Dear Old Trainer: My daughter and I saw your dogs do their routine in San Francisco last summer and were very impressed. It convinced me to train Sadie, our little mixed breed. She is smart, but I haven't worked with her. How many hours a day do you train your dogs, and how many tricks do you teach them?
-- Shannon, Sacramento
A: I never spend more than 10 minutes a day training my pack. Most days I spend one minute.
The great film actor, Jimmy Stewart, when asked if his dogs were trained, said, "The difference between 'trained OK' and 'trained perfectly' doesn't really matter all that much to me. I once did a film with Lassie. When that dog got excited, he jumped all over Rudd Weatherwax (Lassie's trainer). Now that's the smartest dog in the world. If the world's best-trained dog can jump around to show he's happy, then my dogs should be allowed to do the same."
I agree with Jimmy. My goal is happy, healthy dogs who listen when I say something to them. I tailor all training to that goal.
I begin with general discipline -- don't bark too much, don't jump on people, listen to me when I give an order -- that all dogs have to learn. The rest are commands that allow us to take our daily walk in an organized fashion -- stop on command, turn right or left, quit rolling in whatever it is that smells so good to you and so bad to me.
That's only a few commands. The reason you were impressed was not because my dogs perform a lot of different commands, but because they react instantly to the few commands I give. If a dog doesn't obey the instant he or she hears a command, I stop and correct the problem on the spot. I never let it slide.
I give the same lecture you would give a kid -- "I'm disappointed in you. You have the potential to be great and yet blah, blah, blah." Then I repeat the order a few times, make sure he or she knows what to do and is doing it right, and top it off with plenty of love and praise.
That takes about one minute. I spend more time loving on my dogs than I do training them. I make eye contact and praise them for doing things right all day long, day after day.
I only teach tricks if a dog lets me know he wants to learn one. Each of my dogs has a trick or two they taught me to teach them, but they don't have to learn tricks. All they have to do is obey orders as soon as I give them.
If they do that, they can jump around like Lassie and act silly to show me how happy they are. I'll act silly right along with them. That's "trained OK," and that's fine with me.
Merry Christmas: Give your dogs plenty of love and exercise during the holidays, but just an ounce of holiday food.
Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained, and placed more than 2,000 dogs. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.