What Does Breed Have to Do With It? Breed-Specific Training Tips


In this three-part series SpotOn Trainer, Nicole Skeehan, explores what makes our dogs tick and how use that to your advantage.

So now that you’ve got an idea about who your dog is and what drives them, let’s talk about how to tailor a breed-specific training plan to suit them. Much of it is really about exploiting and/or managing their natural inclinations.  And to do this, you must think of training in terms of reinforcement vs. punishment. 


The term reinforcement means to strengthen.  And when used in psychology, refers to any stimulus that can be added or removed to make a behavior more likely to reoccur.  Examples of reinforcement include giving a dog a treat when he sits politely, receiving a bonus when you did a great job on a tough project, or giving a child a sticker for a good grade on a test. 


Punishment is defined as a consequence which follows a behavior that decreases (or attempts to decrease) the likelihood of that response occurring. Examples of punishment include when a child touches a hot stove and burns his fingers (to teach him to stop touching the stove), when a person tells a joke that nobody laughs at (then they don’t tell that bad joke again), or when  you yell at a dog for stealing food from the counter (and the dog learns not to counter-surf again).

When you think of why anyone does anything, the answer is simple.  All animals are motivated to achieve reinforcement and avoid punishment.  Although there are times when punishment is inevitable, behavior scientists and dog trainers agree that the best way to train a dog is with positive reinforcement. 

So using what we know about our dog’s personality type, let’s try to figure out some good ways to train for it. 

Dogs with a high level of working instinct may be really easy, just use a game of fetch to reinforce that Golden Retriever for good behavior; or they may be really difficult, how do you work with that Beagle that just wants to sniff? The positive reinforcement way to work may include either keeping something on your person that is more enticing (read: stinky) than the smells are.  Or if you want to get more creative in your methods, you can even put sniffing on cue.  And allow the dog the opportunity to sniff as a reward for doing what you asked. This kind of training is about managing and manipulating the environment to work for you and not against you! 

Dogs with low working instinct will take lots of patience and a slow, methodical plan. Having success with a dog like this relies on finding something that motivates him (and you may have to look really hard), and then not allowing the dog to become saturated with the reinforcement.  I think of a Newfoundland that I often work with.  She is very bright and her cognitive abilities are fantastic.  But her work drive is low.  So we are constantly utilizing different types of high value reinforcements and even switching between them each session.  (I.e. reps 1-3 with a hot dog, reps 4-6 with a rope tug, and reps 7-9 with a game of tag.) See our video “What Motivates Your Dog?” for more ideas.  Another key to success with a dog with low working instinct is to stop before the dog becomes bored with your game. So at times, I’ll only do 2 repetitions of an exercise with the aforementioned Newfoundland.  And if she gives a good response on the 2nd repetition, I quit the session.  Drilling these dogs harder and harder just doesn’t work.  So if you’ve made good progress early on in the session, or if the dog just doesn’t seem that into the session.  You’re better off, quitting the session and doing something that the dog feels is fun for a little bit.  Then revisiting the session.

Dogs with a high level of cognition are problem solvers.  Try free shaping  or capturing behaviors to build your dog’s brain. Capturing is exactly what it sounds like—try to capture or “catch” your dog doing a behavior you’d like (like sit or lie down for instance) and reward him! Shaping is a little more complicated, but is better for behaviors that are “unnatural” for your dog. It basically means marking and rewarding your dog’s baby steps towards an end goal.

Let’s say I want to teach my dog to pick up my keys in his mouth. If I were using shaping to teach this trick, at first I would say “yes” and reward my dog just for looking at or sniffing the keys, before eventually moving on to touching the keys and then mouthing the keys. These kinds of exercises allow you to sit back and let the dog do most of the work! You’ll set a goal for your dog and mark and reinforce successive approximations that your dog makes toward the end goal.  

But if you’ve got a dog with a low level of cognition, you’ll have to take it more literally.  Exercises like luring or modeling will help your dog understand exactly what you want. Luring is very straightforward and works best with a food or toy motivated dog. Simply grab your reinforcer (a favorite toy or some treats perhaps) and show your dog you have it. Use the toy or treats to guide your dog into the desired position. Luring is often used to teach sit by showing your dog you have a cookie and then slowly raising the hand with the cookie above the dog’s head. While your dog is trying to follow the cookie in your hand, his bottom will almost inevitably hit the floor. This is luring at it’s simplest. Modeling, on the other hand, requires physically placing or assisting the dog into position and is very effective for more hard headed breeds. The more you do both modeling and luring, the better your dog will become at problem solving... so you can work up to the shaping exercises with a little bit of practice. 

If you have a biddable dog, then lucky you! Some dogs are bred for biddability and they are trainers’ dream dogs! These are the dogs that want to make you look good, and are eager to do what you ask. They would give you the moon if they could! 

But if you don’t have a dog that is biddable, you’ve got to work a little harder.  Dogs that are less biddable require the owner to manipulate their environment in order to allow them to accept reinforcement. And to exploit and manage their natural inclinations. This often means selecting your training environment carefully. If your dog is a fetch-a-holic, he probably won’t do stellar if where you train is right next to a tennis ball court. Or if your dog is a sniffer, it might be a good idea to train somewhere where there are few exciting new smells. You can still reach the same end goal with a less biddable dog, it just requires a little more patience.

Understanding who your dog is, what motivates him, and how to play to his strengths will make training less stressful and more efficient, as well as help you build a relationship that incorporates mutual respect and a definition of boundaries. All it takes is a little research and effort on the front end, which will lead to a healthier and happier companionship that will last for years to come! If you want to learn more great tips and tricks on training your pup, check out this complete guide on how to train your pup here.

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