Dog Obedience Training: 6 Questions

I’ve been teaching dog obedience training courses for over two decades now. I’ve worked with clients both individually and in groups and focus primarily on family pet training (household manners and having a good pet). Here are the most common questions I get about starting a dog training class…along with the one important question that rarely gets asked.

  1. Question: How long will it take to train my dog? Answer: A year. Ok…it really depends on the dog, the trainer, and what you are trying to teach. It also depends on how much follow up you do at home. But I would recommend you plan on working with your dog for at least a year to reinforce the things you are learning in class. That doesn’t mean you have to take dog obedience training classes for a year (although if you find a fun class and a great instructor, why not? It’s a great way to build a relationship with your dog). A 6-week class will teach you the basics, which you will need to reinforce over the next several months in order for your dog to be consistent. You won’t have Lassie after a 6-week class. And if you never practice outside of class, you might never have Lassie. I would recommend spending at least 15-20 minutes a day working with your dog.  More is even better.
  2. Question: How long do I need to use the treats, the clicker, the gentle leader, the harness, the (fill in the blank with any tool). Answer: A year. Haha. Ok..again, it really depends. If you want your dog to be proficient and you don’t want to rely on training tools, then you need to plan on some initial training time, then time to get the dog more reliable in the behavior, then time to phase out the training tool. I think a year is a good estimate. However, for a basic family pet, I’m not sure why this question matters so much. Why does it matter if you need to use a treat or a harness? Even when my previous dog was in his teens, I would still take treats with me when I walked him. I didn’t use treats to get him to sit, down, or stay, but if he comes to me rather than chasing a squirrel, I’m going to reward him with treats because there is no better way for me to tell my dog he is an amazingly smart pup! Positive dog training requires a different mind-set than we had in the bad old days – but it’s just a skill, and with practice we can become quite good at it.
  3. Question: If I use treats, will my dog only work for food? Answer: No..not if you are listening to your dog training instructor. Let’s be clear…the main reason for using food is to reward your dog AFTER he does the desired behavior. (What gets rewarded, gets repeated…that’s the whole point). While it is true that you can help your dog initially by luring him with the food, a good trainer will have you phase the food out within a few repetitions. If your dog will only work for food it’s because you are training him to look for the food BEFORE the behavior rather than rewarding him with the food after the behavior. This is an important distinction and one that is easily resolved with help by a good instructor.
  4. Question: If I use a clicker, how long do I have to carry the clicker around? Answer: A few weeks for any new behavior. The clicker is simply a sound that marks good behavior. It tells the dog when they have done something right. Once the dog understands what the right behavior looks like, you can phase out the clicker.
  5. Question: What kind of treats should I use? Answer: High value treats. That means something that is soft, smelly, and rarely provided to your dog outside of training. If you want a strong reinforcer, the food needs to be enticing to the dog (smelly), easy for the dog to eat so that you can reinforce quickly without waiting for the dog to chew something (soft), and motivating to the dog (something he rarely gets outside of training). At home your dog might work for his kibble and I don’t see any problem with using kibble when the dog is not distracted. But when you are in a dog obedience training class or any new environment, use something better.
  6. Question: Will my dog get fat if I train with treats? Answer: Not if you are giving him small pieces. A hot dog can be cut into over 100 pieces. Treats don’t necessarily have to be big to be effective. I would rather you give lots and lots of tiny treats rather than be stingy with a few larger treats. Training your dog with the equivalent of a couple hot dogs a day isn’t going to make him fat. The secret is to actually reward him with treats for doing something…don’t just feed him because you happen to have treats in your hand.

All of these are great questions and hopefully these answers are helpful. But there is one more question that I think is really important…but rarely asked.

What do I do if my dog doesn’t listen to me? Different trainers will answer this question differently. In my opinion the answer should be geared toward understanding how to help you be more motivating, more encouraging, and more bonded with your dog. The answer should troubleshoot the situations that cause your dog’s lack of response and the ways you can strengthen your dog’s behavior using positive reinforcement methods. The answer should discuss practicing with your dog, setting your dog up for success, and slowly adding distractions, duration, and distance to help your dog improve in a wide range of environments. The answer should not include anything that involves hitting, shocking, or physically punishing your dog for failing to listen to you. Ask this question next time you are looking for a trainer. It might be helpful to you achieve successful dog obedience training.

What other questions do you ask before you start working with a dog trainer?

If you’re a trainer and would like to learn about how to structure Levels classes, Robin is presenting a webinar called Developing A Levels Based Training Model on June 12, 2019.

Robin Bennett is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, speaker, and expert on dogs. She founded one of the largest dog training companies in Virginia and has been using her expertise in “reading dogs” to teach families how to train their pets as well as helping others in the pet care industry keep dogs safe for over 20 years. Robin’s first book, All About Dog Daycare is the number one reference on opening a dog daycare. She is also Co-author of Off-Leash Dog Play… A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun, and an extensive staff training program called, Knowing Dogs, which are the leading staff training resources for dog daycare and boarding facilities. Robin is currently co-founder of The Dog Gurus, the nation’s premier resource for dog care professionals. Through The Dog Gurus she is now helping pet care professionals get their lives back by showing them how to create sustainable businesses with teams that truly know dogs.

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