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Interview with Robin Bennett: Small dog training | Figo Pet Insurance

Interview with Robin Bennett: Small dog training

Robin Bennett, certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA) and chair of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, shed light on the unique training needs of small dogs. As an author and consultant to pet care facility owners, she shared her background and unique ways in which to train a small breed dog as compared to a larger breed.

Q: How did you get into dog training as a career?

A: I’ve been a dog trainer for more than twenty years. I got into the career because I loved dogs. I was in the Marine Corps and took leave and took a dog training class. I fell in love with it and thought it would be a great hobby. Before long I realized I was dabbling in something that I loved, and that people would pay me for and I turned my hobby into a career.

To keep current, I attend training courses and conferences. I take continuing education and recertify every three years. If you want to become a dog trainer, I recommend you truly and deeply love dogs, attend workshops, network, take dog training classes and join professional organizations such as the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Q: Are there different training methods for, say a Yorkie as compared to a Great Dane?

A: I use positive reinforcement training with every dog regardless of size, though differences in handling may come up based on size. For example, because small dogs are closer to the ground, I might work on stationary exercises with them on an elevated space. That way I don’t have to loom over them, which may be intimidating and cause them to back away from you. When you’re training you want them engaged and eager, not in any way fearful. Also, when I train a small dog, I may put peanut butter on the end of a wooden spoon or put treats on a target stick. This allows me to treat without having to bend over all the time.

Q: If I’m looking for a trainer for my small dog, what should I look for?

A: When looking for a dog trainer, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether they train small breed or large breed dogs. However, if you’re taking your small breed dog into a class full of large breed dogs, it could be intimidating for your small dog and that won’t lead to a good training outcome. A trainer should be aware of the dog’s body language and if possible, separate the small dogs from the large dogs during the training class. You want your dog to be comfortable, not fearful.

The number one thing a pet parent needs to know is whether that trainer trains with positive reinforcement. One way to find out is to ask the trainer how they reward the dog; and more importantly, what they do if the dog exhibits the wrong behavior. The trainer should say, “I want to set your dog up for success, and to do that, we need to make sure they understand what we’re saying and what we are expecting of them.” Look for a trainer who doesn’t say he/she wants to “correct” behavior they deem unacceptable. Look for a trainer who uses tools such as treats or toy-based rewards—one who’s friendly and has great customer service skills.

Visit a trainer and observe how he or she interacts before making any commitment. Visit the group classes he or she offers and see whether it’s a small breed, large breed or a combination and observe how that trainer interacts with the small breeds who may be are uncomfortable with larger breeds.

Q: How can a pet owner teach his small breed to sit, stay or lay? Are there any insider training tips you can offer?

A: Laughing. The size of the treat is important. Small breeds should only have tiny—not even pea-sized—treats. If you feed a small dog a hot dog for a treat, you should be able to get about 200 treats out of one hot dog! Find a treat your dog loves the best and use that to train.

A good starting place: Sit is easy to train. Take a small piece of treat in your hand and put it right by your dog’s nose. Raise it up. Your dog’s head will naturally follow your hand and her rear end will drop to the floor. Say the word “sit” when her rear is on the floor. Repeat that about five six times with the treat by her nose. After that, say the word “sit” and reward her after she’s done what you’ve asked.

Q: Why is the down command important?

A: “Down” is a relaxation pose. If I want my dog to stay calm and be relaxed, “down” is the position that achieves that. It’s more comfortable and relaxing than a simple sit.

It is a behavior I like to train, but with small dogs they sometimes cheat and crouch, but don’t truly lay down. What I will do if I see a small dog isn’t laying down I will sit on the floor, raise my knees a bit and lure the dog under my legs with the treat while saying “down.” This gets them into the down position.

Q: Is there a misconception around small dogs and training need? If so, can you tell us why, regardless of size, training is important?

A: It’s important for dogs of all sizes to get basic obedience training. Small dogs get away with something a large dog wouldn’t—like jumping on you. When a small dog jumps, he may not reach your knee, but when a large dog jumps he might knock you over. Someone coming to your house may not appreciate a dog jumping no matter what its size.

Many small dog owners also manage behavior by picking them up, but that isn’t always viable. Small dogs and large should be trained and a great advantage is training helps build a better relationship with your pet; this leads to your having a great life with him or her.

Q: At what age should training start?

A: I would say start training as soon as possible: Your dog is learning from you as soon as you get him home. Work immediately on basic household manners; teach them to sit when you feed him, make him sit when you walk through the door. Working on house training and crate training should begin immediately. I offer a course, Raising Your Puppy, that offers tips pet parents can implement from day one.

Q: What else should small breed dog owners know?

A: I think small dog owners need to allow their dog to get comfortable walking. So many times, I see small dog owners carry their dogs. I don’t recommend forcing a small dog to walk in an area where there are a lot of big dogs or where he will be surrounded by a sea of human legs, but for the most part, let him walk into stores or out of doors so they are not scared when on the ground.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your career?

A: As an entrepreneur I have been able to open a business, grow that business and make a living doing what I love. I know I can set my own schedule and live the life I want.

I keep doing what I do because I love seeing the lives of dogs and their families improve through training. I love that ah-ha moment when the whole family is speaking the same language and their dog benefits from that.

Pet owners, take note, building a great relationship with your pet starts with training. Every time you and your dog work on anything from basic obedience to agility training you are building your bond.

Editor’s Note: For more information on dog training, visit this blog on National Train Your Dog Month. Wondering what your dog will learn from a trainer? Here is information on what to expect at doggy training.


Robbi Hess, award-winning author, is multi-petual: She shares her home with two Devon Rex kittens, three adult rescue cats, a mini poodle, a Goldendoodle, three lizards and two ferrets. When not caring for her pets, she is an editor, speaker, time management and productivity guru, content creator, social media manager and blogger. She writes at All Words MatterMy Divas Dish, and is the story editor and chief cat herder at Positively Woof.

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