Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

June 16, 2009
  • • All dogs have the ability to learn new things, regardless of age or breed
  • • Training is enrichment for the mind
  • • Take into consideration the dog's history, he may never had the chance to practice learning
  • • Start with basic skills, like rewarding for attention or 4 paws on the floor
  • • Patience and a sense of humor are required!

For more information on dog training, no matter how old you pup is, contact Jamie through her website at Animal Sense www.animalsense.com or call (312) 564-4570.

Here are some more training tips from Animal Sense; Jamie also suggests some games to play with your pet, because training does not always have to be all-business:

Positive Training Principles and Tips

Training your dog should be an enjoyable experience for you both. The more you understand about how your dog thinks and learns, the more effectively you can communicate. Clear communication means successful training and good behavior – with no need for force or coercion!

1. Behavior that is rewarded is more likely to reoccur. This powerful principle is a key component of reward-based training. Dogs do what works. If your dog receives praise and a treat for sitting, he is more likely to sit the next time you ask. If he knows that jumping on you will earn your attention, he will keep jumping, because attention is rewarding to him.

2. Dogs learn by association. When training, it is important that the reward closely follow the desired behavior. For example, when teaching your dog to sit, the praise and treat should be given when his rear touches the floor, not after he's stood up again. On the other side of the coin, reprimanding your dog for something he may have done hours ago (e.g., you come home to find your slippers shredded) is pointless. Your dog won't associate your yelling with what he has done, and if it happens enough, he may begin to fear your arrival home, as you are always angry for no reason he can fathom.

3. Reward behaviors you want, rather than punishing behaviors you don't want. Most of us are so accustomed to noticing "mistakes" our dogs make that it seems strange to begin noticing and rewarding "good" behavior. For example, your dog barks, so you yell at him to be quiet. Sure, a barking dog is hard not to notice. But what about when he's lying calmly? Most of never consider rewarding calm behavior, so the dog only gets rewarded with our attention (even yelling is attention) when he is doing something inappropriate. Having been rewarded, of course he keeps doing these things! Make a habit of noticing and rewarding your dog for good behavior.

4. Extinction. If a behavior is ignored, it will eventually extinguish on its own. Imagine you are trying to buy a soda from a vending machine. You drop in your change, press the button, and wait. Nothing happens. You press the button more forcefully, and try a few others as well. Still nothing. You jangle the change lever. No soda, no change. You might even, at that point, shake or kick the machine. Finally, grumbling to yourself, you give up and leave. In this example, the soda-seeking behavior extinguished because there was no payoff, no reward. Kicking or shaking the machine is an example of an extinction burst. What that means with your dog is that if you ignore an unwanted behavior, it will eventually stop (unless it is something that is inherently self-rewarding to the dog, such as digging). But before your dog gives up, the behavior may actually escalate. Recognize the extinction burst for what it is, and wait it out – the behavior will eventually stop, and will stop even sooner the next time around.

5. Positive reinforcement is something the dog wants. Just because you think those expensive new treats are a great reward doesn't mean they are. If your dog turns his nose up at them, they're not much of a reward in his mind. A reward can be petting, verbal praise, a throw of a ball, a quick game with a favorite toy, sniffing grass, saying hello to another dog, etc. The sky's the limit. Consider what your dog finds rewarding, and use it!

6. Jackpot! The jackpot is something really special, head and shoulders above the usual reward. Your dog can earn this amazing prize by doing something especially wonderful. While it is always important to use training treats your dog likes, save the Super-Yummy, Best-Treat-In-The-World as a jackpot. For example, a dog knows what Sit means, but doesn't sit very quickly. When you give the Sit cue, he watches you for a moment, and then languidly lowers his butt to the floor. You almost hear him sigh, "Okay, if I must". But on the fourth repetition, he responds immediately; butt hits the floor in record time. Jackpot! You immediately give him one piece after another of the special treat, along with effusive praise (and petting, if he enjoys it). You can also give a mega-jackpot by tossing a shower of treats. Jackpotting makes an impression – it calls the dog's attention to the fact that he's done something wonderful. He is therefore more likely to perform the behavior better than usual the next time around. A jackpot doesn't have to be food, either. if your dog lives for a toss of the ball or a game of tug, use that as your jackpot. Know your dog and use what works for him.

