Source: Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash
Here’s your word of the day: variables. These are the aspects of your dog that you need to assess to become a confident handler and an effective trainer. For our purposes, variables are your dog’s breed, age, life experiences, and distinct per- sonality. Your dog is also the product of his training, and that’s where you come in. Even though the same basic principles work for all dogs, knowing what makes your pet different will help determine your approach to training. Let’s break this down by category.
Variable 1: Breed
Breed is a massive factor in your dog’s appearance, temperament, intelligence, energy level, and health. In essence, it’s the “nature” side of what makes your dog different. But remember that when it comes to dogs, nature doesn’t necessarily mean natural evolution; it’s genetic design by people who’ve manipulated canine DNA to build a better dog. What defines better depends on the breeder. Some want big, intimidating guard dogs; others are after quiet, loyal retrievers. Some
want dogs who can run down rabbits, rats, or deer. Others want breeds to herd cattle, sheep, or even fish.
Long before it was possible to use a computer to order any product or service imaginable and have it at your door in a matter of days (if not hours), dogs were one of the most adaptable tools at man’s disposal. For thousands of years, if a job needed to be done, a breeder would set about designing a dog to do it.
Those jobs have ranged from tracker to herder to warrior to companion, and each new “prototype” was followed by more fine-tuned and increasingly spe- cialized breeds, until a small army of dogs of differing size, appearance, and temperament existed to perform the same kind of job.
A collection of breeds created for a specific kind of task is known as a group in the dog world. There are seven recognized groups; five are defined by what the dog was initially bred to do, and two are catchall categories. Here’s a short summary of each:
1. Herding Dogs. These are highly intelligent, independent, energetic dogs origi- nally bred to control livestock. This group includes shepherds, sheepdogs, cor- gis, collies, and cattle dogs—each bred as one kind of herding specialist or an- other.
2. Hounds. All hounds were originally bred as hunting dogs, with most consid- ered either sight hounds, with excellent vision, speed, and stamina; or scent hounds, with a powerful sense of smell and tracking ability. This group in- cludes a wide range of breeds, including sight hounds like greyhounds, wolfhounds, and borzois; and scent specialists like basset hounds, blood- hounds, and dachshunds.
3. Sporting Dogs. Dogs in this category aren’t hunters in their own right, but they’ve been bred to be hunters’ helpers by pointing, retrieving, or flushing game. They’re usually deeply loyal and highly trainable. Dogs in this group in- clude retrievers, setters, and spaniels.
4. Terriers. In Latin, terrier means “of the earth,” and that neatly sums up the work environment of these typically tenacious and independent dogs. They were originally bred to dig, burrow, and chase pests and prey like rats, badgers, and otters on and below ground. They were the world’s original exterminators, and their group includes the Staffordshire terrier, Scottie, Jack Russell, schnau- zer, Westie, and bull terrier.
5. Working Dogs. This group includes many of the most powerful dog breeds, including boxers, Akitas, rottweilers, mastiffs, and Saint Bernards. Traditionally, they've performed important and respected jobs like guarding, drafting, or working with police or military personnel. Many still do these jobs today.
Age is just a number, but it’s a number that can make a difference in how your
dog responds to training. Training a puppy and working with an adolescent dog,
for example, require tweaks in your approach to find success. This variable is
obviously always changing, but it’s important to acknowledge your dog’s development and maturity level when you’re training.
Just like a child’s mind, a puppy’s brain is an efficient, eager learning tool, soak-
ing up a world of information and processing it all the time. You can picture it
like a sponge, ready to soak up everything the dog sees, hears, smells, tastes, and
feels. If you’re setting out to train a puppy, you have the chance to shape his
young mind before anyone else can influence him the wrong way. But that
means you have to be extra careful you don’t mess him up, either. You’ll need to
know, for instance, how to socialize him, when to house-train, and just what you
can expect of him.
The age of your puppy will determine where you start training. Until a pup is
about six weeks old, most of his training comes courtesy of his mother and litter-
mates. But after that, it’s time for you to take a serious role. The second and third
months of a puppy’s life are a time when you should make every effort to expose
him to new people, places, and things, all the while offering encouragement and
rewards to make them good experiences. Be sure your pup is up-to-date on his
shots, then take your dog to noisy places and quiet places, places with new and
different smells, and places full of new people and unfamiliar sights so he can
start discovering the world.
One of the saddest things I encounter when I rescue shelter dogs are animals
who’ve never been socialized. I’ve met dogs who’ve never worn a collar, never
been around cars or bicycles, never put their feet in the water, or never learned to
tolerate other dogs or loud noises or even being touched by human hands. For a
dog who misses out on socialization at an early age, every one of these things can
become a fear factor, and some fears take a long time to get over later in life.
