Are All Dogs Trainable?

There's a question that mankind has asked since the beginning of its time spent with dogs: are all dogs trainable? It seems like an obvious answer might be yes. But there are other things involved in that equation. Plus, there are some dogs that are more trainable than others. The exact answer might involve a combination of things such as the dog's breed, age, temperament, the dog's personal experience, and the method of training.

obedient dog sitting at owner's feet in forest
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Smart dogs and dog training

There is a definite correlation between a dog being "smart" and a dog being "trainable." But, as the American Kennel Club explains, intelligence is not the only factor that makes a dog trainable. Each breed has its own personalities and jobs that it likes to do — imagine training a retriever, who is naturally good at fetching, to be a sled dog. It might be possible, but it might be difficult to train your dog to do the pulling tasks.

And the breed can't be taken as a whole. Each retriever will have their own distinct personality, which will affect trainability. An easily distracted dog will be more difficult to train, and in the case of a dog like a Bloodhound, who is bred to be a scent dog, they will likely always be more interested in a new scent than in anything else you might want it to do. The AKC says that using the right reward and making the training session fun for your dog can make it likely that any breed can learn and enjoy doing a new behavior.

Training small dogs

There's a perception in the dog world that small dogs are more difficult to train. Animal Planet says this isn't actually the case —but small dogs do need training just as much as other dogs do. According to Animal Planet, dogs of all sizes learn the exact same way. To put it simply: if a dog does something and it gets her what she wants, she'll continue to do it.

Young woman training her dog in a park
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Basic commands

All dog training starts with a foundation of knowing basic commands. A difficult-to-train dog may simply not have mastered the basics of "sit," "stay," etc. If your dog hasn't gotten these down yet, working with a reputable dog trainer can give you the basis for more learning that you need.

Canna-Pet says that dogs learn more easily when they're puppies, but older dogs can learn too. It comes down to finding the right training method and the right motivation for your dog's personality. Some breeds are more easily trainable than others. "Trainable" usually means smart enough to understand the commands and the association with the reward, and also obedient enough to keep doing it.

Canna-Pet says the top breeds with this combination of traits are border collies, border terriers, Labrador retrieves, Australian shepherds, the Papillion, the German shepherd, and the golden retriever. However, while these dogs are generally regarded as obedient, they also want to do their jobs, so they need to be active and the training needs to continue to be reinforced.

Dogs that are difficult to train

The most easy-to-train dog will be motivated. They will also be attuned to human interaction, tone of voice, and facial expression. Dogs have evolved to read our communication signals, but not all dogs are the same at this, just as not all humans are the same.

Also, any dog can have an off day. For instance, teething as a puppy will affect a dog's ability to follow orders and pay attention. Being a young dog (older than a puppy but not an adult) means they are usually higher energy and may have a harder time concentrating. Additionally, being sick can definitely affect how a dog feels when they're at "training school."

If your dog is difficult to train, consider working with a dog trainer, or try to find what really motivates your dog. It might be bacon. It might be a different toy. Or it might be extra praise from you. If you can find that motivating factor, your chances of success in training any dog just went way up.

Happy dog waiting for a snack.
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A study looking at dog leadership in the journal PLOS Computational Biology investigated whether dominance rank and personality traits are linked to leader and follower roles in family dogs. They studied six dogs belonging to the same household during 14 30- to 40-minute unleashed walks. Interestingly, the study found that found that dogs play the role of the leader 50 to 85 percent of the time.

However, a dog's leadership is consistent when examined over time. The study found that leader dogs or dominant dogs are more trainable and controllable. But the study found that they are also more aggressive. Over the time of the study, dominant dogs who were more responsive to training returned to the owner more often when they were off-leash.

Can all dogs be trained?

Author Jane Killion, in her book, When Pigs Fly! Training Success with Impossible Dogs (Washington: Dogwise Publishing, 2007) argues that all dogs are trainable. But certainly, some breeds are more stubborn, possibly less "intelligent," and also possibly harder to break out of their genetic breeding dispositions. For instance, a dog that is bred to be independent, like a terrier, who was bred to go after vermin, may not be as motivated by human interactions as other dogs and may be harder to train.

Regardless of the type of dog you have, work with what you've got. For difficult to train dogs who struggle with basic commands, get the assistance of a dog trainer if what you're doing isn't working. Consider the basis of training, which is motivation, and find what most makes your dog the happiest. Chances are, with work you can get any dog to behave.