About Dog Training

Far be it from me to give away any family secrets.

Based on my experiences with three formidable representatives of the breed, however, I would have to say that Pugs are not the most naturally obedient of dogs.

Consider the case of Jicky, the second of these cherished creatures to share my life.

While she was still very small, I enrolled her in a puppy training class at the ASPCA. It was quite a jolly group, presided over by a well-seasoned and competent woman who clearly had a great affection for dogs of all kinds and a good way of communicating with them. The class members and their owners were  put through a variety of exercises — sit, sit-stay, down, etc. — and most of the adorable creatures learned their lessons more or less quickly.

Except Jicky.

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I thought maybe it was because she had been born in France and that perhaps her English wasn’t very good, that she didn’t understand what I or the trainer was talking about. Jicky would simply stare at us, put her head on the side, look bored and ignore whatever it was that we were trying to communicate. Not surprisingly,  she ended up last in the class. I was slightly embarrassed;  she could not have cared less.

Now Jane, her successor, a native of Pennsylvania Dutch country and certainly fully fluent in English is even less prone to taking directions than Jicky. More often than not she will just look at me with an expression that seems to ask “Why?” Of course, if my voice and manner indicate that she’d better just do whatever it is, more often than not she will condescend to obey, but that does take a lot of effort.

With this history of failures, I became quite fascinated with the topic of canine obedience and secretly envious of those exquisitely responsive canines I’d see in the movies, on TV or simply out and about. I decided to ask some knowledgeable people for their opinions.

Are certain breeds easier to train than others?

Clair Pocavich, a well-informed dog breeder and incidentally one of the ladies whose kennel introduced Jane to the world says “The sporting and working dogs are easiest to train. They love to please and they learn things with just a few repetitions. IMG_0286I hear that standard Poodles are also very smart and they are easy to train. The hardest to train are Pugs, Brussels Griffons, Havanese and most toy breeds. They don’t feel the need to do what someone else wants them to do. They have their own agenda and owners usually have to fit into their lifestyle.”

Jane, wipe that smirk off your face.

Nancy McCorkle, Clair Pocavich’s business partner and long active in Pug circles avoids disparaging comments. “If my intent was to train for companion events, I would choose the Shetland Sheepdog,” she says, and differs slightly from Clair adding “the most difficult? I would think that the sporting breeds would be the most difficult to train to be obedient. Their brains are in the field chasing birds and are easier trained in hunting.”

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Jane Kopelman, an expert trainer who was highly recommended to me by the wonderful and much respected veterinarian Fred Tierney, is more general in her comments. “It’s really a matter of finding the right motivation,” she says.  “Some dogs need a lot of jollying up and some dogs do best with a more subdued approach.  Fearful dogs will get worse with any kind of punitive approach. Some of the herding dogs — like Border Collies and a lot of Terriers — seem to live to work. They’ll just go and go. Other dogs, not so much.  But with the right approach and motivation any dog can learn.”

I should mention that this lady is the person who managed to get my Jane to sit on command and to drop unsavory or inedible morsels found on the street. No small achievement.

But how important is it to socialize and train a dog anyway? And, ideally, at what age should you begin the process?

Nancy McCorkle says “If you are getting a dog, be it a puppy or an older adult, you should plan on setting aside the time to socialize and train him.  Start as soon as the dog comes to live with you.  Dogs without socialization can become fear biters and it can also be a big deal to take them out for a walk or even to the vet.  Of course, socialization as a puppy is best, but the older, shy and scared dog can be slowly socialized over time.  Every time you take them out for a walk, every time, if you see that there is something that they are hesitant about, stop and show them that there is no need for concern.  Give lots of praise when they are sniffing whatever the new encounter is.”

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As far as training is concerned, Nancy adds “Repetition is the best way to train.  With puppies, you should only work with them about 15 or 20 minutes at a time — any longer and you’ve lost their concentration. However, you can work with them 4 or 5 times a day.” And Clair agrees: “Patience is perhaps the most important thing when training a dog of any age.”

Are most trainers generalists or are there some who specialize in particular types of dogs?

Again Nancy answers. “There are trainers who specialize in Pit Bulls only because once these dogs are trained in a certain way, it is very hard to get them re-trained to live with a family.  Other than that, I think trainers are mostly generalists who deal with many breeds of dogs in order to make their businesses grow.”

How do you go about finding an appropriate dog trainer?

“Ask your vet” was the consensus answer to this question. And indeed, Fred Tierney’s recommendation of Jane Kopelman proves that point to me. However, if your vet doesn’t come up with any appropriate suggestions, the old word-of-mouth process seems the right way to go. Just talk to other dog owners.  Of course, if these approaches both fail, you can try the net (the Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a website, www.apdt.com), but since the relationship between an owner and pet is such an intimate one, it would seem that the more personal the recommendation, the better. And all those consulted agree: avoid anyone who uses very harsh, punitive methods.

Is it possible for an individual to satisfactorily train their own dog?

Kathy Kiley, long active in Irish Setter circles and currently the owner of the show-stopping Champion Beaubriar’s Master of Arts (“Rory”), answers “I have always done my own training.  I read lots of different training books, watched a number of obedience events at dog shows, talked to a lot of doggy friends, and watched the different training TV shows.  I have taken ideas and tips from a wide variety of places but never had any formal training or taken any obedience classes myself.”

When it comes to her dogs, however, in the more than 25 years I’ve known her, Kathy has always exhibited enormous patience. And, as mentioned earlier, patience seems to be the cornerstone of successful dog training.

Nancy McCorkle italicizes this point of view saying “All you really need to train your own dog is a lot of patience and the ability to repeat the same actions over and over until the dog gets it.  Then it is just a matter of routine — the same commands and the same rewards to keep the dog on track.”

But how many of us possess that kind of patience?

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Jane Kopelman comments that “training your own dog can certainly be done, but it’s usually best to take a lesson or two with a professional to get the timing right and learn how to properly use rewards. Moreover, if you have any kind of aggression problem, you should not try to solve it yourself. Nor should you think it will simply go away with time.”

Also, it is important to remember that even if a trainer is hired, the owner must be part of the process. It is the owner who must practice and put the training into their everyday lives. Jane Kopelman sums up saying “It’s pointless if a dog learns to listen to a trainer and not their owner. Owner input is vital. After all, it’s your dog. I have clients who have very particular ideas about what they want to teach their dogs — I respect that. They are living with the dog, not me.”

I might add that as far as living together is concerned, and despite the fact that she still barks fanatically when animals (especially the MGM lion) appear on the TV screen, my Pug and I are doing quite well, thank you very much.

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Issue Twenty Two