How Long Do I Have to Do this?

We get asked a lot of questions while training dogs. Some of them are very specific to certain dogs and special circumstances, but there are perhaps four or five questions that almost always come up at the very beginning of the process. Almost as soon as people see the value in what we do, and are thinking of training with us, we start getting questions associated with effort. "How long do I have to do this?", or, "How long will it take?". This question in some way, shape, or form is perhaps the most common question we get. On some level, I know, that many people literally have no idea how long it takes to get a trained dog. We are perhaps their first venture into dog training and it can be hard enough to admit that you need help in the first place. On another level, we are faced with a striking nuance of our own behavior (not the dog's). 

Almost as soon as people think about starting the training process, they are wondering when it will be over. On some level this makes sense. We live in a culture where the expectation is speed. Two day shipping is the norm now. Internet speeds and instant access to whatever we want are selling points for many industries. Not ours.

Our clients often do see results very quickly. If you know how to train a dog effectively, then you can often achieve a quick result with dogs. This can astound our clients and make everyone feel good, us included. But just like anything else, there is a quick result and a long-lasting result. Dogs are masters at adaptability and change. When required, dogs can change houses, families, names, and whole areas of the country without any trouble at all - most of the time. Seeing a quick result is no real surprise with a dog. It takes Consistency, Repetition, and Fairness to get a lasting result. This is the best way that I have found to describe the process.

There are essentially three phases to dog training.

1)The Learning Phase. 2)The Reinforcement Phase. 3)The Maintenance Phase.

The Learning Phase of training is what people can most readily identify with. This is the phase where we are actually training the dog. This is where we teach them everything we want them to know. This first phase can take anywhere from one to two months by the way, and depends a lot on how the dog learns, what we want to teach them, as well as how motivated the owners are to work with the dog and stay consistent. Once we have done our due diligence and taught our pup everything we want them to know and we feel like they understand what we are asking, then we enter the second phase.

The Reinforcement Phase is where most people fall off the wagon. Once we get through teaching the dog to sit we think our dogs "have it" and many times do not revisit obedience again until there is a crisis and then wonder why our dog won't do anything for us. This phase is where we practice and practice and practice. We teach them to sit in the living room, the front yard, the park, the ball field. Essentially, we teach them that no matter where we might be, sit is always sit, come is always come, and heel is always walk next to me. We keep exposing the dog to more things, more distractions, and continue to ask them to do what they have learned. This phase is really fun and can last anywhere from three to four months depending on the dog, what goals we want achieved, and, as always, the owners motivation.

The Maintenance Phase is where your dog shows you that they pretty much know their stuff but you may need to spend some time every once in an while reviewing their obedience and expectations. This phase, in my opinion, should be considered the rest of the dog's life. Dogs always want to return to their strongest habits - just like us - so if the obedience is left long enough a digger will start digging again, a jumper will start jumping again.

Throughout the Learning and Reinforcement phase, we try and get our clients to make training their dog part of their lifestyle so it doesn't feel like a chore or an inconvenience. Many times, we find that the owners who incorporate training into all areas of their day and ENJOY their time with their dog get the best results.

This should be considered a very rough outline of the "progression" of training. Many things impact the learning process for dogs and people. I like to present this answer to the question of how long it will take to get a trained dog as a way of adding perspective to the process. It simply doesn't happen overnight, it takes months to get to a reliable, consistently obedient dog. I am also strictly talking about a dog's basic obedience commands and achieving reliability with these commands across contexts - dogs are contextual learners (more about that in a later blog). If you are going to go on to do any kind of dog sport or further, more detailed training, then you can expect much longer periods of learning and "proofing" of what your dog knows.

Setting ourselves (and our dogs) up for Success!


If we want to understand how to enjoy successful training with our dogs we think it is important to first define what success looks like.

For an eight week old puppy, success may look like a day, two days, or even a week without an accident in the house while potty training. For a two year old dog learning to compete in agility, it may look like the first successful completion of an agility course linking all the obstacles together for the first time. Getting to each point requires clients and trainers to be “set up for success.” 

Shaping is a word we use regularly in dog training. It refers to, over time, achieving a desired behavior. For instance, we want our dog to sit when people come over and have them wait for us to tell them to “go say hi” without jumping all over our guests. Well, a dog that has not learned to sit around even the smallest of distractions isn’t ready or set up for success when the doorbell rings for a Super Bowl party and the whole family comes rushing in. How do we get there? We “shape” the behavior over time. First, teaching the dog to sit with little to no distractions, then, over time, we increase the difficulty level (distractions and new environments) in which we are asking the dog to display this behavior. Knowing when to challenge our dogs with more distractions and new environments is a key part of this process. All too often we ask too much of our four legged friends too soon, and it is unfair and unrealistic for us to believe they can follow through without taking the proper steps to get there. 

