When you first made enquiries about dog training, you may recall that one of the first questions you asked was “how long will it take me to train my dog?”  I strongly suspect that the real motive behind the question was not the acquisition of any useful knowledge, but to get an estimate of how much effort will be required! Every dog owner or dare I say “dog lover” craves an obedient dog.  This despite the fact that the average dog will set you back at least +\- R60 000 during it’s lifetime in food and maintenance costs, few owners have the true commitment or passion necessary to fully train their pet. But, if you have decided to take the plunge and do something about it. Congratulations!


By now, you will also have discovered that this is also a common question asked of you by friends or relatives, now that they know that you are training your dog.  How long does it take?


You will also have realised that it is not an easy question to answer. So let’s try to assist you.


Actually, the question should first be answered by another question.  What is it exactly that you want the dog to be able to do?  To be an Obedience Champion, Jumping Champion, Carting, Sheepdog, Gundog or Working Trials Champion, or just to be an obedient companion in the family environment?  Obviously, the answer to this question has an important bearing on the complexity and duration of the training.  For the purposes of this article, let us assume that you want your dog to be a “top dog” in any particular discipline of your own choosing.


The following five factors will have a major influence on how long it takes to train a dog and having discussed each one briefly, we can then “try” invent a “magic formula” against which you can measure yourself and your pooch.


NA: The Natural Ability and the Breed of the dog are important, because genetics and physical characteristics have a direct impact on the suitability of any animal for any particular type of training. For example, if you wished to compete at the highest level in Sheepdog Trials, your Bull Terrier will be at a distinct disadvantage.  Similarly, your Pomeranian will struggle in Police Dog Competitions and your slower, heavier breeds will seldom feature on the jumping or agility circuit.   Whilst any breed can be taught to be obedient, there are only a few breeds, which consistently make it at the “highest level” in competitions all over the world.  Many are merely “competent” and quite a few are, to be…let us say blunt, a significant challenge!!  One could hold a debate for hours on the influence of man on the various breeds and the genetic make up of each. My advice is to at least try to get a basic grasp of the basics of Dog Psychology and the Theory of Training.  At the end of this article, I list just a few book options amongst literally hundreds that have been published.  Don’t get confused if there are slightly different approaches amongst experts on actual training methods for specific exercises. The basic Theory and Psychology will be consistent. Thus any slightly different “methodologies,” matters not one bit.  If you have read my article on “Which is the best training method” to use, you will clearly see, that the “best method” is always the one that “works best” for you AND your dog. You just need to find the right one, and ensure you apply that proven Training Theory and Psychology. There is no rocket science involved.


There is nothing natural about the modern domestic dog. From the original “Canis Lupus” (Wolves in their various regions of the world) came each and every breed we know today, all carefully designed and genetically modified by man over time, and each has its own specialist strengths and weaknesses. Put another way, it is very doubtful that any poodles, terriers, greyhounds or husky breeds for example, had any valid boarding passes for Noah’s Ark.! So it will be well worth your while, to also do a little research into the genetic characteristics of your particular breed of dog, before you even acquire one. This, to obtain the best fit for purpose and maximise your chances of success.


AGE: The Age of the Dog is, as we all know, very relevant.  Getting a pup to train is always going to be much easier than acquiring a fully-grown dog whose background and character is not familiar to you.  I do not feel we need to dwell too long on this factor save to say, that you would be well advised to Google “Puppy Stages The Five Critical Periods by Bruce Sessions.” Here you will see how important those first 5 months or so of a dog’s life are. This is where we can in mould its character most quickly and effectively, and it is during this critical time, itself broken into five critical stages, that imprinting of associations both good and bad are made for life. A trainer/handler, who knows what he or she is doing, can extract maximum benefit from a close association with the animal during this time.  Whilst the old adage that you can’t teach old dog’s new tricks is not entirely true, obviously more effort and skill is required than with a youngster.


E: Effort put in by the owner/handler is perhaps the most vital factor in determining how long it takes to train a dog.  Obviously the word “effort” applies to many issues such as the quality of the training, the enthusiasm and commitment of the trainer.  A handler who knows what they are doing and applies the lessons learned in class, will naturally have better results than a novice, or a person who does their own thing and fails to apply the theory of training as taught by the instructor. If you are not prepared to put in an effort, don’t be surprised if progress is slow.  One session a week at Training School or Club is merely intended to give advice and monitor progress.  It is not really a true training session for the dog.  Such sessions must take place elsewhere.  Many short sessions, each finishing on a high note, are much more effective that a few lengthy sessions. In other words, twelve five-minute sessions, interspersed with play, are worth more than one hourly session.


HRS (per day): Time spent is the fourth factor and it is immediately obvious that time spent on training is closely related to the effort or quality of the training. A complete novice, who spends six hours a day, seven days per week, will not achieve the same results as an experienced or diligent handler/trainer, who spends only one hour, five time per week. But as a rule of thumb, let’s accept that the more quality time put in, the quicker the result.  As it does not take a brain surgeon to understand this, let’s move on.


EN: The Environment in which the training takes place is very relevant to the end result.  A one-man one-dog situation in a kennelled or controlled environment, such as one finds within police or military training facilities, makes for very conducive conditions. Plus they have all the training facilities and equipment on site. Every time the dog leaves the kennel, where life is boring, the animal is keen and responsive to training. 


