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Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

This article discusses the importance of ongoing training, learning, and enrichment for dogs, from puppyhood through to old age, and provides suggestions for fun games and activities

Black and white puppy sitting in garden
© Can Stock Photo / schorsch

By Anna Bradley

I often wonder why so many of us train our dogs for a certain period of time and then just stop. For example, we get a puppy and train him to do a bunch of skills, maybe take him to puppy school and out to meet new friends, and practice our skills out and about. Maybe we engage the services of a professional trainer to help steer us in the right direction. We probably buy him lots of fancy enrichment, brain-engaging toys, and food puzzles. And then we just stop.

But why? Do we consider that our own learning one day hits a brick wall and we can’t absorb any more information? Of course not! We continue learning well past our days of formal education.

In many cases, learning is far richer beyond this time as we create new learning experiences for ourselves, form new relationships, and interact with a vast array of experiences and contacts.

I’ve never understood why so many of us seem to have this perception that learning opportunities for dogs have some kind of time limit.

Learning within the 6-Week Class Block

New owners may think that a puppy’s entire manners and social skills develop purely and completely within the six weeks (or whatever the length is) of their puppy course.

They may then feel frustrated that the puppy doesn’t finish the classes ‘fully trained,’ e.g. being able to ignore every available distraction, or recall from every perceivable socially tempting scenario.

But in reality, this just doesn’t happen. Or at least, it is extremely rare. Learning is progressive – puppies will pull when they first venture out, they will want to run and jump at passers-by and other dogs, they will be inclined to follow the nearest distraction if off-leash.

This is all normal – but owners may find it hard to accept. Puppies certainly do not need harsh corrections (the same goes for any dog, no matter what their age); they simply need calm guidance on what is appropriate and more realistic expectations from their owners.

Learning Is Progressive

So let’s say we do teach all our core skills within the average 6-session puppy school or home schooling. This would be fantastic. But now comes the generalization of these skills to outdoor distractions.

Post puppy school, many dogs are around adolescent age. This means that hormonal surges can provide greater confidence to explore beyond the safe boundaries of their owner.

Distractions such as other dogs, animals, scents, unfamiliar people, etc. become all the more exciting. So our training now moves onto this specific focus.

Sadly, I still see many dogs who would progress so well in a follow-on course but whose owners do not continue with them post puppy school. Often, I will revisit these same dogs a couple of years down the line with possible recall or socially inappropriate issues.

As such, strategically working through a training course that assists with focus, positive engagement, and listening skills at a time when the dog is becoming naturally more engaged in the environment and less in his owner, is enormously helpful.

It can set up both the dog and the owner to be able to handle well many potentially tricky situations, events, encounters, and scenarios as they go through their daily life.

Refresher Training

What next? Do we then think, ‘Okay, my dog gets it now and I can stop?’ I think in many cases this is true. So I encourage many of my clients to come back for refresher classes to review what has already been learned in a social and structured environment. It’s a very popular option and clients find it really helpful.

Many puppy owners also continue their learning in more informal courses, e.g. attending agility where they can still practice focal skills in a group setting, recall from distractions, and encourage positive socialization.

Nevertheless it’s easy to allow things to grind to a halt. Life, of course, gets in the way. It’s totally understandable. Due to our early efforts, dogs become accustomed to routine. They settle and adapt and ‘mold,’ if you like, into what we would like them to be. It’s easy to settle into a pattern and allow everything to carry on ‘as is’.

Learning Never Stops

Just like us, dogs are always absorbing and extracting information from their environment and from social interactions. Just like us, they’re always learning. Because of this, we need to be flexible and understand that issues may creep in later down the line, maybe months or even years after we’ve ceased training classes.

If we’ve taken our eye off the ball a bit, our dog might have learned that pulling and barking results in being allowed to play freely off-leash with other dogs. We may have become lax with asking our dog to remain calm and polite prior to initiating play.

Maybe we’ve stopped providing payback in the form of rewards on a consistent schedule every time our dog returns and now he’d rather venture further afield or visit distractions that are more enticing than ourselves.

Perhaps we no longer focus on calm meet and greet introductions and our dog has become very exuberant and jumpy when greeting us and unfamiliar people.

There are hundreds of examples where at some stage of our dog’s life (usually because of our own lapses in training), we might need to go back to basics in schooling, potentially including the use of long lines, a more consistent reward schedule, a more diligent application of our original training strategy, and so on.

Learning Is Brainpower

We should never forget that learning is brainpower – a mental workout. Dogs enjoy learning. It also increases the bond between us. A correct strategy can lower arousal and in the long term, it can aid in slowing cognitive decline. There are multiple benefits.

So we need to include lots of mental as well as physical enrichment in our dogs’ daily lives. Many of us choose to incorporate brain games such as hunting, searching, sniffing, seeking, locating by name, and/or chewing activities only when dogs are young and, once again, cease after a year or so.

But dogs still need plenty of brain engagement or they will look for other ways to satiate their mental needs. Ways which may not be quite so welcome!

Enrichment for Life

In my opinion, fun game training and enrichment can and should continue into a dog’s golden years. Owners often say that the dog can no longer run or jump as he used to, or that he has no interest in finding objects or playing, but I am certain there is something that will invigorate his mind if we keep trying.

All of the following activities can be engaged in by more senior dogs, simply sitting or lying in one place or on a nice comfy bed. Just choose a time of day where all is calm and where you both have five minutes to spend together:

  • Teaching the dog to ‘ring the bell’ (pressing a bell with a paw) on cue or push a buzzer.
  • ‘Find the squirrel/bee/hedgehog’ etc. with interactive plush toys.
  • Holding a bone for the dog to chew.
  • ‘Which hand/cup?’ – hiding food under a cup or hand and asking the dog to choose which cup/hand it is placed under.
  • Locating food/toys under a blanket or rolled in a tea towel.
  • Teaching easy tricks, e.g. touch/give a paw/roll over.
  • Teaching the names of several toys and then asking the dog to find by name with toys placed in a circle.
  • Playing ‘fetch’ by gently rolling a ball towards the dog on the ball (no bouncing or throwing).
  • Hiding treats in little boxes and laying out an “obstacle course” for the dog to work through to obtain the rewards.

It is important that we appreciate the true mental capability of our dogs. They are smart creatures and I find that this can be under-appreciated. But if we can invest a little time each day throughout their lives to ensure constant neurological enrichment, then we will be working towards having happier and heathier dogs.

Anna Francesca Bradley MSc BSc (Hons) is a United Kingdom-ebased provisional clinical, certified IAABC animal behavior consultant and ABTC accredited behavior consultant. She owns Perfect Pawz! Training and Behavior Practice in Hexham, Northumberland, where the aim is always to create and restore happy relationships between dog and guardian in a relaxed way, using methods based on sound scientific principles, which are both force-free and fun.

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