Trainability Amongst Different Dog Breeds

How trainability varies by dog breed.

By | Posted: Tue Feb 1 00:00:00 PST 2005

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These dogs, which were raised and tested under the same conditions, tended to respond to training differently according to breed. During leash training, Basenjis vigorously fought the leash, Shelties repeatedly leapt on and tripped their handlers, and Beagles howled. In a test of how well they could learn to remain still when being weighed, 70 percent of the Cocker Spaniels but only 10 percent of the Fox Terriers could remain still for one minute. In general, for tests involving forced restraint, Cocker Spaniels did best, followed by Shelties. Fox Terriers tended to play fight when restrained by hand, but did better from a distance. Beagles seemed restless when restrained, and Basenjis attempted to escape.

The tables turned when training went from force methods to reward methods. When breeds were compared on their ability to run to a box contain ing a reward, the Basenjis were the clear stars, with Shelties lagging far behind. The Basenjis and Cocker Spaniels outshined the others when it came to traversing a raised plank to get to food; the Shelties mostly failed the exercise. The Basenjis were also best at a task that required them to use their paws to uncover a dish of food; Cocker Spaniels were worst at this task.

The Shelties were the worst maze runners. When placed in the maze they tended to become upset and hesitant compared to the other breeds. Basenjis were confident and scored well at first, but then seemed to lose motivation. Fox Terriers tended to try to bite their way out. The results were reminiscent of the famous maze-bright and maze-dull rat lines developed beginning in the late 1920s by selectively breeding the best and worst maze running rats. Later studies showed the difference did not reflect brightness versus dullness, but boldness versus timidity; the maze-dull rats simply froze in a maze situation. Because of differences in breed typical reactions and abilities, there's no single test of intelligence that is fair among breeds.

A breed's perceived trainability is influenced by the expectations and training methods of the people who acquire them. Few people with a strong interest in obedience competition buy a Pekingese as their next prospective OTCH. Yet these are the very people who have the knowledge to best train a dog for obedience. When noted obedience trainer Diane Bauman took the challenge and applied her expertise to training a Pekingese (one of Coren's bottom seven breeds), the Peke excelled and earned its Obedience Trial Championship. And anybody who saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus troupe of Borzoi, trained by the famed animal-training family of Gunther Gebel-Williams, would have to assume they are among the most trainable of breeds, rather than in the bottom seven.

Perhaps these overachievers were flukes. Individual differences do outshine breed differences. Do such unusually trainable dogs produce unusually trainable offspring? Probably. Selection schemes undertaken by military and guide-dog breeding organizations have produced more trainable dogs through generations. Recent data from 3,305 German Shepherds produced as potential guides by The Seeing Eye found heritability of trainability to be 0.19, a fairly low value that indicates that in this particular population, most of the variance in trainability was due to factors other than genetic differences. That could be because the population has already responded so much to selection that there's not much genetic variability left to work with, or it could be because in any population non-genetic factors tend to assert a high influence on trainability.

If your goal is to excel in obedience, you'll do well to choose a breed regarded as highly trainable and a dog from an obedience star-studded pedigree.  If your goal is to succeed in obedience with the breed you already love, you'll do best to remain optimistic, accept your dog's natural inclinations, use a training technique most suited for your breedand keep a good sense of humor!


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Tammy   West Palm Beach, Florida

7/3/2015 8:24:45 PM

Great article. I have a black lab mix which I believe is a black lab/basenji. She is very much as the article describes. She is not interested in being trained and only does what you want if presented with a treat. She is very smart. Her lack of interest in being trained does not mean she is dumb. If the reward is just not worth it to her, she is not interested. We walk as a family in the evenings, and when it's time, she herds the family to get everyone going. Runs up and down the hallway, talking, to get us moving. So I guess you could say that she has trained us. :>)

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janet   bethlehem, PA

2/9/2011 4:23:12 AM

good article, thanks

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janet   bethlehem, PA

3/17/2010 4:39:44 AM

thanks for the information

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Stephanie   North Canton, OH

9/11/2009 3:08:57 PM


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