At home, on the other hand, in a family or “pack” environment, there are likely to be numerous distractions such as other dogs or children. Thus trying to train a dog “at home” where life is often good before one puts on the leash, it is unlikely, initially at last, to give its full attention to the handler. Also one often finds, that a dog, once trained to perform on home ground, falls apart, initially at least, if taken to a strange place, such as a Club.  “Oh, he does it perfectly at home, I can’t understand for the life of me why it is such a problem here!!”  In short, the closest one can get to ideal conditions for the family pet, is to ensure the property is fenced and get all other members of the family to use the same “sounds” or other conditioning processes, then also, as soon as possible, take the dog to as many neutral or strange places for daily fun/ new distraction training.  It is important to note, that neutral territory does not necessarily mean the “same” neutral territory. By exposing the dog to as many different venues as possible, such as car parks, open fields, dog clubs, shopping centres etc, you will help to develop a more stable and reliable dog.


Access to training facilities such as exist for example at a club, in certain homes, on a farm (sheep?) or in a local park will be also be important here, and will influence the speed of progress.


So, what about that magic formula? Here is one that is so easy to understand, even an Irish dog handler, such as myself, can use it?


This is the formula using the five factors discussed above: –


Age of dog X 20 (20 is a constant factor)              

NA + E + En + Hrs per day


Let me explain.


  1. First take the Age of the dog to the nearest year (but not less than one) and multiply this by 20 (a constant factor in every calculation for the purposes of the formula). This 20 never changes.


  1. Then give your dog a mark out of 10 for its breed or Natural Ability (NA) for the training you intend to do. 1 meaning next to useless and 10 for a potential Star.  EG Dachshund for Jumping 1…but a Milionis or Border Collie 10.


Do the same for the Effort (E) in terms of our discussion. Again 1 for a poor effort and 10 for outstanding effort.


Then also give a mark out of 10 for the Training Environment (En) as per discussion. 1= bad environment and 10 one with everything going for it.  


Finally decide how many hours per day you wish to put in (Hrs per day).This should not be less than a half hour [0.5] and can be averaged over a week).  Add all of these together.


C    Divide A by B.


So let’s try two examples.


Let us take a one-year-old dog whose owner wants it to be an obedience champion (1×20 = 20). That’s the top line of the equation.  Just too easy eh? Now the bottom line.


The dog has a Natural Ability (NA) factor of 7 due to the fact that it has shown an above average willingness to learn and is of a breed (Labrador) that sometimes does well in the obedience show rings of the world. However they are not generally outstanding in this respect.

The (E) for effort factor on a scale of 1-10 is, in this case a little below average at 4 because although the person tries hard, he/she has little experience.


The owner is in a fenced property, has no other dogs or children to distract the animal and the dog is taken off the property for training several times per week. The owner also has access to good advice and training resources/equipment with all other family members cooperating.   Let us say 8 out of 10 for Environment (En).  


The handler spends 2 hours per day (+/-14hrs per week) usefully with the animal. Grand total bottom line is 7 +4+ 8 + 2. Agreed. So bottom line 21.


20 (top line) divided by 21(bottom line) = 0.95 years


So it will take this owner just under a year to train the dog up to a reasonable Obedience level (It’s the 2hrs per day and good environment that did the trick).  Thereafter it is merely a matter of an hour or two per week to keep the dog at the right standard for competition.


On the other hand, should your desire be limited to merely having a reasonably obedient dog who will not embarrass you at your local club and who is a pleasure to have around the home, then the formula will change. Let us can assume that as this is your first dog, and you have “belatedly” decided to commence training when the dog is 2yrs old.  So, 2 x 20 for the top line gives 40.


Now for the bottom line. The Natural Ability Factor (NA) can increase marginally to say 8 as most breeds can usually master the basic obedience skills. Your (E) for effort will also increase because you will not need to have the same training skills level as a top obedience competition handler and you can therefore more easily become competent in basic obedience. So change your 4 to 6 out of 10. The training environment (En) is unlikely to be as good as it was in the first example, so let us settle for 5.  Time per day would more realistically be around 1 hr (7hrs per week) including perhaps the time spend at weekends at a club. This gives a bottom line total of 20.  So, 40 divided by 20 means you should be home and dry in around 2 yrs.


How about a third example. 


A new 8 week old GSD puppy in the hands of an expert trainer who operates in an excellent training environment and spends at least 3hrs a day with his charge. He is training for obedience competitions.  Top line. Remember can’t be less than 1yr for purposes of the formula. So 1 x 20 =20.  Bottom Line 8 +9 + 9 + 4 = 30. Thus 20 divided by 30 =  .66 of a year, or just over 9 months. So, such a dog could, and should be in the senior OB class in any decent Club, by the age of 9-10 months of age. And it makes perfect sense.  I have seen this many times. Note: where age related physical limitations exist for activities such as jumping, protection work etc. then the estimate would need to be extended.


Try it out for yourself using your own information. You may well be surprised. Now you know why so many club members are going grey, on their third pooches, and still being taken for regular walks by their four legged friend!!


So next time you are having a few beers with some friends, and they learn that you are training a dog, you can be certain they will ask you that inevitable question….”How long does it take to train a dog?


You now have no excuse. You have a simple choice. Either ask them for a pen and paper and write down the formula. Then and ask them the 6 key questions.  (1)To do what?  (2) The Age? (3) The Breed? (4) Previous Experience and Level of Enthusiasm? (5) The Trg Environment Factors? (6) Hrs per day’s commitment. Ask them for another beer whilst you work things out. Then give the answer. OR in order to save yourself the hassle of explaining the above formula and all the mathematical PT involved, simply reply…“About 4.5 Metres mate!!”   Then wait for the next question.  “How do you train a dog?”


Good luck.  Let’s put in some quality time regularly.


J Cox for KUSA Gazette circa 1991. Revised April 2020


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