“How long will it take to train my dog?” It’s a question I get frequently from first-time dog owners—and it’s never easy to answer.
There are several factors at play when determining how long it might take to train a dog. Are you teaching basic skills or attempting to overcome a behavior challenge? What is the dog’s history of learning? Have they previously been trained using punishment or other aversive techniques? Are they adults that have never had any training?
Most importantly, how committed to training are the humans involved? In all cases, how quickly we can train a dog depends as much on the humans doing the training as it does on the dog’s ability to learn. As a trainer, I may be able to teach your dog to sit, down, stay and basic recall within a couple of weeks but if you aren’t consistently reinforcing those skills, they’ll remain spotty and underdeveloped.
While we can’t help you figure out how long it will take to train your dog, we can offer 8 insights to give you some idea of what may speed up or slow down the process.
Dog Training Timeline: Tips for Success
1. Get everyone in the house on board
Getting all members of the household on the same page is crucial for overcoming behavior challenges, in particular, as well as for teaching new skills. If, for example, we are trying to teach a dog that jumping on humans does not reward a dog with the attention they seek, the human members of the family must agree to turn around, exit through a doorway or walk away if the dog jumps on them.
If everyone is on board, over time dog will learn that they can jump ‘til the cows come home; they’ll never get the attention they seek unless they change their attention-seeking strategy. Eventually, jumping will extinguish (disappear) and be replaced by more polite requests, as long as those polite requests are being rewarded. If one family member chooses to lavish the dog with attention when they jump up, the dog learns that the strategy works sometimes and has no reason not abandon it for something more polite.
2. Consistency over time is key
Along with getting everyone in the household on board with the training methods, those training methods must be enforced consistently over time. Think of self-serving behaviors like jumping up for attention like your dog playing a slot-machine-o’-love. Four out of five times Fido jumps up, you withhold attention until he offers a more polite alternative to jumping (i.e., standing calmly with four paws on the floor or sitting at your feet). But that 5th time, that 5th time you forget or are distracted and you give your dog your attention when they jump. If the odds of winning at a slot machine were one out of five, you might be willing to play a few games and try your luck.
Your dog makes the same calculation. If the fun, natural behavior is rewarded one out of every five times, may as well try it first before seeking attention more politely.
3. It’s harder to build a good habit from scratch than change a bad habit
Have you ever tried to break yourself of a bad habit? Say biting your nails or smoking? If you have, you know that breaking a habit that has been repeated dozens or hundreds or thousands of times is much more challenging than introducing something completely novel into your routine.
The same principle works for our dogs. Teaching a new skill will always go faster than trying to change your dog’s existing relationship with an object, activity or person.
4. Behaviors rooted in emotions take time to change
Depending on the individual dog, we can teach a simple beginning skill like sit or down with very little effort. Improving fear- or anxiety-based behaviors through training, on the other hand, is a long-term commitment. When we are using classical conditioning techniques like desensitization and counterconditioning, we are trying to get at the root of a problem that is deeply anchored in your dog’s brain.
Imagine trying to overcome your own fear of spiders or heights or confined spaces or anything that frightens you. Would a single therapy session change your response to these triggers? What about ten sessions? Twenty sessions? There is no way to know. How quickly the fear improves, if it ever improves, depends entirely on teaching your dog to trust you and giving them the space they need to work through their anxiety.
5. You can only train your dog as quickly as they can learn
Every dog learns at a different pace. Breed type and age can sometimes be a factor—young, malleable dogs frequently learn quickly, as do working breeds—but really it comes down to the individual, not maturity or genetics. Your dog is likely to be more successful at picking up new skills if you can introduce them in quiet, familiar environments without distractions, such as inside the home. Even in the best conditions, your dog may struggle with particular cues or with learning in general. (See below).
Since the quality of the teacher is also often a factor on how easily a student learns, assure that you are communicating clearly and moving at a pace your dog can handle.
6. Dogs with a history of aversive training may have trouble learning
Aversive training techniques that intimidate or cause a dog pain such as alpha rolling or the use of prong collars can leave them with a lifetime fear of learning. Dogs with a history of this kind of training are often easy to identify. They may be unwilling to follow lures because they fear what will happen if they get it wrong. They may be startled by marker words or clickers because sharp noises once predicted punishment. They may be unable to concentrate or become too wound up during training sessions out of anxiety.
These dogs deserve extra patience and care during training in order to help them to overcome a fear of learning.
7. High-quality rewards = high-quality learning
The better the rewards you offer your dog during training, the more motivated they will be to learn. Kibble and packaged treats are okay (although in some contexts, they may not pack enough punch to work at all) but for faster responses, try high-value treats like tiny pieces of hot dog, chicken, or cheese.
8. You’re never really done training a dog
Just like humans, dogs are never really done learning. So even after you’ve taught them a bombproof down-stay and a killer recall, their training isn’t complete. Throughout your life together, your dog will be carefully watching you for clues about how to navigate their world!
It’s up to you to attempt to communicate in ways that lead to behaviors you like versus those you don’t. Continuing to reinforce over time the behaviors you’ve taught with rewards regularly or even intermittently will ensure that your dog doesn’t abandon those teachings because there’s nothing in it for them.