Dog Training Is Like Driver’s Ed

by Carmen LeBlanc, MS, ACAAB, CPDT

Sometimes clients don’t say anything, but you can see it in their eyes.

  • “You mean there’s not some cool power technique that corrects the problem quickly? Like by the time the baby…or the new dog…or our visitors arrive next week?”
  • “You mean training is going to be a multistep process? A long-term project even? Oh.”
  • “It’s more like a marathon than a sprint?! Shooot.”

Hey, I’m all about fast results too, but sometimes the learning curve is unavoidable. Geez, even learning a new recipe or software program can involve a frustrating learning curve. Tried Photoshop lately?

I often compare dog training to school — kindergarten through twelfth grade. To teach our dogs any new skill, we have to start in kindergarten or at least elementary school — or it won’t make sense and they’ll seem stupid or stubborn to us.

Breaking dog training down into school levels:

  • Elementary school: training basic skills in your home and yard. It’s quieter and easy for the dog to focus on you and the lesson you’re trying to teach.
  • Middle school: training skills in your familiar neighborhood and in friends’ or other family members’  homes where your dog has been before. Various familiar locations help solidify skills without adding too many distractions or temptations.
  • High school: training outdoors in parks, while camping, on the beach, walking downtown, at the pet or hardware store. New, busy, noisy, distracting, exciting locations require advanced focus and training skills.

Yet most people want to start their dog’s training in high school — without ever having passed elementary or middle school!

A typical example is leash manners. Everyone wants to enjoy relaxing walks with their dog. We don’t want pulling, jerking, crisscrossing or constant sniffing. We want our dogs to walk like we do, in boring straight lines, slowly because we’re two-legged after all, not four, and definitely not stopping every five seconds to read pee-mail.

So the challenge is that most people want to start training their dog on a walk!  Duh, right?

Well, can you remember how you learned to drive? Probably not on I-5 going 65 mph. Most of us learned first in a parking lot. We learned the parts of the dashboard, hand positions, signs and lights. We practiced starting and stopping, backing up, corners, focus and scanning. Eventually we progressed to driving slowly around a parking lot. Then 25-mph local streets. Eventually arterials, and finally the freeway.


Back to our dogs. Taking a walk — with all the scents, sounds, sights — is super exciting and distracting. It’s like I-5! It’s like Disney Land! Hardly the time to, what, focus? To slow down and wait for slow-pokey people? To ignore all the sights and scents off the pathway? No way.

So, reality check, we have to first teach dogs how to walk with us — through the house. Down the hallway, around the kitchen island, into the bedroom, up the stairs.

Once they get the concept of controlling their natural impulses to hang out at our side indoors, then you’re ready for your yard. Preferably fenced to minimize distractions.

Eventually…several weeks of daily training later…your dog is ready for your driveway. Once she’s mastered lots of back and forth on your driveway, she’s ready for a short walk…with breaks, by the way, to be a dog and sniff and explore. (But that’s a future blog.)

Can you do it faster than I’ve described? Sure. It’s done every day. But it’s pretty frustrating for both owner and dog. So why not set yourself and your dog up for success and more enjoyable learning? Just remember how learning progresses from baby steps to bold strides, from elementary school to high school — for both species on the ends of the leash.