Source: Photo by Berkay Gumustekin on Unsplash
Your dog’s personality is what makes him one of a kind. Even when you take two dogs of the same age, same breed, and similar life experiences, they won’t have the same personalities. Just like people, no two dogs are alike. They’re much too complex for that. Some are fun, and some serious; some are tense and some are always at ease. Some will do anything—absolutely anything—for a treat or a few minutes of your time. Some bond best to other dogs, and others are drawn more to people. Dogs can be blessed by or afflicted with many of the same personality quirks as you and me: hope, love, worry, jealousy, fear—they feel all of them.
I could write a whole book about the funny, clever, charming, and amazing canine personalities I’ve encountered, but for our purposes here, the main thing that matters is how personality can impact training. Getting to know your dog and what makes him tick will help you become an effective trainer.
So how do you make this assessment? There’s really no personality test your dog can take to give you a step-by-step method for teaching him. (Those puppy prediction tests don’t work, by the way.) And a shelter is about the worst place to get an idea of personality, since it brings out the worst in a lot of dogs. Even when your dog comes home with you, it’s going to take him a while to settle in and start showing you his cards.
That said, there are a couple of general rules of thumb about dog personality that can help you figure out how difficult (or easy) the road to being well trained might be for your dog:
Rule #1. The easiest dogs to train are those with a strong food or prey drive (the instinctive inclination of a predator to find, pursue, and capture prey) and the ability to focus. A dog who can be mesmerized by the treat in your hand or the tennis ball under your arm or that squeaky mouse toy that causes him to nearly hold his breath with excitement is going to be more open to learning whatever you’re teaching than one who is less interested. Dogs who are a little more cool to food and play rewards are a tougher crowd and will require more time and ingenuity from you.
Rule #2. Just because a dog is difficult to train does not mean that dog is not intelligent. There’s a saying I love that’s sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein, though nobody ever seems to be able to pinpoint where or when he might have said it: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
I often see this quote in the context of education, but I’ve found it’s just as well suited to describing dogs as it is kids. It’s pretty common to meet clients who think they’ve somehow acquired a stupid dog. People talk about certain breeds as though they’re slower or less capable of learning than the next.
Here’s what I hope you’ll remember as you train: Your dog is a genius at something. Maybe it’s not at learning commands or speedily picking up housebreaking or understanding that he’s going to get scratched every single time he tangles with the cat.
But there is something. Don’t judge his intelligence on his speed of mastering a command or his ability to perform tricks.
If you really want to see the litmus test for canine intelligence, ask your dog to do the job he was bred for. The beagle is a perfect example. These dogs always get the short shrift when we talk about dog smarts.
Yes, they can be challenging to house-train. And, yes, they can easily fall into the habit of barking at all hours.
But these dogs were bred to track, and their noses are incredibly powerful. When you put them in their element—when you see a trained beagle out tracking in the woods—you’re seeing a whole different dog, a dog with an awesome and unique intelligence.
A dog who isn’t inclined to SIT and STAY on command may require more of your time and energy to train, but I hope you’ll keep in mind that even though learning the 7 Common Commands is a necessary step in training any Lucky Dog, how eager or willing your dog is to learn those commands does not define what he is capable of.
Common Personality Traits
There’s no way to capture every dog personality trait here, but there are a few trends that I’ve found can have a big impact on what kind of training works, so let’s talk about those.
Outgoing or Shy. Will your dog go to any friendly stranger? Happily sleep over at a neighbor’s house? Race through the door into an unfamiliar place? A dog with the kind of outgoing attitude that allows for any of those possibilities may be a little easier to train than a shy dog. Outgoing dogs are usually more easily convinced than their shy counterparts of just about anything—up to and including the idea that they should follow your commands such as STAY, COME, and DOWN.
Dogs who go through life a little more carefully and those who have shy natures may take more time to train.
My dog Lulu is one of these. She’s guarded and careful—but she’s also devoted in a way only a dog you couldn’t coax into a stranger’s house with a fresh filet mignon can be. The extra time it takes to train a shy dog usually pays its own kind of return—once that dog finally opens up enough to commit to a command, he’s not likely to ever forget or disregard it because something more appealing or interesting is going on.
High or Low Energy. Some dogs are energetic and always eager to engage— remember Astro from The Jetsons? Their bodies and minds are always in the On position, and it may require an extra effort to gain their focus before you can begin training. Once you’ve got them started, though, high-energy dogs can be great at learning both the basic commands and tricks. In fact, channeling some of that excess energy into training can help cut down on behavior problems that stem from a dog having too little stimulation to keep up with his energy level.
On the other hand, some dogs are more like Huckleberry Hound—mellow, sleepy, and not especially excitable about anything. A low-energy dog may be slow to engage in training—and quick to call it a day. This doesn’t have to be a problem as long as you consistently find the small windows of opportunity during which they’re up for the work. In my experience, once they’ve learned their 7 Common Commands, some low-energy dogs who are good students are actually ideal candidates to work as service dogs. Such a big part of that job is being able to stay still and quiet and wait for the handler, and the combination of well trained and low-key is perfect for it.
Both breed and age play into any dog’s energy level, but this is also a very individual factor. I’ve worked with some golden retrievers, for example, who’d rather spend their days fat and happy on a soft bed than anywhere else in the world, and others who’d trade their kibble for a hike in the hills. Maybe you know two dogs who look alike but have nothing in common when it comes to this personality factor, too.
Silly or Serious. One common misconception about dog training is that treats are the only way to get the work done. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Some dogs do respond best to food—in fact, some dogs will practically walk on water for it. But others dogs need toys and play. If your pet is the kind who can’t take his eyes off a tennis ball or a lure toy or a rope pull, you may get more focus and better results by using toys for training than by using treats. This is common in dogs who have a heavy prey drive.
And then there are the dogs who just do what you ask out of pure love. You’d be surprised how many fall into this category.
As you assess your dog’s personality, give some thought to whether he finds the most satisfaction in a silly romp on the floor, a trade of work for food, or some other compromise between silliness and seriousness. That knowledge will serve you well when you choose your training tools.
Stubborn or Willing. Most of us have somebody in our family who can’t get behind any idea unless he or she came up with it. You know the type: the person who needs to choose what’s for dinner or where you’re going on vacation or which house rules apply in any game. It’s a control thing, and most interactions have room for a little of it, but not too much.
Some dogs are like that, too. They’re stubborn, and they like to come to new things in their own way and in their own time. Dogs of any breed can have this personality trait, but many bully breeds are known for their stubbornness. It’s not uncommon in toy breeds that were bred to be lapdogs, either, so don’t be surprised if your pint-size pup is less eager to dive into training than many bigger, sportier dogs.
Training dogs with stubborn personalities requires some extra effort to establish control at the beginning of the process. In Chapter 3, I’ll tell you just how to go about doing this as you work with eager—or headstrong—dogs.