All dogs are trainable, but to paraphrase Animal Farm, some dogs are more trainable than others. How well your dog responds to training depends on his breed’s history, genetic makeup, individual personality and, of course, you.
Genetics and Dog Behavior
Humans have bred dogs for specific duties for thousands of years, to the point where certain behavioral and personality traits are genetically ingrained. This is especially true of the working breeds, which have powerful instincts to act in specific ways. Trying to train a working dog to not do something he was bred for can be an uphill battle.
Understanding your dog’s breed history goes a long way towards training him. For instance, small terriers were bred to hunt rats and other vermin. As rats were a constant problem (and still are in some areas), the dogs were bred to have high energy and a strong hunting instinct.
What does this mean for training? Your terrier is genetically encoded to hunt and dig. Unless you provide him with plenty of opportunities to engage in hunting-like behavior, he’s likely to exhibit unwanted behavior, such as excessive barking or destructive chewing and digging. Eliminating his natural behavior is unfair to your dog (not to mention almost impossible to accomplish), so you’ll find training easier if he has the opportunity to do what he was bred for.
Guard breeds such as the German shepherd offer different training challenges. Such breeds form close bonds with family, but by nature they are wary of strangers. Socializing guard breeds is vitally important but takes more time and effort than with other breeds.
Smarter than the Average Dog...
Some breeds, particularly the herding breeds, are highly intelligent — they had to be in order to do their job. A smart dog can be a training blessing or a curse. Border Collies, for instance, can be easily trained due to their high intelligence. If one decides to resist training, however, he can run circles around you — mentally and physically.
It may sound insulting to claim a dog whose brain is a fraction the size of a human’s can outsmart you, but anyone who has dealt with a smart herding dog knows it’s possible. By keeping training fun and varied, you can improve training outcomes with such animals.
Some breeds are celebrated for qualities other than intelligence. For example, the Afghan Hound is an affectionate, beautiful breed, but not considered to be an overly intelligent animal. Training such breeds requires plenty of patience and a willingness to retrain with the occasional "refresher course" if the dog proves forgetful.
Other breeds are known to be stubborn. The Malamute, for instance, is well-known for independent thinking. Again, this breed is trainable, but may choose to test you by occasionally digging his heels in and resisting training.
Easy to Train Breeds
Some breeds adapt well to training, and they are good choices for inexperienced dog trainers. Both Miniature and Standard Poodles train easily, as do Golden and Standard Retrievers. Most working dog breeds are eager to learn, although you have to consider their needs. Herding dogs are generally considered easy to train, as long as it’s clear who is training whom (and with an Australian Cattle Dog or Collie, it’s by no means always clear).
Ultimately you’re the most important training element. A firm yet loving trainer who maintains consistency in his expectations will have success training almost any dog. Remember, no matter the breed, the intelligence level or the personal temperament of your dog, he wants to please you. All you need to do is give him clear instructions and the opportunity to do so.