Have you ever been to a dog park and listened to an owner say Fluffy! “sit!,” “sit!,” “sit!,” “sit!” when Fluffy is taking off to go say hi to all his/her friends? Well there’s a good chance that Fluffy isn’t ready for the challenge of sitting at a park with so much going on, and likely, Fluffy’s owner isn’t in a position to follow through with the command that he/she is asking of her (the leash may be off and they may be standing half way across the park, for example). There may have been a different outcome had Fluffy learned to sit with one or two dogs in a controlled environment and been eased into such a distracting and stimulating situation. 

There’s a saying that is not unique to us, but rather the entirety of the dog training community; “Never ask your dog to do anything without first being in a position to follow through.” If we are going to ask Fluffy to “come,” we should probably have a few things in place: the right amount of distractions (if any at all), a leash (physical connection to Fluffy used to help cue her) and a reward to “mark” her successful completion of said behavior. 

Success largely boils down to our ability to manage our expectations, realize our dogs current abilities (knowing when and how to challenge them), and patiently shaping each behavior over time. Achieving our end state goals with training takes time, but with proper motivation, great timing, and a ton of repetition, we can achieve all kinds of success along the way to a lasting, obedient relationship with our canine companions. The more consistent you are, the quicker you will see results. Inconsistency breeds inconsistent results. If you're asking too much of your dog on a regular basis, or are not able to follow through, your dog may be learning the opposite of what you're intending to teach (ex. "come" means catch me if you can!).

Be consistent, have great timing, and be in a position to follow through. Reward small amounts of success along the way! If you’re frustrated, your dog is going to be frustrated as well. Generally speaking our dogs have a desire to please and training should be fun and rewarding for all involved. Know when to ask for help, we all have to raise our hands at some point when we are stuck or ask for a second opinion. There's always a chance you may not have been far off! 

Being Fair With Your Training


Be fair with your training. What do I mean by this? Many times people are so concerned with whether or not they are being nice to the dog (physically treating the dog well) that they forget that there are many factors that should be considered when starting to train their dog. One of the things I try to get our clients to think about is a a very simple progression of thought. It goes like this:

1) What is the word that my dog is hearing?  

2) Does my dog understand the tools I am using to get their attention and reinforce good behavior?

3) Does my dog understand what is expected of him or her? This is perhaps the most important factor in our dog's ability to be successful and this is where I will spend just a little time talking about today.

Come, Sit, Down, and Heel are very common words that are associated with training and that many people use. Can your dog hear you say the word and have you built the appropriate association with it? For example it is very possible to teach your dog to lie down when you say sit or to sit when you say down. The meaning of the word is directly related to it's association with action and reward.  If you say "down" and then reward your dog when they sit, chances are you can have them sitting when you say down and you will have a really fun dog trick to do at your next party. The important thing to remember is that your dog learned to sit when you say down and that you remain consistent when you are asking them to sit, wait, I mean down...see what I mean? So, in the end, say what you mean and mean what you say.

Treats and clickers are very common along with more traditional types of tools like special training collars. Does your dog understand them and how they are being used and reinforced? Many people try all sorts of different tools for only a short amount of time. Many people will begin training with one tool only to abandon it a week later because there was no obvious change in behavior or the handler's ability to gain obedience from their dog. Also common, is not receiving the right instruction on how to use certain tools or even how to use treats when training. All this can cause your dog to become confused. Imagine starting to learn Spanish and then a week later being expected to begin learning German? Confusing, right?

And this leads us to expectation. Our inconsistencies while attempting to train our dogs is the number one thing that impacts their success. It is not fair to our furry best friends when we are not consistent with their training. They (and we) can become confused, frustrated, and many times quit before any real progress is made simply because they (and we) have no real sense of what they should be paying attention to. It is not fair to establish rules and consequences without first teaching dogs what is expected of them. This takes time, and consistency over time, to accomplish lasting results with your dog. A dog that understands what the word "come" means and meets the expectation quickly for an agreed upon reward will be safe and happy in being compliant. The hard part for us humans is to not change what the word "come" means.

That might sound funny but from a dog's perspective when they hear the word "come", often times they know that they have several options for getting the job done. They can "come" all the way to you, stop short (two to three feet away), sail past you, or ignore you. Many dogs who hear the word "come" in the living room get a cookie but when they hear that same word at the dog park, they get their leash put on them and the fun stops. What would you do if you were a dog? It is important to teach your dog that every time they hear the word "come" that the same expectation is met and the same reward will be given every single time.

This is what I usually mean when I am teaching our clients to be fair with their training. It is unfair to expect something from our dogs that we have not put the time, energy, and effort into teaching and teaching thoroughly. So be a good friend to your furry friend and make sure you set them up for success.