I choose these words carefully because this is a matter of dispute among family and friends. The conventional wisdom is that ‘any dog can be trained to obey basic commands.’
And I think that statement is nuts.
Let’s get this out the way first – here are 5 things that aren’t dog-training that we regularly confuse with dog-training.
1. Inter-Breed Traits: These are genetic traits that make the behavior of some dog breeds distinct from other dog breeds. Shepherds, collies, and retrievers are typically, far more than other dogs, attentive to what humans are asking them to do. This is not a coincidence. They were bred for these traits. Now, these traits are more like tendencies or frequencies – they are not absolutes. Not every retriever has a strong desire to come when called, but a far higher percentage of retrievers than beagles have this trait.
2. Intra-Breed Traits: Individual dogs within breeds vary in their innate interest in what humans want them to do. Maybe it is because they are insecure, or maybe it is because they are poised and self-possessed; maybe it is because they are smart, or maybe it is because they are dumb. Who cares? What matters is that some dogs will start coming when called as soon as they figure out what you are trying to get them to do, and after that they will continue to come when called nearly all of the time (of course – as per #1 – you will find this trait more often in border collies than in, say, Airedale Terriers).
3. Age: Many dogs calm down when they get older. Many people fool themselves into believing this is the culmination of many years of training the dog, when really the dog is just older and more tired.
4. Human Training: You might punish your dog when he chews your shoes. And you might put your shoes somewhere the dog can’t reach them. You might then tell yourself you trained the dog to stop chewing the shoes, when really it was your behavior (leaving the shoes lying around) that you changed.
5. Dog management: If the dog finds ways to destroy furniture during the day when you are not there, you might start crating the dog. The dog is now not getting into as much trouble during the day. To your mind the dog is becoming better behaved, and can even be left alone outside the crate for small periods of time when you run out to do errands. Thus, with the crate, you have trained the dog to stop destroying the furniture. But you haven’t done that at all – all you’ve done is significantly reduce the number of hours per day in which the dog has the chance to destroy the furniture, and by doing so you have reduced the frequency with which furniture will be destroyed. But you haven’t trained the dog – instead you’ve done a better job managing its opportunities for mischief.
In Part 2, a study every dog owner (and prospective dog owner) should read.