Have you ever been told that your breed is not trainable? Have you ever read that there is no point in even trying to train your Beagle, Greyhound, Husky, Saluki, Akita, Terrier, Dachshund, Bassethound...? Or is your dog of any breed just particularly "stubborn" or just not interested, or do you think your dog is stupid? Don't you dare to believe that...! Don't you ever think that your dog is untrainable!
Right, this has turned into a bit of a novel. So get yourself a cuppa and perhaps a biscuit too and have a seat... here it goes...
Well, I am Vera Marney, owner of WAGGING TAILS Dog Training, and I have had the absolute privilege to have had Saluki Lurchers in my life for the last 20 years and I also had a
Pyrenean Mountain Dog for 9 years (and 3 spaniels for the sake of completeness). Both sighthounds and flock guards are renowned for being difficult to train as many owners and even dog trainers will tell you with conviction... yet I have done competitive obedience with my lurchers, I have done agility with them, they love trick training and scentwork and they as well as my Pyrenean Mountain Dog passed their Kennel Club Good Citizen Awards with flying colours! I can tell you, they are far from stupid or stubborn... but they do need a bit of extra
consideration and skill to train, and you definitely need a good dollop of humour to even just have them in your life, never mind training them.
So what gives these breeds their most definitely undeserved, yet slightly true (but only slightly), reputation?
Lets first of all have a look at what training actually covers... Most will instantly think of obedience (recall, walking nicely) and perhaps other specific formal activities like agility, working trials etc. But of course training also covers general life skills like socialisation and good manners, handling/husbandry and anything else your dog needs to be able to do and cope with in everyday life.
So let's talk about what makes "training" more or less effective... because it isn't as simple as one might think. There are so many factors that play into how easy a dog finds it to first of all learn something and secondly to comply to our requests and expectations.
Let's have a look at THE DOG, which is usually the one that gets the blame if they don't learn as quickly or won't do what is expected of them! Breed traits and individual temperament will have a huge influence of course (more about that below as this is what this Blog is about), as does how much training experience a dog has (are they used to learning new things, did they have positive learning experiences or not so much etc.). Secondly just like in humans, their mental state is hugely important both during the training process as well as when they need to comply. Stress, anxiety, over-excitement and frustration will hinder any learning or willingness and capability to comply. And lastly, hugely important too, yet way too often overlooked and ignored, physical wellbeing will most definitely affect willingness and capability of learning and compliance. If you are in pain or discomfort, or there are neurological or hormonal issues, then the brain is focussing on more important stuff than learning to knit or even just pay attention. The same applies to your dog if there are joint or back pains, they feel unwell etc. I have seen so many cases in my classes where hip or back problems for example affected a dog's training ability (for want of a better word). I won't dive into the details here as much as I'd like to even though I have a special interest in the connection between medical issues and behaviour, but that's a blog for another time. Not to forget that certain types of body shapes can make certain training tasks difficult or impossible like the extra long back of a dachshund, the stocky body of a bulldog or the inability of many greyhounds to sit... That needs to be taken into consideration too!
The one element of training that is often forgotten is the skills, experience, physical capabilities, patience, attitude and determination of the OWNER/TRAINER... If something goes wrong, it's normally the dog that gets the blame, whereas in reality it is generally (though not always to be fair) the owner's/trainer's shortcomings. That's not to say that the owner/trainer is to blame as such (just like the dog isn't either) as we all need to start somewhere and indeed continuously learn to be better at our craft, but the human side is a vital, probably the most important, element in the training relationship.
Another part that really influences learning and compliance ability is the dog's whole LIFESTYLE. If a dog's basic canine and breed specific needs aren't met in terms of exercise, mental stimulation, diet, medical care etc. then training can be more of a challenge as needs that aren't fulfilled can cause behaviour issues and stress which in turn affects training.
Then we get to the actual training part... The environment and situation where you a) teach your dog and b) ask your dog for compliance is very important for any dog, but even more so for our "untrainable" breeds.. Read on to find out why! Think about where you train your dog (busy or quiet locations, types of distractions), when you train (time of day, seasonal changes). Then you need to make sure that you generalise (different locations) and proof (with distractions) the behaviours you want and that you manage your dog and the environment appropriately, particulary during the training process.
And last, but certainly not least, the type of training method you use makes or breaks your training success with these particular breeds. Traditional (using some aversives) and punishment based training will most certainly mean that your dog won't cooperate well or not at all... and there's the reason right there why these particular breeds were considered untrainable! If you want their attention, their time, their focus and if you want half a chance
of them complying when you need them to, then reward based training is the only way to go.
So, who are these notoriously UNTRAINABLE BREEDS? Well, we are looking at terriers, sighthounds, nordic breeds, scenthounds, mastiffs, flock guards and many other primitive breeds... those breeds that are bred to do a job that involves little or no human input in their work. To do a good job, they need to be independent and confident in what they do, they need to be able to make quick decisions and they make those decisions without human instructions. Furthermore they have ultimate job satisfaction from what they do, and so what we usually offer as a reward is generally perceived as pretty poor and insignificant in comparison!
