You can teach an old dog new tricks

Tips for teaching dogs of all ages from Gastineau Humane Society trainers

Sit. Stay. Read.


If we are to believe the old adage, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ and sometimes it may seem like you can’t teach a young one, either.

Gastineau Humane Society Kennel Manager and Trainer Marcia Miller has good news for you,

“They can learn young and they can learn old,” Marcia said. “I think the older ones and the younger ones require a little more time or, not so much more time, but maybe shorter training. You know, if they’re higher energy, they require shorter training sessions, because they get bored.”

The key to making a training session of any length successful is for the dog to feel successful.

Trainer and groomer Linda Miller Reeder said, “A big part of training is keeping it short and easy for the dogs, you want to set them up to succeed.”

“If you try to attempt something too difficult and they’re going to fail, it’s just not going to work. Start with something easy and let them succeed, they’ll learn a lot quicker that way,” Linda said.

Linda also recommends keeping the pace changing, like when working with kids, she said.

Training sessions are important, but it’s also a lifestyle. Marcia likes to say, “Nothing in life is free.”

“That would be, they have to sit before they eat and wait before you get the food all the way to the ground. If it doesn’t get all the way to the ground and their butt starts going up, you start raising the food really slowly, and then they get it and they start sitting and the bowl starts going down again. Same for going out a door. The reward for that would be getting out the door. Put them in a sit, start opening the door, and if they move, start closing the door,” Marcia said.

This can take time, sometimes a few minutes to get out the door with some dogs. It does have to end sometime, and Marcia said she’ll provide the reward — an open door — as soon as the dog’s butt hits the floor.

Sometimes it is necessary to reward almost-successes.

Almost-successes are a big part of luring or shaping behavior, which is one way dogs learn. The other is by capturing behaviors. Important to both methods is having some sort of reward timed for exactly as the behavior happens. Remember Pavlov’s dog salivating at a bell ring? You can train good behaviors by offering rewards when the dog does something you like.

At the GHS, clicker training is preferred, though Marcia suggested vocal cues can also be effective.

She recommends using a short, quick word that the dog doesn’t hear that often, like “Yes!”

Pair that with treats — small ones.

“Tiny treats because they’ll get fat. They don’t care how much they’re getting, just that they’re getting it,” Marcia said.

Once they get a trick or behavior down, treats can come sporadically, but during training, the treats do wonders to motivate.

Capturing behavior occurs when a dog is rewarded for something they do on their own.

A behavior Marcia said is important is ‘look,’ which focuses a dog’s attention.

“At home, sitting on the couch, if they look you in the eyes — not the food, not your hand, they look at your eyes — and it’s usually a split second so it’s hard to catch, but just click and give a treat, and they start wondering why they’re getting it, they tie it to the click, it creates a muscle memory and a memory for them,” Marcia said.

To lure the behavior, Marcia offered this advice: “You can put your index finger on your nose and when they look at you, click, treat.”

“When they get that down,” Marcia said, “Everywhere they’re distracted, do it outside, do it in the back yard, do it on the sidewalk, until they get it down, then you can add your cue word, ‘look.’ That will get them to look at you when they’re distracted by something and you need them to look at you.”

The most important tricks to train your dog in aren’t tricks necessarily — though dancing dogs are cute — but behaviors for the safety of the dog.

‘Sit’ and ‘stay’ are good for keeping a dog from running out a door or out of a car, to keep the dog from into traffic, for example.

‘Leave it,’ Marcia said, is great for keeping dogs safe on trails. If your dog and a bear want the same piece of salmon, you want your dog to leave it.

“If you’re trying to get your dog to ignore something, you need to have something they want even more. If you get a good ‘leave it’ command, that can be great, but when you ask them to leave it, they’re coming back to you for something, either a toy or a treat,” Linda said, “You need to be the most exciting thing in the world.”

“If they’re really in there,” Linda said, “You can take a treat and put it right by his nose and lure him a way. You can also use your body to block.”

Polite greetings made Marcia’s list of important commands.

“If they jump on a person who’s elderly and that person falls down — yeah, polite greetings,” Marcia said.

For those commands that you really want your dog to know and know well, Marcia recommended using the highest value treats.

“If you’re training something that is one of your more difficult things you want them to do, and the behavior you want, get your highest value treat and don’t use it for anything else, just use it for those times,” Marcia said.

At GHS, they do most of their training on leash.

Ideally, Marcia said, you train for verbal cues and visual cues for behaviors, and you train those separately. She likes to be able to communicate with the dog when they can’t necessarily hear you. At GHS they have a short training window, so they train simultaneously.

Training sessions are great ways to focus and to teach a command in a relatively short period of time, matching a verbal or visual cue with the desired behavior, but training, Linda reminds, is part of a lifestyle.

“In training, five minutes a day, three times a day is great, but you have to understand it’s a lifestyle, you have to train your dog to live with you the way you want him to be. While sessions one at a time are great, just keep in mind all day, when you go through a door, have him sit. Feed them dinner, have them sit. Have it be a part of your day throughout,” Linda said, “You can go to class once a week and you train, but what happens when you leave? You have to make it a part of every day.”

Don’t get discouraged if your dog is difficult to train.

“Keep it simple for yourself, too,” Linda said, “It’s more difficult to train some dogs than others, different dogs have different issues. Be patient with yourself and the dog, if you’re getting frustrated, take a deep breath, roll your shoulders, walk away for a few minutes — keep it positive for you.”

She also recommends asking for help — there are a lot of training resources in town, she said.

Marcia encourages pet owners, especially those who adopted through GHS, to call them with questions or training problems.

“We’ll talk, make recommendations,” she said.

GHS does offer training, both private, one-on-one sessions and group lessons with Training on Trails class. Issues addressed at ToT are loose-leash walking, dealing with distractions, making friendly passes, meeting new dogs and people, recall, sit/stay commands and more. The one-on-one sessions are for pets who need training assistance for specific issues.

Marcia recommends reading, as well. Her favorite authors are Sophia Yin and Patricia McConnell, both authors carried at GHS.

“Clicking With Your Dog is my bible,” Marcia said. She recommends it because it has clear illustrations, so the whole family can be part of training. Marcia said you can get friends in on it too.

Training is a life-long pursuit — dogs of any age can learn new tricks, and they may need refreshers.

“My boxer, he’s 8 1/2 and we train all the time and he can still be such a stinker. He goes to class and he’s great, but we’ll go on a walk and he’ll see a dog and we’ll still have those instances that are just, ‘Oh, for shame.’ It’s a life-long thing and I think it’s part of the joy,” Linda said.

Perfect pets don’t come easy, but take heart, even old dogs can learn new tricks. And there is plenty of help out there.


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