Having a Tough Dog Makes You a Better Trainer

When I was in dog trainer school, I worked diligently on my own dogs and foster dogs. My dogs are racing sled dogs, and come in a broad variety of shapes and sizes: some are short-haired, some have thicker coats, some are lanky and lean, others stocky and squat. I trained them to do basic obedience behaviours, then more complex stays, and some loose-leash walking (yes, a couple of my sled dogs, born and bred to pull, made it through that plan). I trained a retrieve with a clicker, and worked through stranger fearfulness, scrapping, and pestering (you know, the usual stuff when you live with ten or more high-energy dogs). I went on to do some fun tricks and some behaviours useful for sled dogs, like “line out” where the dog runs forward until the line is taut, and waits. It was fun and although I certainly had all the same groaning/growing pains of any new trainer, I didn’t think much of it. It was only when I had graduated and started taking paying clients that I realized that my sled dogs are, well...on the scale of how easy dogs are to train…I mean, I love them all to pieces, OK? But they are on the tougher-to-train end of the scale. They’re physical powerhouses. They’re personality powerhouses. They're charm powerhouses. They’re not...mental powerhouses.

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Each of my first ten clients were, without a doubt, the smartest ten dogs I had ever trained. I remember telling an early client that their dog should absolutely go in for some competitive obedience titles, he was just that quick. "Quick like a bunny", I marvelled, much to their delight. “Can we get that in writing?” my client asked, as she’d been struggling mightily with her young Golden retriever. Unlike my sled dogs, this dog would work for tiny tidbits of food and never seemed to get full. And the standard training plans I had in my hand? He worked through them easily, unlike my own dogs who needed things broken down into smaller and smaller steps. And this dog worked for any kind of food. I thought back to the tinned cat food I needed to use to train one of my dogs. Cat food from a tin is not the nicest substance in the world, is it? I got a glob of it stuck in my hair. The things we do for dogs.

After a while it occurred to me that, statistically speaking, it was unlikely that I had actually scored such a string of smartie-pants clients all in a row. So what was going on? Were all these dogs really super-uber-bright? Or…could the answer lay in my early experiences instead? I recalled some polite but now suspect praise from my training mentors. This behaviour is very tough for your dog, Kristi! But you stuck it out. You really stuck it out. Great work.

Hm.

Hundreds of dogs in, I now know it to be the bald truth: my dogs are a bit slow. I mean, no! They’re zippy as heck when they’re in front of a sled. They zoom when they’re pulling a bike or a skier. But in the domain of “learning basic obedience behaviours”, they’re not the gold medallists, shall we say. They move fast. But they don’t learn fast.

And I’m the luckiest trainer in the world to have had them as my tutors.

Tough dogs require a trainer to hone their skills in ways that easily motivated/smart dogs simply don’t demand. Tough dogs require all the standard training skills including good timing, good “mechanics” (how the trainer moves her hands with a lure and so on), and adherence to training protocols. But there’s more. Tough dogs often require three other skills: the trainer must understand and plan ahead for motivation; the trainer must train fast; and finally the trainer must be proficient at training in tiny increments. If you have a tough or elderly dog and you’re struggling, you may need to spend more time brushing up these skills than your neighbour across the way, who owns some variation of a herding dog. Your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour can (forgive me, but I’m just going to say it) get away with a bit more flexibility in their technique.

The Whys and Wherefores

Tough dogs often need careful attention paid to motivation. Unlike the dog in the care of your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour, tough dogs often need the human in the equation to pay attention to the dog’s state of hunger and the deliciousness of the treat. I train right before breakfast or right before supper, when my dogs are at their most eager. It matters. It really, really matters. And I can’t get away with training with cheerios, training with peas, training with kibble; none of that. My dogs are mostly in the “won’t get out of bed for less than 10,000 dollars a day” type. It’s my job as the adult biped in the situation to figure out what they will work for, and reserve it for training.

My dogs also won't work for praise or ear scratches (I laugh as I even wrote that), nor will they work for tug games or a ball toss. They look at the ball and amble away. Try harder, human they are likely thinking.

Train Fast Or Not At All

Training tough dogs means the trainer needs to pay attention to speed. I train fast, fast, fast. I zoom. I don’t stop to ponder the state of the economy. I don’t file my nails. I crank out repetition after repetition. After repetition. Then another one and another one andanotheroneandanotherone.

If I train slowly with down time between repetitions, my dogs say “you’re boring, human.” And they leave. And since it’s my job as the adult biped in the room to get the training job done, I do what I have to do: I train fast.

Breaking It Down

Finally, I’ve gotten very good at breaking things down. Another dog might jump from step one to step two in a training plan without hiccups. But sometimes with my dogs I need to be able to think of step 1.5 on the fly. And occasionally, step 1.75. Sometimes even step 1.8, 1.82, and 1.83… Working with tough dogs keeps you fluid and creative. It’s a skill just like driving a manual transmission vehicle. In the beginning, there were a lot of stalls and some red-faced embarrassment. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s smooth sailing. And at certain intersections, it’s quite zippy.

The End of the Rainbow

Having a tough dog doesn’t mean that you can’t train them to do all the standard dog stuff. And it doesn’t mean they’re stubborn, or you’re clumsy. It means only that you’ll have to buckle down a bit more than your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour, and up your training game a bit. Head to a positive-reinforcement dog training class taught by a credentialled trainer, or get some great dog-training resources like this fantastic do-it-yourself course. Now, you don’t need to tell your neighbour they have it easy, of course. Keep the neighbourly peace and all that. But if you have a tough dog and you get things done, it’s perfectly fine to feel pretty darn good about yourself. A bit chuffed up. I know I do.

 Sled dogs in their glory.

Sled dogs in their glory.