There are, we have been informed, many ways to skin a cat!! The same can be said for training pooches.  When training a dog, we are often told “this is the best method for teaching the send away” or, “you will get the best results when training a dog to retrieve, if you use this technique” and so on……


The people giving such advice are usually well meaning and, more often than not, they have indeed found that a certain training methodology or particular approach to training has worked the best for them over the years. Thus they will usually punt that method going forward.


However, whilst there can be little doubt that for many of the elementary conditioning processes, such as heel work etc. there are generally accepted training principles, and it only serves to confuse new and experienced handlers and even their dogs, if we present them with an array of alternatives at the onset. After all, how many different ways are there to teach a dog to sit?Even children usually accomplish this without any sweat.


We know for sure, that success in training any dog will be closely related to certain critical factors such as the amount and quality of effort put in by the trainer, in the context of repetition and consistency. The more consistent they are, and the more often they repeat an exercise, the quicker the results will come.This, in combination with the use of positive reinforcement, such as praise, food or clicker, at exactly the right moment, and the timeous use of correction techniques, for example the lead or bad sound, in the case of non- compliance, again at exactly the right moment, will always form the primary golden threads that run throughout the “Theory of Dog Training”.  Quite a mouthful but, if there is a secret to dog training, this is it in a nutshell.


It is when we have mastered the basics and then embark on some of the more difficult exercises that we need to keep an open mind with regards to the choice of the best method to use.All dogs have different personalities and, by the time they are ready for some serious training, they will respond quite differently to a variety of stimuli.Often these are genetically influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the related natural instincts or drives of the particular breed. Their personality can also have been affected by their environment or even good or bad experiences as they were growing up. Is the dog calm, steady, nervous, playful, unpredictable etc.


One just has to line up a group of new young dogs and throw a ball and watch the varied interest and reaction to see that dogs are different. One of these dogs may straight away rush out to chase and pick up the ball but show little enthusiasm for a dumb bell.It does not however follow, that the best method for a class retrieve training session is to throw tennis balls for all the dogs.


Conversely, it would be equally wrong for anyone to form an opinion, that using a tennis ball as a stimuli is bad or ineffective, just because they struggled or had problems with their dog/s whilst using one.


The intention is not to concentrate on the retrieve here, but as any Club knows, this can be the most frustrating stumbling block to progression up to the more advanced classes. The exercise seems to be the make or break point, and it can so easily become an insurmountable obstacle, resulting in loss of interest.Handlers with dogs who are keen to retrieve at the onset are indeed fortunate.The enthusiasm to chase and pick up an article depends on many factors, including breed, environment, and the upbringing of the puppy. It will serve no purpose whatsoever for a handler who has a dog with weak or non- existent chasing instincts to adopt a similar training methodology of a handler whose dog has strong instincts in this regard. No, one must investigate every possible avenue to encourage some form of positive response and then build on this, step by step.Should all else fail, one may have to resort to the tried and tested, “Carry” and “Leave” method, albeit time consuming.


The send away and redirection can also be tackled in different ways from square one and no method should be lauded as the be all and end all to hit the jack pot. Long term handling ambitions should be taken into consideration. For the purely C Test/Obedience Champion, the send away command can be conditioned within the dog to mean, “look for a 1m x 1m box or a small marker on the ground and lie in that box or on/next to that marker.” In Working Trails or for more practical purposes, send aways, are far more flexible and may involve redirection. So, whether one uses food, an assistant with  food, mats, favourite articles, poles or other clear target markers, to get the dog moving in the right direction from the onset, the choice is yours.  No one method can be described as the best method except the one that works for you and that dog.


The stand and distance control, the track, the attack, the article or missing person search, the speak, and a host of other exercises, can be approached in numerous different ways. There is however one matter that requires emphasis.  Once you have identified the method that seems to be the right one for you and your dog, stick to it, whilst at the same time, establishing well defined logical staging posts on your journey.In this way, when progress seems to have become questionable, you can go back one or more stages that the dog can surely master and engender heaps of handler praise and thus reignite the success and reward factors before once more moving forward.


Another often overlooked factor in dog training is the character and attitude of the handler/trainer.There is little doubt, that some trainers are naturally hard and others softer. Put an instinctively hard trainer with a soft but otherwise willing dog or a soft trainer with a hard aggressive strong dog, and nothing will turn out very well.


The best method is therefore the one that works for you with the current dog that you are training. The wonderful thing about dog training is that nobody, nor indeed any book yet written can claim to have all the answers. However there are some natural dog trainers around who have that rare ability to be flexible and to adapt their training approach to any particular dog they are given to work with. These people are sadly few and far between but they invariably have the most success.  But one thing is for sure, they will all agree on one point in relation to training methodology.The sooner you start training the better.Those who start with an 8 week old pup, given the right training skills and experience, will seldom produce anything other than a well-trained dog.


The question  of “how long does it take to train a dog?” is a far more complex one and it never ceases to amaze me how often it comes up during the course of casual conversation whilst sipping a few ales at the local! Equally amazing is the expectation that my reply will be brief and simple. So I give them just such an answer…….3 metres!


Original Sept 1989. Updated July 2016.J. Cox