Proposition: You Don’t Really Want to Train Your Dog


It recently occurred to me that most people don’t really want to train their dogs. Sure, almost everyone wants their dog to be reasonably well behaved, but few people are really that interested in training.

This should not be much of a surprise, and yet, to me—a person with a lifelong interest in animal behavior, whose canine companions were her best friends as a small child and who once pursued a horse-training career—it is an actual revelation. The thing that I most love thinking about and talking about and writing about and doing? Most people don’t give it much though at all, no matter how many dogs they have. It seems that most people more or less teach their dogs to sit and call it good. Any other behavioral expectation they have of their dogs just works itself out as their dogs accompany them through their lives.

This idea occurred to me after my car started making a funny noise, and I had taken it to a mechanic for diagnosis and repair. The mechanic quickly identified the problem and fixed it, and as he was explaining the issue to me, and warning me about what to be alert to in the future—and my eyes were probably glazing over—I had this thought: I don’t want to know about how a car works, I just want it to work!  Most people aren’t interested in learning theory and the timing of the dopamine release and whether a dog is intentionally signaling aggression when his hair stands up—but I am fascinated by all of those things and can’t even resist telling you right here and right now that he’s not! The mechanism by which a dog’s hair stands up is an involuntary reflex; it’s a result of how the dog is feeling! He can’t make it happen on purpose! I’d love to tell you more—what it actually does mean and what you can do to help your dog display this less—but you probably don’t actually care, like me and my car.

Maybe I am wrong—and at any rate, I’m likely taking this thought to the wrong people: You guys are probably more like me than the average dog owner. You wouldn’t be reading this post if you weren’t interested in dogs and dog behavior and helping our dogs be happy and to live harmoniously with us. But do me a favor and think about everyone else you know: Do your friends and neighbors actually train their dogs, or seek to know anything credible about dog training?


  1. Yes, I think you are preaching to the choir here. And I agree that the “average” dog owner doesn’t care much about principles of training; they just want their dog to “behave” within a reasonable framework. However, I do think that people who care enough about their dog and their relationship to ask for training help, either through a class or private training, are generally interested enough to want to do a good job and understand their dog. When I taught puppy and basic classes, I asked people if they just wanted basic notes on what we had covered in class, or whether they also wanted “background notes” that explained more of the “whys” of behavior and not just the “how to’s.” 90% asked for the background notes and many stated in subsequent classes how the background notes helped them understand what they were doing which made their training more efficient, and even apply the principles to things we hadn’t covered. And I think more people would be more deeply interested if they weren’t just so darn busy with life.

  2. I train my dogs fairly intensively when I first get them from the shelter. At adoption, my dogs have been anywhere from eight months to eight years old. Purposeful, intensive training might last a couple of weeks, rarely longer. My dogs have to sit before I let them out, or else they would slam/bang/crash out the door and knock me over, and I am 87 and that can’t happen. They have to sit before I put their food bowls down. Sitting becomes such a habit, they do it almost every time they look at me whether I have treats or not. I train them to walk on a loose leash without using a leash–I walk around the back yard and hand out a treat when they come to my side. Walking by my side becomes a habit. And the most important training–the recall: Whenever I do something they think is wonderful, such as their bowl of food or petting–I say their name. So that when I call his and her name, they come. Always. They wouldn’t think of jumping on me or chewing anything that isn’t theirs. They aren’t perfect–one of them digs holes in my garden, but she’s a dog so she gets a pass. So I guess I train my dogs every day, all day. But I don’t call it training, per se, I call it living with dogs. It’s just something that is woven into our daily life.

  3. You might be right. I have heard my friends say “I wish my dog was as smart as yours!” I admit I have a smart dog who learns easily. But I also “talk” to my dog. I swear I can communicate in complete sentences and she understands. Most of my friends don’t have time or care to invest the time to train their dog. They want a well-behaved, well-trained dog right out-of-the-box. Hence, and sadly, the reason for so many pure-breed rescues.

  4. I am lazy when it comes to training and my dogs generally just act pretty good. I had a dog over 20 years ago that was a joy and easy to train. I think it was because he was bottle fed and we got him at around 6 weeks and weaned him off the bottle. He trusted me completely and would work for bits of kibble and because he enjoyed it. I easily taught him to go to his box, catch a ball, catch frisbees, wait until he was told it was okay to jump on the bed, target my hand or a post-it. I know there are more things and would have been even more, but he got sick and died before he turned 3. That is the hardest pet death I have ever had, and I still miss him daily. Since then, I have been unable to get our dogs trained that well or gotten that level of trust. So, I have become lazy. Our latest dog has a good trust level, but since we got him at 1-1/2 years old, training has been challenging. He is, however, a great hang-out buddy, so all is not lost.

  5. I don’t want to overtrain my dog. I want my dog to still be a dog. While I want them both to walk on a leash without pulling me over, I don’t want them in a constant heel so that they can’t enjoy their walk, sniffing all of the enticing smells they will encounter. I want a solid recall but I don’t want them clinging to my side, missing out on the freedom of the dog park.

    It’s a balance between being trained and being allowed to just be a dog.

  6. I’ve been lucky to have two dogs who haven’t needed “too much” training to be good companions. Although one was a super lovely and loving hound who wasn’t the brightest chap, so even some very basic things took ages. (Then again, he was my first dog and I had a lot to learn too!)

    The thing that makes me crazy is people complaining about their dogs behavior and then watching as they reinforce that very behavior! If only they’d be willing to explore their own behaviors enough to recognize when they are making the problem worse!

  7. I am SO with you on this!! A whole lot of people think training your dog is only for people who compete – and lots of people think competing is stupid and robbing the dog of being a dog. They need to witness me and my dog doing Rally obedience, FastCAT and Disc Dog and see the joy on her little face because I taught her to do these sports. She loves it!! The point of early training is to teach your dog how to focus and how to learn what they need to know to enjoy life to a greater extent than just sitting around the back yard or in the house. And yes, some dogs learn easier/quicker than others. I could go on about this for way too long, so I won’t. Just know you’re in good company, Nancy!

  8. Sorry…I’m just the opposite of what everything has written here. I have had dogs my whole life and never put any thought into training They just all seem to have learned by themselves. Like someone said, my dogs have always been pretty good. They house train themselves, come when called, stop doing what I want them to not do. I now have a German Shepard (my second) and although he was probably not the smartest puppy in the litter, he does everything we need him to do to fit into our family. I want my dog to have his own personality, not some little robot. I know there is a happy medium between those two things and someone will probably take offense at what I just said. But every one gets to raise their dogs their own way.