often easier and quicker because you are starting with a clean slate and the best relationships occur when everyone involved knows the rules. Don’t wait for bad behaviors or mistakes to happen! The moment a new dog is brought into your home, it starts to learn the rules. It is in the best interests of all concerned if the teaching/learning/training starts immediately. Give the dog all the tools, information and opportunities that it needs to make good choices and reward those choices.
“How quickly will the dog learn?” There are basically 2 factors that will determine how quickly your dog learns. The first factor is the owner’s commitment and ability. The second factor is the dog’s willingness and ability. If the owner only teaches the dog not to jump when they are “training”, then the dog will learn that jumping is fine as long as it’s not training time. Just remember, whenever you are interacting with your dog, you are either helping it to learn/follow the rules, or you are giving it a pass to do whatever it pleases.
Now let us look at how the dog’s willingness and ability come into play. The dog is almost always willing to play with you, and probably more than willing to accept treats from you. If you are training a hungry dog, treats are an amazing reinforcement. There are other rewards, however, that can be even more powerful than a morsel of food. You can teach a dog to sit and wait for a morsel of cheese, or you can teach that same dog to sit and wait at an open door, with the reward being a chance to fly out the back door, or to go for a walk. Choosing the right reward for the behavior you are trying to train is half of the problem.
I have not mentioned ability yet. Your dog’s ability to master certain behaviors is going to be largely dependent upon his genetic makeup, or breed. I took my very first dog training lessons with my mastiff and the class was learning the “stay” command (mastiffs are not inherently very active). My dog was so good, that people came over and told me how they wished they had a dog like mine.
The following week the class worked on come. Not a single individual had a word of praise for us (mastiffs are not inherently very active!). A dog that was bred to herd is very likely to be an easy dog to teach to walk on a leash whereas a dog that was bred to hunt with his nose to the ground is going to be much more difficult to teach that same exercise.
The mental state of your dog plays an enormous role in its ability to learn. A male dog is going to have a very difficult time concentrating if there is a female in season in the vicinity. A fearful dog is going to have very difficult time learning if it fears for its wellbeing.
Training involves setting up situations in which your dog can learn the behaviors you want it to perform. It is very important that you lay down a good foundation to build upon. Let us assume that an owner has a problem with their dog bolting out of the house whenever it gets the chance. The owner takes the dog to a trainer to get the problem fixed. The trainer talks about positive reinforcement, and teaches the dog to sit. The owner tells the trainer over and over that the problem is with the dog bolting, not learning how to sit. I liken this scenario to the grandmother who announces that she wants to learn to drive, and she wants to drive on the freeway. Most people would understand why she was first taken to a parking lot to learn to drive before she was allowed to go on the freeway. It is all about developing the proper building blocks so that progress can and will occur as quickly and effectively as possible.