Toy dogs (members of the AKC Toy Group) are becoming more and more popular every day, but many owners don’t take the time to train these dogs. Training toy breeds represents unique challenges, but it’s both worthwhile and necessary. Even a 10-pound dog can become a menace if it doesn’t receive obedience training and isn’t raised with a firm set of household rules and limitations. Even if your toy dog seems like it doesn’t need training, you’ll thank yourself for the investment of time and effort later if and when a behavior problem arises. Starting from scratch is much more difficult if you’ve neglected training for years.
Unique Challenges When Training Toy Breeds
The small size of a toy dog makes training more difficult for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s more difficult to reach the dog for whatever reason during training. Giving a prompt reward after a behavior is performed correctly is a challenge– after you’ve gotten out a treat and knelt down to the dog’s level, you’re already outside the one or two second window in which food rewards are most beneficial during training. Likewise, it’s tough to give cues for behaviors like “heel,” which normally depend upon the dog obeying signals conveyed through a handler’s body language. While a German Shepherd can easily see you twist your shoulders as you prepare to turn to the left while walking, a Chihuahua may be left behind.
The other major challenge when training a toy dog is reinforcement. Most toy breeds are to some degree praise-motivated, but food rewards are simply more motivating and more effective for most individuals. But a smaller dog has a smaller appetite, and giving too many treats can also mean that the dog doesn’t get enough of its normal, balanced diet. If you don’t reduce the dog’s normal serving size based on how many treats it has received, it’s likely to become obese, but if you do reduce its meal size it won’t be getting enough key nutrients.
Success Depends on Creativity and Thinking Outside the Box
Both of these major challenges can be addressed with creative solutions that require the handler to let go of some traditional preconceptions regarding how a dog is trained. Just remember: If it works for your dog, it’s the “right” way to train. Unless you’re training for show, nobody’s keeping score to make sure you do everything in a particular way.
For example, both the food reward problem and the issue of delivering a reward promptly can be solved with a long wooden spoon covered in peanut butter, cream cheese, or baby food. When you want to reward a behavior, extend the spoon to your dog’s level and allow one lick before flipping it back spoon-side-up and well out of the dog’s reach. With a little practice, you can easily use this method even while training active behaviors that require movement and coordination from you and the dog.
As far as delivering cues at a toy dog’s level, apply the same principle. You can use a ruler or a commercial target (you can buy training targets from most online or retail pet supply stores) to direct a toy breed in the heel position. Just train the dog to follow the target with its nose, and use it to give a half-second’s advance warning as you prepare to make a turn or to halt. If you’re training for show and can’t use a target in the ring, start working with a target and progress eventually to using your feet to give cues– turn your foot in the direction you’re preparing to turn, one step before you actually make the turn.