7. Find an alternate behavior. When you want your dog to stop doing something, give him something else to do that is incompatible with the behavior you don't want. For example: if your dog jumps on you, have him sit instead; he can't sit and jump at the same time. If he chews on furniture, give him an appropriate chew toy instead. Try this: On a piece of paper, draw a vertical line down the center. On the left side, list all the things your dog does that you'd like him to stop doing. On the right, next to each behavior, write down something he could do instead. It's easy!

8. Raise criteria gradually in small increments, building on each success. Simply put, that means don't expect too much too soon. Instead, build small steps to get from Point A to Point B. For example: when teaching your dog to down-stay, start with a three-second down-stay. If that is successful, add two seconds, and so forth. Any time your dog does not perform an exercise correctly, consider whether you have proceeded to quickly. Go back to the point at which your dog was last successful, then build gradually. Setting your dog up to succeed eliminates the need for corrections.

9. If trained correctly, behavior is not contingent on food being present. This is something that many people who are opposed to food-rewarding training don't understand. If you phase treats out gradually and use lots of real-life rewards (petting, games, etc.) as well, your dog will do as asked even when no treats are present. Use lots of treats at first to teach and then practice new behaviors. Eventually, rewards should come fewer and farther between – but they should not stop altogether. You wouldn't want to stop getting paid once you got better at your job, so don't forget to reward at times for a job well done!

10. Training should be fun!

11. Keep training sessions short. 3-5 minutes a few times daily is fine.

12. Focus on one behavior in each session.

13. Keep an upbeat attitude when training. Don't train when you're cranky.

14. End each training session on a successful note. Did your dog do seven good sits, with

the last one being really great? End the session there.

15. Once a new behavior has been learned, incorporate it into your daily routine.

Common Misconceptions about Dog Training

"Training is not natural. This is an animal who should be free to do what he wants."
This is a common and completely misunderstood sentiment. Dogs are naturally social animals, requiring structure and boundary to be happy. "Freedom" entails a lack of rule-structure. This is a frightening, confusing, and unnatural environment for a dog. Lack of structure and social hierarchy leads to a variety of behavioral problems including hyperactivity, excessive barking, overdependence, and even aggression.

"I want my dog to listen to me, but I don't want to be mean to him."
Great! We don't want you to be mean to your dog. Taking charge and being assertive is vastly different from being "mean." Control does not equate to cruelty.

"I've taken him to obedience class, but he's forgotten everything."
Training is a lifelong endeavor. Granted, it takes more time and energy in the beginning to teach the commands, but this must be reinforced on a day-to-day basis. It is best to integrate commands into your dog's daily life. You will find that using simple commands (sit, down, stay, come, and heel) will reinforce appropriate behaviors and discourage inappropriate behaviors.

"He knows what I want."
If he knew what you wanted, he would do it. Dogs are not psychic. Your commands must be clear, they must be taught well, and they must be practiced often.

"I don't have time to train."
Training takes much less time than dealing with a poorly-behaved dog. It is very time-consuming to chase after a runaway dog, clean up shredded papers, repair scratched doors, etc. Invest your time in developing good behaviors instead of contending with bad ones.

"Training is too expensive."
Training can be expensive, but not compared to replacing a pair of shoes, the Oriental rug, the couch cushions, or paying the carpet cleaners for the umpteenth time. Compared to the cost of bad behavior, training is a bargain.

"If I train with food, will my dog work without food? Will food training ruin my relationship with my dog?"
We use food as part of the learning process, first to elicit new behaviors and second to reward for performing the behaviors on cue. Once a new behavior is learned, we teach you how to pair the food reward with praise and then "fade" the food reward, so you rely less on treats and more on praise. We still use treats occasionally to reward well-established behaviors in order to maintain those behaviors. Unlike punishment-based methods, reward-based training with food will not damage your relationship with your dog; to the contrary, your dog will learn quickly to earn good things by complying with your requests.

