Can old dogs learn new tricks? | Peak Pets

Though training methods vary based on a dog’s age, you certainly can teach an old dog new tricks.

Pet training, regardless of age, is not just about the following directions. It’s about cultivating good behavior.

“I think it may be for many folks, training means just teaching a dog to be ‘obedient,’ or to reliably respond to certain verbal cues. Believe it or not, obedience does not necessarily translate to well-behaved or happy dogs,” said Krissi Goetz of Jackson Hole Positive Training, a self-declared “dog dork.”

Goetz has been in the area since the early 1990s, and she’s been in one form of pet care or another since then. She was a volunteer shelter, helped start the Animal Adoption Center and then founded its training and behavior program in 2006. Two years later she came on board as a trainer at Positive Training. She’s also a volunteer and coordinator for Western Border Collie Rescue and a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

She said it’s important to realize the many aspects influencing a dog’s behavior: genetics, learning history, environment, age and stage of development, health and physiology, stress and pain levels.

“And who they are as an individual, the emotional states of the people and dogs around them. We should consider all of these when we are working with dogs,” Goetz said. “It’s what makes working in the field of behavior so interesting to me, but it also makes things much more complex,”

She also recognizes that dogs have personalities and that needs to be considered.

“Some challenges stem from unrealistic expectations [in training], trying to fit a square peg of a dog into a round hole,” she said. “Dogs are as individual and varied as people. They are not all just the same creature/set of behaviors in different packaging that we can quickly ‘program’ to behave in a certain way.”

One example of how personality and training intersect is where you take your dog for exercise. Not every dog ​​needs to be with other dogs.

“It’s a common misconception that all dogs should enjoy playing with other dogs,” she said. “Not all dogs are social butterflies and enjoy playing and interacting with dogs they have only just met, while for some the dog park is a lifesaver.”

It really depends on the dog’s needs, not the pet owner’s expectations, Goetz said.

“For puppies the primary focus should be on teaching the world is a good, safe place at whatever pace they need, and that they share their lives with trustworthy people who can read their signs of discomfort, intervene, and keep them feeling safe.” she said.

At “teenagerdom,” she said, facilitating positive experiences should continue but teenage dogs are undergoing lots of brain changes, which translates to having stronger emotional reactions that can result in being less attentive to their people and regressing in skills.

“They are just like their human counterparts, so more understanding, patience, and increased management is usually required for teenaged dogs,” Goetz said. “Once dogs reach the adult stage doesn’t mean learning ends. Learning is lifelong, just like with people.

“Like us, dogs learn from each experience and interaction that they have, so sometimes new undesirable behaviors develop, or old desirable habits become less solid, or we just want to teach something new. The brain is much more plastic than we originally thought, so yes, adult dogs can absolutely learn new skills and ways of being.”

When it comes to adoption, Goetz feels there’s nothing different about a “rescued” dog than any other dog when it comes to training. They learn the same way and their behavior depends on influences just as a dog that is not a rescue.

“The focus would depend on what phase of life they are in and how confident they are in general, what they struggle with and what they excel at, and what will be beneficial for them to learn in their new life. But all newly adopted dogs need time to get their feet back under them. Transitions are hard on even the most confident of them,” she said.

Goetz explained that the best thing you can do for a newly adopted dog is to let it quietly adjust to life and get to know it, without the additional pressure of taking the dog to complex social circumstances.

“Cache Creek, the dike, barbecues, Home Depot, the dog wash, unnecessary vet visits. Newly adopted dogs already have enough stress in their upgraded lives with whatever happened to land them in rescue,” she said.

They are getting to know the new humans in their lives and their new routine. Taking it slowly is imperative and that can take a few weeks, or longer.

As with all dogs, patience is the most important tool a pet owner can have.

“The best thing for a newly adopted dog — provided it’s over 12 weeks old — is to keep things quiet for several weeks or more. Walk in quiet places and don’t have a lot of people over. It’s a priority to help a dog feel safe, learn about who he is, and work on skills like house training, confinement training, and time alone,” she said.

At Jackson Hole Positive Training the philosophy is to integrate an understanding of behavioral influences, and then use the gentlest force-free tactics to enact behavior change, Goetz said.

“Since habits are neural pathways formed in the brain through repetition, allowing your dog to practice things you don’t want is basically ‘training’ them to do exactly those things — whether it is jumping up on people, chasing cars or barking wildly when someone passes by the house,” she said. “Management means using tools and foresight to prevent our dogs from having the opportunity to practice undesirable behaviors, and it’s just as important, if not more important than teaching the dog an alternative behavior.”

Many of the tactics used in the “positive reinforcement training” toolbox mirror the science behind the “learning quadrant.” Goetz said the best place to begin learning about positive reinforcement is on the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s website.

“For many dogs you can just use the kibble or whatever you’d be feeding them anyway if food motivates them, and you can spice up that kibble in a variety of ways if you need to. It’s a common misconception that positive reinforcement training is all about food,” she said. “Many different things motivate dogs — toys, access to other dogs, attention from people, feeling safe.”

For all stages of training, Goetz recommends a front-clip, no-pull harness, which she said can decrease pulling on a leash, making walking the dog more enjoyable and facilitating more opportunities for regular exercise.

Goetz is piloting a new initiative with Aska’s Animals Foundation in Victor, Idaho, for pet owners who are not able to meet the financial commitment of regularly offered training programs.

“We recently launched the Canine Behavior Support Program for those in need of financial support to attain behavioral services with their dogs,” she said. “No matter where the dog came from, they can now access those services for free.”

There is also a monthly behavior workshop at Aska’s Animals. Registration is online at AskasAnimals.org. 

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