How Long Until My Dog Is Trained?

Caring for a dog is a life-long commitment, and one of the most common questions we’re asked is, “How long until my dog is trained to do XYZ?”, where XYZ may be any number of different behaviours.

“How long until my dog is toilet trained?”

“How long until my dog is trained to walk nicely on a loose lead?”

“How long until my dog will come back when I call them?”

The truth is, there is no definitive answer for these questions, and any dog trainer who tells you that your dog can be trained to do anything in an arbitrary frame of time, is fooling either themselves or you.

But why can’t we tell you how long it will take for your dog to become proficient at a task? To answer that, we need to take a look at education from a more general perspective.

This article was written by the world’s most literate border collie

First of all, learning does not occur at a steady and consistent pace, even in humans!

We all have our good days and our bad. If you stretch your memory back to when you were a child, you may recall days in your classes at school which you really enjoyed and learnt lots of new things. For me, it was the classes taken by our Head Teacher, Mr. Noble, who filled in for any sick days the other teachers had. He was way ahead of his time, and had a way of making learning fun and engaging. Even now, thirty years later, I can honestly say he was the best teacher I ever had.

And you may also remember days where you sat in class and didn’t learn a single thing. Perhaps the concepts weren’t explained well enough, or you were simply too tired to absorb new information. This was me, in basically every Maths class! It wasn’t until I hit my 20s that I developed the ability—I might even say, the resiliency—to do mathematics. For some reason, my brain just couldn’t get my head around numeracy until I was an adult.

When you’re training your dog to do something new, you may find that behaviours they were displaying or performing one day seem almost alien to them the next. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your dog has slid backwards in its learning – but it could simply be that they had a good day in which they seemed to perform well despite not full understanding what we were asking of them, or that they need more practice to fully understand and proof the behaviour.

How we image learning occurs at a steady pace, compared to how it actually happens. If you consider the bigger picture, we’re looking for overall progress, which may not happen at a steady rate

Second, we expect a lot of our dogs!

We send our human children to school for the first 16-18 years of their life, at least here in the UK. It’s expected that in those 16-18 years, our kids will come to understand our societal rules and expectations, and have an education that equips them well enough to function in our society.

And yet we expect our dogs to behave perfectly within 6-12 months? Unrealistic expectations are a huge cause of disappointment, as far as training and behaviour is concerned.

It took a very long time to teach her that drinking wine was not an appropriate activity for a dog.

Not even good, quality wine!

Third, breed matters!

There is a reason why we generally don’t use Beagles as service dogs. Why we don’t use Great Danes to herd livestock. Why we don’t use Pugs for Search & Rescue work. Why we don’t train Greyhounds to flush birds. Why we don’t use Labradors for Protection and Security.

We as humans have selectively bred our canine companions over many generations, harnessing genetics to our own advantage. Certain breeds of dog have been bred to be more co-operative and willing to work with us. Others have been bred as independent hunters. We’ve bred guardians and protectors and companions, and yet we expect them all, as “dog”, to perform in similar ways in similar situations.

While it’s true that there are exemplary individuals within each breed, and most dogs can be trained to some basic similar level, it’s unfair to expect all dogs to learn and perform the same way and to absorb new information at the same speed. A Chihuahua may be physically and mentally mature at 12 months of age, whilst it could take a St Bernard or Leonberger 3 years or more to reach that same level of maturity.

Breed-specific training can be of huge benefit to certain dogs!

Fourth, learning does not have an end point!

Think back to when you left school. Whether you were 15, 16, 17, 18 or even older if you went on to University – did you stop learning the moment you stepped away from formal education?

Of course not. You continued learning every single day. Whenever you took on a new job, or a new role within your existing job. Whenever you had a new social encounter. Whenever you had a new experience. That first time you went on holiday to a foreign country. The time you took an unexpected drive to a new place.

We are constantly learning and adapting to our environment. Learning is not a finite resource, and we are continually adapting to our circumstances. So it is with our canine companions as well. You may think that your dog can sit, stand, lie down on command, walk perfectly to heel, recall away from distractions, and give you focus to die for, and that all of this means they’re fully trained.

What you may not consider is that your dog is continually learning and processing information, even when you don’t realise it. Especially when you don’t realise it. Their behaviour may change for reasons which, to us, seem completely random, yet from the dog perspective make perfect sense.

Dogs, like humans, continually learn new things throughout life

And finally, the more specialised your training goal, the longer it will take you to achieve!

Are you training your dog for a specific task? Maybe you’re involved in search & rescue. Perhaps you’re looking to compete in agility. Or you’re eyeballing the next flyball tournament at Crufts. Maybe you’re involved in mantrailing, or starting out in Rally-O. Whatever performance/sport you and your dog are involved in, you can generally expect it to take longer to achieve. Specialist activities often take longer to train and embed, usually because they involve behaviours which do not come naturally to our dogs, sometimes because excellence requires a huge commitment in terms of time and finances.

So, how do we help you to achieve your training goals? If you came here by google-searching “dog trainers near me”, then you may be disappointed to learn that we’re not – when it really comes down to it – dog trainers. We’re human trainers. Generally speaking, training the dog is the easy part – what we aim to achieve is training YOU to train your dog. Helping you to become the person who understands your dog’s needs and how your dog learns, so that you are the one equipped to help your dog throughout its entire lifetime.

Specialised activity or sport? Expect your learning journey to be more scenic!