You can begin house-training your puppy as early as ten weeks. You’ll find an
entire chapter on how to go about this process later in the book.
As you begin to introduce basic obedience lessons into your puppy’s life, you
may find getting and keeping his focus is a challenge. In Chapter 3, we’ll talk
about strategies for holding a dog’s attention. As you work your way through my
7 Common Commands with your puppy, remember that his spongy little brain is
taking in a lot of information at once, and he may take a little more time and reg-
ular repetition to become reliable with his responses than a mature dog.
Did you know that nearly half of all dogs coming into animal shelters are between
the ages of five months and three years? It’s no coincidence that those ages brack-
et a dog’s adolescence. Typically, large dogs hit this phase of development first (at
around nine to twelve months), then medium-size dogs (around ten to fourteen
months), and finally small dogs (around twelve to sixteen months). The difference
in the onset of adolescence is related to the wide range of canine life spans, with large dogs expected to live the fewest years and small dogs the most.
If you’ve ever raised a dog through this period, you might be able to appre-
ciate why this age group is overrepresented among dogs who’ve been given up by
Just like human teenagers tend to be a handful as they move past
childhood and try to find their places in the adult world, teenaged dogs are often a
little wild, a little naughty, and prone to testing their limits.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up on them! The adolescent period is
tricky—especially with bigger breeds—because these dogs are at about 90 per-
cent of their mature size, but their minds are still very puppylike. Picture a
twelve- or thirteen-year-old kid in your life—preferably one with great big feet,
long and skinny legs, and a smart mouth. This kid gets tangled up in his own
limbs when he walks, forgets he’s too old for the free cookies at the grocery store,
is sure he’s already learned everything he needs to know in this life, and seems to
be deaf to parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Your adolescent dog is
basically that kid with four legs and fur. And like all adolescents, he’s constantly
pushing the limits to see what he might be able to get away with. If you say SIT,
this dog may shake it off. If you tell him to STAY, he may run the other way. He’s
an energetic upstart, and most people who lose the obedience battle lose it during
But it doesn’t have to be that way. An oversize puppy who’s full of himself
needs firm and frequent reminders of what the rules are and what’s expected.
That means extra training sessions and overtime when it comes to conditioning.
He also needs plenty of exercise—just like that spooled-up teenager, he can’t
think straight when he’s full of pent-up energy. This might be the main reason
why adolescence is the most common age for dogs who are turned in to shelters.
Everyone wants a puppy, but when that puppy hits this short but sometimes
troublesome age, far too many pet owners give up rather than step up training
and digging deep for a little more patience and consistency. As you meet some of
the dogs I’ve rescued over the years in the coming pages, note how many fall into
this critical age range. They all turned out to be amazing pets, but they needed
love, training, security, consistency—and sometimes a dose of discipline—to
reach their potential.
Adulthood is the longest stage of your dog’s life, comprising about 80 percent of
his years. At this point, your dog is most likely calming down from the destruc-
tive, high-energy puppy and adolescent stages. At one-and-a-half years, you have
a full-size animal with a puppylike brain, but by two to three years, his body stops
growing and the brain finally catches up, bringing everything into sync. This
stage—especially in the early years—is the easiest time to fix any bad habits your
dog might have acquired while growing up. His brain is still relatively spongy
and his behaviors aren’t set in stone yet. With each passing year, those behaviors
get a little more rooted and become a little tougher to change.
During the adult years, your dog has a fully formed personality that should re-
main pretty consistent until the slowing down of old age begins to set in. This is
an opportune time to train.
Los Angeles, starving and covered in grease. He must have had an owner once, but no- body claimed him. He was a mature six-year-old dog with a heartbreaking response to being touched: if you tried to put your hands on him, he’d squeal. It was no surprise he wasn’t getting adopted—no one is looking for a dog with issues that run that deep. When I first saw Randy, he was minutes away from being put down. Even when he was being saved, he was afraid to be touched. At first, I thought it might be a medical issue.
I occasionally meet dogs in a shelter who have old, painful injuries or neglected conditions. Randy checked out okay at his veterinary visit, but each time I reached out to him or put a leash on him, he started yelping again. It didn’t take long to figure out that at some point Randy had been hit with a leash. It was the object of his greatest fear, and when I held it above him, he’d recoil and try to get away. If Randy was ever going to let an owner give him any form of physical affection, first he’d have to learn to trust. There was no point in my starting a training program with him until I could help him get comfortable with human contact. To accomplish this, I used a gradual program of contact conditioning to get him used to being touched without fear of being abused.
Working with a dog who was a few years old took more patience and time than it
might have with an adolescent, but eventually Randy started to feel at ease with me. After that, he was able to learn his 7 Common Commands like a pro and show he was ready to go to his new forever home.