How long does it take?

I went to have blood drawn the other day, just routine blood work. The phlebotomist asked me what my job was. This is our how the conversation went:

Me: “I’m an animal trainer” – that has become my standard answer
Her: “Wow, cool – what animals? Do you go into their homes?”
Me: “Yes”, I said, “Mostly dogs”.
Her: “Oh wow, neat…I don’t have a dog…how long does it take to train one?”

“How long does it take????”

The burning question everyone wants to know.

Think about it – we plan our days, often down to the minute. That is the first question everyone asks (maybe after cost) to a mechanic, at a restaurant, when travelling somewhere, when going to school, when having carpet installed. For everything you do, time matters.

Our society puts such an emphasis on how much time something consumes. And rightfully so. Along with money, time is one of our most valuable resources because you can’t get it back once you spend it.

But how about these questions:

“How long does it take to learn how to play classical piano?”
“How long does it take to get in shape?”
“How long does it take for a child to learn the alphabet?”
“How long does it take to become a good golfer?”

The answer to all of these questions is – it depends. It depends on a few things:

  1. Your natural ability to do the skill – some people are born to play music!
  2. Your starting place – have you ever even seen golf?
  3. How often you practice – think back to your childhood piano lessons
  4. Who you practice with, who you train with – you can go to the gym everyday and have very little luck getting in shape.
  5. And then it depends on so many more tiny variables that you won’t expect will crop up! – Maybe you were born to play music but your piano is junky and you have only heard country music your whole life. You would likely be at a disadvantage to someone who owns a baby grand and has grown up listening to Mozart.

Much like these scenarios, there is no formula for how long dog training takes. It depends on so many things that most of the time I can’t really give you a good guess. I just met you and your dog. I have no idea how dedicated you will be or how much natural ability you and your dog have.

My dog, Dan just turned 4. We have been working on reducing his reactivity towards other dogs for 3 years. 3 years. He is not yet perfect – far from it! But, he has made HUGE progress. He can practice agility in a barn with dogs he does not know. He can go for a walk in the neighborhood without having a meltdown. We play Frisbee in the park with no issues. We can take a drive and he can look at dogs quietly as we pass by. He basically can live the life of a normal pet dog with only a few minor revisions.

Okay so let’s look at the variables I listed above:

  1. Natural skill: Dan is smart but doesn’t have the natural tendency to relax – which is needed to be good at the behavior we are working towards.
  2. Starting place: In a downtown apartment in a crowded city full of unpredictable dogs! Ahhhhh!!! (Now we are in a house in a relatively quiet neighborhood – oh the difference!)
  3. How often you practice: I go in spurts, I’ll admit. We have at times practiced daily and then go for several months without working very hard on this issue. But I do work with Dan regularly on something, just sometimes other goals. This is important because even though we aren’t working on interaction with other dogs, I am building more consistent behavior in Dan through all training we do.
  4. Who you practice with: I have great friends to practice with at the agility barn and access to a wealth of information on this topic. I would say we are in a pretty good position on this one, but I have worked hard to create these scenarios for us.
  5. Other variables: There have been tons. Too many to list. But some examples include; the highly reactive dog on our street (a setback), moving into a house with a yard (an advantage), unexpected encounters on walks (setback), access to good parks for exercise (advantage)…and so on.

These are all of the things that have contributed to the length of time our progress has taken.

But, if I were to go back and do it over, I would want it to happen the exact same way. Because with every setback, I have learned something about Dan (and dog training in general).

By taking our time we have been able to build a wonderful relationship rather than being frustrated with each other. When we haven’t worked directly on interactions with other dogs it is because we’ve been doing other stuff that is less stressful and more fun for both Dan and me. When I have the emotional strength to practice Dan-dog interactions and he is in a good place to do so, we do it. I let him tell me how fast he wants to go.

Besides, even after we master Dan-dog interactions, we will find another training project to do! That is where we get our fuel for our relationship. To Dan, it is all a game and he hopes I will never stop playing.

So, my new answer to “How long does it take to train your dog?” is “His whole life”.