Understanding the Breed is the Key to Good Training

Knowing the characteristics of your dogs breed or breed mix may be the difference between success and failure in training your new friend. After all, you must understand the special needs of any “student” before you can be an effective teacher. It’s all well and good to borrow from experts’ horse training tips while working your quarter horse, but all the advice and training in the world won’t make your Llama canter for you.

It sounds funny, I know, but how you train your dog will have direct bearing on what kind of dog he becomes. Poodles, for example, do not respond well to heavy handling, to hard corrections. They are highly intelligent dogs who are sensitive to harsh tones and physical corrections. However trying this soft approach, whispering sweetly into the ear of a Beagle, may yield results that are neither soft nor sweet.

In addition to personalities, your work schedule and lifestyle must be factored into what kind of dog you hope to have. There is a reason, in centuries past, why kings and queens did NOT own Boxers and Pit Bulls. It is very hard to be a lady or lord of leisure when you’re being dragged outside for a rousing game of tug-of-war every two hours. Dogs such as Shih-Tzus, Greyhounds and Pekingese are great dogs for lounging about (although Greyhounds do need to be exercised). But you cannot expect working dogs, like Fox Terriers and Jack Russell Terriers who were bred to chase and kill vermin, to sit quietly in your apartment while you are at work all day.

Over the years, many a Jack Russell owner has come home to find his/her brand new carpet destroyed. And many an owner has believed – wrongly – that the offending dog was misbehaving badly. But in reality, in the Jack Russell world, each of these “bad dogs” probably heard a noise or sensed a presence beneath the carpet that he believed to be a rat and, being protective of and loyal to his home, he tried to do what any good Jack Russell should – locate and kill the invading beast. Okay, so the carpet was ruined, but, by golly, he needed to kill that rat! Understanding the nature of the beast is extremely important for everyone’s welfare and happiness. Without properly understanding what drives and motivates your dog, the relationship between you will be strained and confused at best; at worst, it may be doomed.

Yet all of this unhappiness can be avoided. It can be avoided simply by understanding what drives and motivates your dog. Is your dog a scent or sight hound? The Labrador Retriever is driven primarily by sight. It is the Lab’s job to join his owner on the hunt and spot and retrieve the quarry. And this is why dog trainers don’t take Labs near water during basic obedience, not until the dog has been in weeks of training. To train any Retriever around birds, animals, or playing children is torture for the dog. Instead, you should begin training a Lab in fairly uninteresting places. Only when the dog begins to have a real grasp of the commands can you add new distractions. Similarly, to begin training a Basset Hound on grass – a place filled with millions of luscious smells – would be an exercise in futility. You can physically correct the Basset until your arm is broken; you won’t be able to keep his concentration while his extremely sensitive nose is being assaulted by so many interesting smells. So begin on a blacktop. Even then you will see how often the nose drops to the ground, picking up scents. Is he blowing you off? Not really. He’s doing what he has been bred to do; hunting like his great, great, great, great grandparents did– possibly even hunting the same scent.

Ever wonder why Lassie was so darned agreeable with little Timmy? Little Timmy was a very gentle boy who spent most of each day at school while Lassie roamed a seemingly endless expanse of land. She was well-exercised and socialized (always in town, for example, surrounded by dozens of people). Now flash forward to reality. Your little boy climbs all over your penned-up, restless, un-exercised dog 24/7. He pulls the dog’s tail and whiskers, jumping off the couch and using the dog as a landing pad. After enduring the unendurable, enough is enough, and finally the otherwise really sweet dog snaps.

Despite what many parents believe, the size of a dog matters less than the breed, although it is good to take a hard, realistic look at your children. Certainly, a robust 80-pound Lab will do better with an active 5-year-old child than a Lhaso apso or Cocker Spaniel will. But parents often think a small dog will be less inclined to bite. Not so. In fact, most dog trainers will tell you they have been bitten more often by smaller, more temperamental breeds than by large dogs. And some small dogs are much tougher than their little bodies would suggest. Corgis, for example, are very tough little herding dogs. Don’t forget it is the Corgi who runs up behind 1,500-pound cattle and nips at their heels. The Corgi may be categorized as a small dog, but if this dog can handle Brutus the Bull, he can certainly handle your 60-pound kid.

Breeds that tend to be a little flighty – Afghans, Dalmatians, young Dobermans and Rottweilers (until they are about two years old) – need to be trained in quiet, dull areas until they learn more commands and can sit for a full 30 seconds. Because these breeds are so active and – shall we say – enthusiastic, it is extremely difficult for them to fully concentrate on you when another dog is walking by. You wouldn’t expect your five-year-old child to jump from kindergarten to the third grade, so why ask it of your dog? The thinking is the same: move slowly, thoroughly building on each level.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes dog trainers and animal behaviorists report seeing with well-intended owners is the “perfectly trained dog” syndrome. Owners who have put in hours and hours of training with their dogs still find out the hard way that genetics play an equally important role in each dog’s development. Dog-aggressive breeds, such as the Pit Bull, may be extraordinarily well behaved, incredibly sweet and loving with people (as most Pits are), lulling their owners into thinking they can attend dog parks – free reign with other dogs. This can spell disaster. If a dog has ever shown signs of dog-aggression, no matter how perfect he is on leash, this is a dog that should never be allowed off-leash and should NEVER be allowed in a dog park. Yet every year dogs who were otherwise “perfect” attack, and sometimes kill, unsuspecting dogs (and may accidentally harm the people trying to intervene). An important note: If your dog has ever shown aggression toward people – particularly children – you should consult a professional dog trainer AT ONCE. This is a very dangerous warning sign which should be taken extremely seriously.

So, what motivates your dog? Certainly love and affection do. But there will always be something else – something you have not considered – that will help your dog be the best he/she can be. Talk to experts, dog trainers or your vet, and research your dog’s breed or breeds. Learning what instincts drive your dog is the first and most important step in understanding him and training him accordingly. With the proper tools and realistic expectations, you can motivate your new dog – whatever his heritage – to be your Lassie.

by Donna Lindell
Donna Lindell is a long-time dog owner; foster mom for stray and abused dogs; assistant to professional dog trainer Alexandra Allred; and part of a writing/editing team for dog training, social behavior, and proprer nutrition. Lindell lives outside Washington, D.C., with her dog Nadia and is active in educating the public about bully breeds. Additionally, as the owner of the late, beloved Kinder Katherine — an ADHD Doberman with Nephragenic Diabetes Insipidus, Wobbler’s Disease, Lyme’s Disease, severe allergies, incontinence (among other problems), and ultimately Osteosarcoma — Lindell fancies herself (as do many others seeking her advice) a veterinarian-in-training