And there you have it, they don't need us, we can't really offer them anything that compares to their vocation and purpose in life and they know it... hence training can be tricky and requires better than average skills... and as I said it definitely requires a good sense of humour!
But all is not lost, we can earn their cooperation - and it really is "earning it", you won't get it for free - and with some extra skill and knowledge, we can get them interested in working with us! And make no mistake, they will be working with us, not for us!
One thing they are not is stupid, they are as smart and as teachable as any other breed and although they may be more difficult and somewhat different to train at times, they are most certainly not untrainable!
So what does all this mean in real life? What are the practical implications? HOW CAN YOU TRAIN THEM, AND TRAIN THEM EFFECTIVELY!
To train them effectively, you need to know WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT THEM. Why do they need specific understanding and skills to train? Now, don't get me wrong... every breed and every dog needs understanding and skill to train (I am most definitely not belittling any area of dog training), but the commonly used training methods were coined on those breeds (gundogs, herding breeds, guarding breeds) because those are the breeds that were traditionally at least partly obedience trained for the jobs we need(ed) them to do. The breeds we are talking about here though didn't need obedience training to do their job and do it well, because their job needs no or very little human input. So here is what makes them different.
1.They are often extremely INDEPENDENT. They know their job and they don't need anyone to tell them how to do it, least of all a human that doesn't move as fast, has a useless nose, bad hearing and doesn't pick up movement anywhere near quickly enough.
In addition they are actually bred to make their own decisions when working, because they have better skills and hardware (ears, nose, eyes) than we have to assess those particular situations and act on them appropriately.
The result is a dog that often does his own thing with seemingly little regard of what the owner is doing or even where they are, they will often question instructions, they will often lose interest and focus quickly and they generally won’t accept harsh and pressure based training methods to interfere with what they are doing.
2. They are NOT GOOD AT TAKING INSTRUCTIONS meaning they don't naturally look to owner/trainer for guidance as they are not bred to work under a handler’s instructions.
The result is that their compliance can be poor even if their training has been great.
3. They DON'T LIKE REPETITION because they aren’t generally bred for highly repetitive tasks like for example collies or gundogs whose jobs are very repetitive in nature.
The result is that they will often only accept very few repetitions which makes training difficult as exercises and behaviours generally need to be taught and practiced by using lots of repetitions to learn. And that will again also lead to losing interest and focus quickly.
4. And then there's the big problem of REWARDS. They can be hard to motivate because their naturally rewarding behaviours (guarding, hunting, pulling etc) that we have bred them for are often not suitable as rewards (unethical, dangerous, impossible) and are often difficult to replicate or substitute with something that we can offer. In addition those natural rewards (behaviours that we have bred into them!) are incredibly strong and override their desire to do anything else we might ask of them. There are more important things to do in their opinion, especially if they are in an environment where those natural rewards are right in front of them!
The result is that unless you make an extra effort when training and think outside of the box in terms of what you use as rewards, they won’t be interested.
So in summary: they are independent, don't like being told what to do, don't like repetitions and they are difficult to reward! What could go wrong... ha ha ha!
So here is what you have been waiting for...
HOW DO WE TRAIN THEM SUCCESSFULLY? (And yes, there is some repetition here... we learn better that way too).
First of all, CHOOSE YOUR BREED/DOG WISELY if you have a choice. Pick a breed that is suitable for the activities you want to do and your lifestyle and/or pick suitable activities and adapt your lifestyle for the dog you have. Be aware of AND ACCEPT breed traits and their potential limitations.
And then you need to be MINDFUL with your TRAINING. Use reward based pressure-free training, punishment will damage your relationship and stop or at least reduce their cooperation. Adapt your training style to your dog taking breed traits and individual temperament into consideration. Remember, breed traits are not just a potential hindrance, but can be a great help if you take advantage of them in the right way! And of course, the relationship with your dog is even more important with these breeds than with any other type (another reason why reward based training is vital) and will make a big difference in how successful your training will be.
And finally some PRACTICAL TRAINING TIPS...
Manage your training environments carefully in terms of where and when you train, whether on lead or off lead, what distractions are around you etc. Don't forget to TEACH - GENERALISE - PROOF... our tricky breeds often need excessive amounts of generalisation and proofing compared to other breeds.
Keep training sessions short with few repetitions and keep them interesting, varied and fun. And think about the REWARDS – if nothing else, think about the REWARDS! Make a big effort and think outside of the box in terms of value, type of reward (food, toys, games, voice, affection), how you deliver it (give, throw, scatter, hide, track, chase etc.) And remember: it's the dog that decides what is a reward, and what is a good enough reward, NOT YOU!
EVERY DOG OF ANY BREED CAN BE TRAINED.
TRAINING and COMPLIANCE are two different things.
HAVE FUN WITH YOUR DOG.
ACCEPT THEM FOR WHO AND WHAT THEY ARE.
DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU THAT YOUR BREED IS NOT TRAINABLE – AT THE SAME TIME BE AWARE OF YOUR BREED’S LIMITATIONS
VERA MARNEY BSc (hons), APDT, Registered Animal Instructor ABTC, PPG, Dog AID Trainer
WAGGING TAILS Dog Training