Slow and Fast Dogs: The Canine Sense of Time

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

My greyhound, Claudia, and my sister’s Basset hound, Barney, recently flunked obedience class for two totally opposite reasons. Claudia is so hyper she creeps along the floor when she’s supposed to be sitting. Meanwhile Barney does things so slowly, you forget what you asked him to do by the time he does it. The teacher was really upset, but aren’t some dogs just faster or slower than others?

Many people typically think of certain breeds as fast-paced and others as laid back, but we can find individuals expressing the full spectrum of timing within any breed. While Barney’s owner thinks she should have called him “Snail” or “Molasses,” she considers “Lightning” the perfect name for his high-energy litter mate. Like each person, each dog possesses a natural sense of timing that may strike others as too fast, too slow, or just right. In the wild, dogs who didn’t get the job done in the required time were eliminated from the gene pool. Similarly, owners of working dogs who didn’t perform their hunting, herding, or other chores in a timely fashion didn’t breed them. However, people seeking canine companionship seldom give their pet’s sense of time a second thought—until it creates problems.

Even though most of us rarely consider it when we train our dogs, what we regard as a proper canine response actually consists of two parts: the dog performing a certain task (such as coming, sitting, or lying down), and the dog performing that task within a certain amount of time. If we do consider the time, more often than not we select a time that suits our own or a particular trainer’s sense of timing with little or no consideration for the dog’s. When our pet’s too fast or slow response violates this human standard, it may irritate some of us as much as no canine response at all. That, in turn, may cause us to berate the dog for being stupid, spiteful, or mean instead of merely out of synch.

One crucial, but often overlooked training credo maintains that we should never teach a dog a new time and a new task simultaneously. To understand how doing so unnecessarily complicates matters, imagine your boss asking you to alphabetized a stack of folders. Then imagine that person asking you to do that task at twice or half the speed that feels most comfortable to you. Notice how the unnatural timing makes even the simplest chore more complicated. Add all of the distractions that usually occur in the average obedience class and you can see why a dog with different timing has trouble learning!

Skilled teachers of group classes recognize that canine timing may differ, but practicality may cause them to opt for the timing that suits the majority. If your dog isn’t among the latter, try altering the pace at home. For example, fast-paced dogs who ignore or become bored with traditional methods of teaching the heel command will quickly learn their proper place if you put them through a fast-paced sequence of zig-zags and figure-eights that match their natural timing. A relaxed outing with Barney that includes similar exercises conducted at his much slower pace will yield the same results.

In both cases, matching the activity’s pace to the dog’s natural time allows the animal to learn to focus on you naturally. Once you accomplish that, then you can increase or decrease the pace to one that fits your needs as well as your pet’s.

While this may seem pretty straight-forward, owners whose own timing leads them to jump the gun or lag behind may experience problems switching to dogtime to enhance their pet’s training, particularly if their pet’s timing varies greatly from their own. Highly impatient owners with slow moving dogs or laid-back owners with high-energy pets all may fare better if someone with a more canine-compatible time-sense does the initial training.

In spite of all the effort sometimes required to synchronize human and canine timing, making that effort creates two distinct advantages. Not only does it make learning less of a chore and more fun for our pets, it enables us to become attuned to yet another enchanting aspect of canine behavior.