Training to your dog’s personality

You’ll have more success training your dog if you tailor your approach to his personality. Some dogs are so sensitive they need little more than a disapproving look to get the message. Others fall into the happy-go-lucky, thicker-skinned camp, and may need a more insistent delivery to get down all the rules.

A third group might generously be called creative thinkers, as they can sometimes give their people a hard time. “These independent-minded dogs might wonder, for instance, whether it’s only in this house that they can’t sleep on the couch,” says trainer, behaviorist, and contributing editor Kelly Dunbar. “Or whether they can’t chew on shoes only when you’re not home. These are also the dogs who can occasionally push back when you push them.”

Basic training

Dogs may have different learning styles, but they all benefit from structure, routine, and consistent enforcing of boundaries. As pack animals, they’re also looking to you for gentle, benevolent leadership. Yelling, hitting, and other techniques that inflict pain or fear are never the solution for any dog–they can create a behavior problem or make an existing problem worse.

Different dogs, different training styles

Some dogs fall cleanly into different personality categories. Others are harder to identify and may straddle categories. If you can’t figure out where your dog fits in, maybe our behavior assessment test can help.

Highly sensitive

They learn quickly, are very tuned into their environment, read their owners like a book–and can be positively flattened by forceful behavior. Even praise, if too exuberant, can rattle them. They need a quiet, calm style of teaching.

Training strategy: A gentle, light touch works with these dogs. Because they’re so attuned to you, they can be quick studies and easy to train.

Bear in mind: Their sensitivity means it’s easy to do damage to these dogs. Yelling, striking, or otherwise harshly treating these extra sensitive creatures can result in fearful, shy, and nervous behavior. They also don’t do well in environments that are noisy and chaotic, and they may withdraw to protect themselves.

Examples of highly sensitive breeds: some Pit Bull terriers, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds, most toy breeds.


These are the guys who roll with the punches. Thick-skinned and generally easygoing, these dogs can tolerate more than most and bounce back from rough situations. They’re generally good for novice owners because you can make mistakes and they won’t hold it against you. They also do fine in active, bustling, loud households, which is why these dogs tend to make good family dogs. That said, they need gentle, sensitive direction just as all dogs do.

Training strategy: Your direction needs to be straightforward, obvious, and you will most definitely need to repeat yourself in the course of training these dogs. Boundaries need to be set and regularly enforced before they’re well understood.

Bear in mind: Their high tolerance for excitement and change sometimes means it’s hard for these dogs to switch channels and move from rambunctious to quiet behavior, for instance. They can also get more caught up in what’s going on around them than in what you’d like them to do.

Examples of happy-go-lucky dogs: Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Creative thinkers

They need consistency and firmness–more so than other dogs. These independent thinkers may have different ideas than you do as to what’s acceptable and what’s not, but that doesn’t mean they’re challenging you. Basically, if you’re not giving clear guidance and communication, they’re just more likely than other dogs to come up with their own rules.

Training strategy: Training is one of the best ways to help these dogs see you as the leader of the pack; you practice calling the shots, your dog practices obeying. When training, give your commands in a firm, low tone of voice, not a questioning one. Be consistent in enforcing house rules and commands, and never shrug it off if your dog disobeys. Also, ask your dog to sit, lie down, or obey some other command before you do or give him anything he wants–a meal, a walk, a toy, and before walking out the door or jumping out of the car.

Bear in mind: If you aren’t consistently firm with these dogs, they can try to take advantage of you and do what they want to do. But treating these dogs harshly, by rolling them over, or physically dominating them, can backfire and turn them aggressive, even hostile, to humans.

Examples of alpha dogs: Your dog’s behavior, not breed, is the best indicator of whether thinks he’s the boss.

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