This article is being written from the perspective of a terrier owner and lover, and is for all those who have a terrier as a member of their household, perhaps have a terrier in their future, or have them in their classes.
We all know that terriers come in many varieties, but all come with the genetics to do what they were born to do. They are feisty and fearless, spirited and confident … big dogs in small bodies! As hunters, terriers are very environmentally aware and motion sensitive. And they are very intelligent. Some say terriers are stubborn, and definitely tough. In all the years that I have owned terriers, I have many times thrown up my hands in defeat, laughed and cried, but always returned to my work with them a little wiser.
Most terriers won’t take kindly to heavy handling, and you may find that too much compulsion (force) will get you a dog that “shuts down,” or one that may bite you. Successfully training them requires quick thinking, creativity and being able to accept the unpredictable. Terriers quickly become bored when drilled, and you will find that they need to be challenged. To motivate my dogs, I use food treats, as well as lots of verbal praise and petting. I keep the training sessions short, and train the behavior I want in small increments. Then I can raise the criteria to get the desired behavior on cue. As with any dog, training a terrier requires patience, consistency, a good relationship, clear communication and trust. Oh, yeah, did I mention patience? Of course, spending time with your dog and training him should be fun, not regimented or something you consider a chore.
Training an intelligent dog can be a challenge. Let me give you some examples. I was actively working toward my first title with my first Cairn. I entered Casey in a match trial to get some practice. We had qualified up to the long sits and downs, and I felt confident as my guy was pretty steady on those exercises. He did his one-minute sit! Now, on to the three-minute down! I crossed the ring and as I turned to face him, Casey made eye contact with me. He began to wag his tail. Oh oh, not a good sign! I had to give him a very firm look. The tail kept wagging, and keeping his belly on the ground, he crawled a body length towards me. Some chuckles from the spectators gave him all the encouragement he needed, and Casey proceeded to crawl slowly then stop. At the end of the three minutes he was lying directly in front of me, tail wagging madly, but still in his down. There was loud laughter from the gallery, and the judge asked me if he had been trained for combat!
My second Cairn, Toby (now 12 years old), was a sweet-tempered and loving boy. He made it all so easy for me, would always do what I asked of him, and earned many titles with high scores. He did go through those “teenage” months as he was growing up, however, and was prone to bouts of unpredictable energy bursts. One such episode occurred in the beginner’s class I had enrolled him in (taught by one of my peers). We were working on stays, and every time I would try to put him down, he would bite my hand and pop up, each time with more excitement. On about my fifth attempt to down him he sprang up, charged, and proceeded to do “zoomies” around me. Before I could react, he had me wound tightly with his leash, and stood in front of me with that “smiling” look. When asked if I needed assistance, I said no, but I could have used some help. To this day I am not sure how I freed myself!
Then there is my girl Whitney, almost three years old. She is my first female, and now I understand the meaning of the word “bitch”! She is brazen and dominant, has a fiery temper, and has absolutely no respect for the trainer, me. Although she is always a challenge to work with, she is also giving me a wonderful learning experience. I felt pretty good about what she had learned so far, so I entered her (what a daredevil decision) in the huge Montgomery Terrier Specialty. Whitney’s breeder was attending and at ringside when it was our turn to compete. I entered the ring with confidence! When the judge asked me if I had any questions, I assured her that I had done this for many years, although it was my dog’s first trial.
Looking back, I should have known by the look on Whitney’s face that she had listened to my remarks to the judge and decided to take me down a peg or two. As I began the heel pattern, she latched onto my pants leg and began growling and shaking it! I did the entire exercise with a Cairn Terrier firmly attached to my left leg. As we set up to do the figure eight, the judge informed me that if my dog continued to do this behavior, we would be excused. I was sure she wouldn’t do it on the figure eight, so off we went. Wrong! She latched on again with even more fervor, growling and shaking. What a good time she was having! We were excused from the ring, and my breeder did not find this performance the least bit entertaining! The motto of this story is, if you are over-confident, you may pay the price. And terriers will keep you humble!
Whitney is still a work in progress. She passed her therapy dog test with flying colors and loves people, particularly kids, and is good in all environments, but she still needs a watchful eye around strange dogs that invade her space. All in all, she is a Cairn with much personality and zest for life, and a delight to have around.
So you want to train a terrier? You will need knowledge, a plan, patience, a sense of humor, treats and plenty of motivation. Respect? That you must really work to earn!