OK, so how long will it take to train my dog?

I answer this question every day. I have to choose my words wisely as to not overwhelm owners or send them searching for a trainer with some promise filled magical answer they are hoping to hear like, “A week!”

The very short, not so flowery answer; you will need to train (or at least minimally, manage) your furry friend for his entire life.   I greatly soften this answer by reassuring owners that good habits develop fast when practiced frequently. The bulk of Fido’s foundational training will occur in the early days, when you spend the most time establishing a solid and successful routine for him in your home.  People really like to hear that both training and keeping a dog’s skills fresh should only take minutes a day.

I get at least one phone call a day though from confused owners who think that  they have trained their dog. “We are so confused, he never did this before.”

Most of us dog parents still need to understand that dogs are developing creatures, capable of changing their behavior based on life experiences, and both physical and mental health.

Similar to us, dogs can pick up new habits and drop old routines. They can happily take up a new sport such as garden digging and squirrel chasing and likewise, they can also stop working out (i.e. no longer respond to coming when called).

Our pooches’ brains learn with each and every interaction, each and every day of their lives.  This is why it is important that we like what they learn, and practice. They need our continued  guidance.  It’s our job to be sure we are keeping desired skills fresh and at the surface, while we also work to prevent  the undesired behaviours that occasionally crop up from turning into habit!

Like human babies who pop out into this world, you can expect that your dog will acquire new skills and habits over his life time. They simply need us to steer the way for them.

Speaking of dogs and babies, here’s a little story for you about a dog who developed a new habit…

Hypothetically, let’s say there is a savvy dog trainer with a “friend” who owns a beefy dog named, Moon. The friend of the dog trainer was very diligent in the early days with Moon while off leash. This redheaded “friend ,” called Moon to come every two minutes while playing outdoors just for a quick check in. At the time, Moon was so well practiced in coming when called, that she checked in automatically without being called and never wandered out of sight on the property (in NY).

Then, this dog trainer, eerrrr…dog trainer’s friend had a child. When they were all outdoors, the new mom was a little bit distracted by slathering her baby in sunscreen, checking to be sure the baby was still sleeping and breathing (the way parents like to see babies), and scaring off any pesky mosquitoes from terrorizing the young child.

Calling Moon to come went from every 2 minutes to every 8-10 minutes. The redhead friend also wasn’t engaging Moon as often with the toss of a stick as she had in the past.

As a result, Moon started experiencing new things. She was finding new ways to occupy herself and began developing new habits. This included wandering a little bit further into the property and taking a bit longer to actually respond when she was called.

One day, Moon wound up in the friendly neighbors’ yard where she was greeted by an enthusiastic family who played fetch with her! JACKPOT! SCORE! HOME RUN! Moon was rewarded greatly for exploring and wandering off. When the redhead called, she failed to respond at all. She was far too busy feeling exhilarated and playing fetch.

Needless to say, Moon’s terrified mom got a great kick in the pants that day and worked ever so diligently to get Moon back on track. The happy ending here, Moon had a great foundation of training. She brushed up her skills in no time.

The lesson in Moon’s tail (ok, tale);  life is learning. Each daily experience leaves a little mark on a pup’s brain; and over time those tallied marks change behavior and develop newly formed habits. This works for you when the behavior is desirable (i.e. coming when called and being reinforced), but this works against you when the behaviour is undesired (wandering and being rewarded with a game of fetch by neighbors).

Instead of looking at training as an open and closed project, understand that your dog needs to keep working and practicing to keep his desired behavior fresh and strong. Randomly reward your dog for sitting, even if “he knows he is supposed to sit.” Thank him with a treat or toss of a toy for making eye contact and checking in with you. Tell him he is the best dog ever for coming when called; even if in the house and only 3 feet away!   These small interactions make big impressions on your dog.

Remember, it’s never too late or too early to get back on track. Even those with the secrets to developing good dogs sometimes need a reminder too! I mean, her “friend” needs reminders.

Warm wags!