Can You Train A Dog Too Much?
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The problem with most dogs is that they have too little, not too much, training.
But, is it possible to train a dog too much? Yes, it is possible to train a dog too much.
Too Young: I have seen a handful of dog owners who have done long and intense training drills with very young puppies. I don’t think this is wise, nor very productive. There are a number of reasons these situations come along. Usually the owner has gotten angry with the puppy for doing puppy things, or they are thinking they can rush the development of their puppy if they start teaching everything, or they are just overly enthusiastic. What they end up doing is kill off the dog’s spirit, and the obedience looks more like the dog is doing a Death March rather than obeying with speed, intelligence, and willingness to please. These dogs obey, but the ears are back, the tail is tucked, and the dog always looks like it has been hit. There is an appropriate pace at which every dog should be trained. This includes even things such as house training and manners. There are things that are good for young puppies, and things that should wait. This isn’t really an area for the do it yourself dog trainer.
Too Much At One Time: If you have ever tried learning a new skill, at a certain point, it’s time to quit for the day. If you go too long, you get punchy, and can’t concentrate any more. Your brain is full. But, I’ve seen dogs trained past the point of progress, and then the dog actually starts making more and more mistakes. Even worse, then the dog starts getting corrections and punishments for these mistakes. You see this a LOT with many of the guys I refer to as “electric collar trainers.” These are the guys who charge a lot of money, and then promise to have your dog fully trained in a handful of lessons. So, as a specific lessons proceeds, the dog gets tired and stressed, and starts making mistakes. Then, the dog gets more corrections, and often starts crying out, cowering, shivering, and then shuts down. This is NOT how the electric collar manufacturers recommend their equipment be used. Electric collars have their purpose for advanced obedience work at great distances. There are some advanced dogs that can benefit from the additional polish work, such as when working 200 yards away from the handler. But, even then, the good trainers, and the collar manufacturer, recommend brief lessons followed by fun and success. They don’t grind on the dog. But, it isn’t just quick buck electric collar trainers that do this. Another way this is done is with certain breeds that don’t do well at endless obedience drills, such as Akitas. You can’t keep giving them obedience drills over and over again. They will start protesting after a while, and everything will fall apart. A good dog trainer is always looking out for the dog’s well being, and knows when to stop. I’ve had to tell a number of students that they were pushing their dogs too hard.
Generally, a homework lesson should be about 15 minutes of work. Then, later that day you can try again.
Beyond Their Ability: I have seen dogs pushed beyond their inborn, or breed specific, ability. Sometimes it is through the use of force and threat, a dog is made to do things that don’t match what the dog should really be doing. This is done all the time by crappy protection dog trainers, that force dogs with weak temperaments to bite. Look up “table training” some time. That’s an example of that kind of thing. I’ve seen electric collars used to push dogs past the point of the dog’s inborn abilities. I know of a Doberman that was forced to track footsteps using an electric collar. Eventually, it got to the point where if the dog lost the scent and accidentally got off the track, the dog would start crapping blood. This could also be done by any intimidating method of training, pushing a dog past it’s limits. Other manipulations are sometimes used that don’t involve force or intimidation, such as food deprivation, isolation, pushing the clicker training / operant conditioning work to the extreme, and so forth. Even so-called positive methods, “force free”, “cruelty free” methods of training can be abused and make a dog neurotic. There have been a number of scientific experiments where animals have gone completely bonkers using operant or classical conditioning principles. These animals have a complete emotional breakdown and the experiments have to be stopped. I’ve also seen people that tried to make one breed act like another. There are guys out there that will protection train any dog of any breed. Look, a Labrador Retriever or Greyhound is not a German Shepherd Dog. They aren’t wired to do man work like that. I worked with a woman with a Saluki that wanted her dog to obey like a well trained competition obedience dog. I had to explain that her dog was never going to do that kind of thing. I told this to a man that had gotten an Irish Wolfhound and was looking for a trainer that would make his dogs obey beyond what was reasonable for the breed… and of course, he didn’t hire me. I feel sorry for that dog, but I wasn’t going to do anything this guy wanted to his dog just to earn some money. And I heard of a fellow that owned competition dogs. They say he was rough on his dogs if they didn’t do well in competition. One day, during a trial, he didn’t get the score he thought his dogs deserved, so he stormed out of the place and made a big scene. They say he was banned from competition. I didn’t see that personally, but heard it from folks that said they watched this guy over the years. I don’t know why his dogs didn’t do well at competition. But, the word was that his dogs just didn’t have the talent to compete at that level. Training should never be abused to take a dog past it’s inborn talents.
Too Old: It isn’t true that an old dog can’t learn new tricks. But, sometimes you have to ask if it is worth pushing an older dog to do much of anything. The older they get, the more fragile they become. I’ve seen people demand way too much out of older dogs, pushing them in the obedience work past the point where I’d feel comfortable doing that to my dog. Face it, the dog is old. It isn’t as quick as it used to be, might have illnesses and might be sore, and some of these older dogs are getting senile, and as long as they are getting along well in the home, I think you just let them age gracefully and let them be. Keep them happily tuned up on their lessons, but don’t try to make them into obedience champions.
So, yes, I think you can train a dog too much. But, as I said earlier, that usually isn’t the problem with most dogs. Most dogs have only had a handful of pet store lessons, and a lot of scolding at home. The average family has 3 arguments a week over the dog. The dog and owners aren’t trained.
Most dogs would continue to benefit by taking them all the way through Advanced Obedience, and enrolled in some skill classes such as Herding, Agility, Hunting, Flyball, Schutzhund, Ring Sport, etc. Or trained to do service dog work, therapy dog work, or just learn a ton of tricks. That’s NOT too much to ask.