I am sometimes asked, “how much training does my dog need?” Here’s my answer in a nutshell: as much as it takes for the situations you anticipate your dog will encounter, until you and your dog can do those skills even under stress, to a level of automaticity. Until you’re at that level, then you and your dog need more lessons, or more practice, or both.
Let’s Test Your Training
People will tell me that their dog knows the Sit command. OK, let’s test that. Your dog has run across a busy 8 lane highway and is in the median. If you say Sit to your dog, will your dog immediately stop, put his bottom on the ground, and wait as necessary for you to go get your dog? Is your dog afraid of cars and trucks, and have your fixed that? Is your dog afraid of strangers, so if you needed the assistance of a police officer, your dog won’t react when approached? Are you staying in shape? Did you remember to get a leash before you get to your dog? Is your dog wearing a collar with a name tag and is your dog microchipped? Similarly, people will inquire whether I do board and train services for their dog, not realizing that even if I give them a fully trained dog, they will freeze during an emergency because they won’t know what to do. Let’s test that. Your dog, which has run ahead on a hiking trail, and is now approximately 20 yards from a dangerous animal. Let’s say a herd of 14 Javalina. Save your dog. What would you do? If you call your dog, it might trigger chase. You can’t tell your dog to attack the herd, that would be the end of your dog. Your dog could be killed. You could be attacked and seriously injured, and your dog could still be injured or killed. Your 2 kids are with you, what are you going to do with them? I know, you’re still thinking about what you might do.
Or let’s pick something less serious. You have a new puppy, and the puppy is starting to pee on your new rug. How well is your dog house trained? What should you do right now? Lots of puppies are terrorized by owners who overreact to their puppies.
What’s Going On?
Most people primarily react emotionally when these situations activate. When the stress levels are high enough, your vision will narrow. You might even find you can’t use your peripheral vision. You can experience a temporary loss of hearing. Someone can be screaming to you, maybe to watch out for that truck that is about to run you over, and you won’t even hear them. You will lose your fine motor control. You will have trouble even clipping a leash on your dog’s collar. You might not be able to think of any solutions. You aren’t going to typically come up with new ideas during an emergency, instead you’ll get locked into a small set of options.
Real Life Example: Don’t Fight The Bear
I saw an example of this stress effect in the news last week. A man was on his porch at night. A black bear walked up onto the porch. All the man could think was that the bear was going to attack his 2 small dogs, also on the porch, and that he was afraid the bear would get in the home and attack his wife. So the man attacked the bear! He got in a fight with a bear. When that wasn’t working, he started shoving his couch at the bear, which eventually made the bear run off. Fortunately, the man wasn’t killed. Because this man apparently hadn’t prepared for this kind of situation, he was locked into the idea that he had to fight the bear. Yet, if you read articles on how to deal with black bears, they offer other ideas. He also lived in an area that had a bear. Where was his pepper spray? What about a gate installed on his porch? Was there dog food on the porch, because the bear was probably just looking for food. Was food put out on the porch before or was the smell of food present near the porch? Had the bear been there before? Were there other bears present, especially any cubs? A lot of things can be prepared for, in advance, if you consider the environment you are in. I will say this, the next time I hike in Wyoming, I will definitely have some bear spray with me. I will also review what to do if I encounter a black bear, grizzly bear, mountain lion, elk, moose, etc. Each species requires a different response. I will practice with a can of bear spray, in advance, just to make sure I can effortlessly engage the spray if the emergency is upon me.
Define The Mission
Before I start training a dog and owner, I ask about the lifestyle the dog will encounter. Vacations? Visitors? Hikes? Therapy dog? Then we start with teaching skills, and along the way, I set up scenarios that they might encounter. If all we do is just teach the commands, but the owner has never been challenged to think about how those tools can be used, the training might just be useless when they are really needed.
Long Term Memory Training
There are techniques that I use along to way to imprint those concepts so that my students have a better chance of doing the right thing instead of freezing or panicking. I want them to convert their training into subconscious, lifesaving options. The problem with most training courses is that the lessons taught are quickly forgotten within 6 months. If 80% of what was taught is forgotten by the dog and/or the owner, then what was the point? I got the highest grades in business calculus in college, but I can’t do any of that today. That tells you that the teaching methods were wrong. Good teaching should be consist of information that is retained and useful, even years into the future. Dogs that are intensively trained for 2 weeks might make some impressive displays of skills. However, I have seen many of these dogs that acted as if they had never been trained, in as little as 6 months later. That’s another reason I disagree with board and train programs. Not only is the owner not properly trained to retain the skills, the dogs can also forget what they were trained to do. I think we all learned in school that it is a mistake to try and cram for a test the night before an exam. Cramming also doesn’t work for long term dog training skills.
Thus, information has to be presented in a way that first teaches the fundamental skills, and also in a way that will cause the dog and the owner to be able to recall that information, automatically, if an emergency ever arises. If an emergency is met, and there is too much uncertainty on the part of the dog or owner, then just about anything can happen. Training should be geared to remove as much uncertainty as possible so you and your dog are in the best position to deal with what might some day happen. Obviously, no one can anticipate every scenario that might happen in this world. But, we can at least try to role play enough to give you more options than just to go and fight a bear with your bare hands.