Training The Untrainable

When an owner tells me that their dog is impossible to train, or that the dog isn’t motivated by food, what I hear is that the owner hasn’t yet found a way to reach the dog. Training isn’t simply an owner giving a cue and the dog complying because they should; dogs have their own interests and desires. The simple truth is, you’re not going to get what you want out of your pet’s behaviour unless you know how to reach the dog on their level.

Certain breeds are going to be more diffi- cult to reach due to their genetics. A good example of hard-to-train breeds is any dog that was specifically bred to be independent (hounds and Mastiffs being the two most common). These dogs were meant to work on their own and think independently, meaning they don’t need a human to complete their job.

True, we don’t necessarily bring home a Beagle or Bloodhound to go hunting, but owners need to understand that the dog has been bred to be independent for hundreds of years, and they still possess those independent traits. What does it mean for us? We need to be clever when training them.

On the other hand, we have dogs that were specifically bred to work with humans, such as Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, Huskies and others. These breeds will be more inclined to want to listen to their owner and work with them.


For hard-to-train dogs, this is crucial for success.

STEP 1: You need to understand what your dog wants and what they like, which will involve recording the activities you see your dog engaging in. Is she smelling the ground, playing with other dogs, playing with sticks, sleeping, going for walks, herding a group of dogs, running wildly across a meadow?

STEP 2: Now, take those “likes” and put them in priority of the ones your dog likes best, second best, and so on. You now have your rewards list from high value to lower value (#1 being the crème de la crème; #2 being darn good, but if #1 is around, #2 takes a back seat; and so forth). These rewards will be your tools for training, so remember them well.


You can successfully utilize your rewards in realistic situations using what’s called the Premack Principle, which tells us that dogs (people, too!) can be driven to perform a particular activity if they know they will consequently be able to do something even more desirable to them. Here’s how:

  • Management must be 100%. This means you need to keep the dog away from their desired “like” unless you give it to them.
  • Ask for the behaviour you’d like.
  • Wait for the dog to perform the desired behaviour (this may take upward of 20 minutes for some dogs, so be patient).
  • Once the dog has given you the behaviour, give them what they want.

Here’s an example: A dog likes to sniff on walks. We will keep the leash short and don’t allow sniffing (management) until we give the cue — “go sniff” — after asking for a behaviour we want (pick simple behaviours to start, such as sit, eye contact, down, etc.).

Repeating every time you see that something they like is within the vicinity will greatly increase your success and create a more attentive dog.

dogs are and what they like, training can be very successful — you just need the time and patience to complete it.


Kristin Crestejo, CDBC, is head trainer and behaviour consultant at Modern Canine Training in Kamloops, BC.


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