A Quick Review of the Use of Reward and Punishment in Dog Training

Animal Sense believes strongly and solely in the use of positive training. Unfortunately this method of training is underutilized and often replaced by punitive regimens (screaming, yelling, and even hitting). Positive training consists of rewarding the behavior we want our dogs to repeatedly exhibit. Rewards must be appropriate for the particular dog's interest level. The reward needs to create the optimal level of motivation (i.e. a generous enough salary). Commonly used rewards are food treats, praise, and toys.

Do not be concerned if the initial motivator for a good sit-stay command was the small bit of hotdog rather then your love and admiration. The reward is there to motivate and help create the conditioned response (i.e. you say "sit" and the dog responds by sitting). Rewards must also be given on a timely basis. For example, if you say "sit" and your dog sits for a moment, then gets up and nudges your leg, do not give this behavior a positive reward. If you were to reward your dog at that point, you actually would be providing a positive reinforcement to the nudging, not the sitting.

Displays of anger in any form are NEVER good corrections. They result in a response of fear. A good correction may entail a firm and authoritative manipulation of the leash as you change direction to walk, a loud, quick verbal correction, or even the passive withdrawal of the owner. For example, if your dog jumps up to solicit your attention, an appropriate correction may be to simply to ignore your dog. Successful training can only be accomplished by:

  • • timing your rewards and corrections appropriately
  • • being consistent in your cues, rewards and corrections
  • • making training enjoyable and interesting for both you and your dog
  • • having the patience to succeed

Fun and Games Tricks and More to Play with Your Dog!

Is your dog a budding pet star? Here are some fun tricks and skills to get you started!

Start with your dog in a sit. Hold a treat in your hand, in front of your dog. When your dog paws your fist, say "yes" and give the treat. – OR - Start with your dog in a sit. Hold a treat in your hand, close to your dog's nose. Move the treat slowly to one side so the dog is slightly off balance. When your dog lifts his paw, gently grasp paw with your hand, say "yes" and give the treat. After several repetitions, add verbal cue "shake" when dog offers paw and say "yes"/give treat. Then try it with an empty hand and ask for "shake." Say "yes"/give treat when your dog offers his paw. For an advanced version, teach "left" and "right" – no "yes"/treat if dog uses "wrong" paw – and make sure you are using the dog's left and right!

Stand with your dog at your side and give the cue for "shake" – but hold your hand higher than normal. Say "yes" and give a treat when your dog raises his paw even a little. Over several repetitions, slowly move your hand higher. Now try putting out your hand without saying "shake." Say "yes" and give a treat if your dog lifts his paw off the floor even a little. Start saying the cue "wave" at the same time as your dog lifts his paw, then give a treat. With practice, you can give the cue "wave" and your dog will lift his paw – then you say "yes" and give a treat.

Hold a treat in your hand, close to your dog's nose. Move the treat around in a small circle towards dog's tail, keeping treat at dog's head level. When your dog spins around, say "spin" and give treat. After several repetitions, use cue "spin" and hand movement to get the spin, and treat. Keep in mind that some dogs like to spin in a particular direction! Advanced version: "spin" for one direction and "twirl" for the other.

Start from a down position. Hold treat in front of dog's nose and slowly move it forward, keeping treat low to encourage dog to crawl forward. When you get even a small amount of forward movement, say "crawl" and give the treat. Progress to more and more movement before saying "crawl" and treating. Fade away food lure and use hand motion to initiate movement. Finally, add the verbal cue "crawl" before the movement.

Roll Over
Start from a down position. Hold treat in front of dog's nose and move to one side, so dog is laying on one hip. Hold treat in front of dog's nose and move treat so that dog's head is looking at dog's side (side facing up). Move treat over dog's belly so that dog rolls onto back and over to other side. Use praise ("yes!") and treats to shape the final behavior by degrees, i.e., praise and treats for turning head, for rolling onto back, and eventually for rolling onto other side. When behavior is complete, introduce verbal cue "roll over" or "over" at end of behavior. Progress to fading food lure and using only hand movement with praise and treats plus verbal cue at end, then introduce verbal cue before behavior and treat at end.

"Finish" is a flashy way for your dog to move from a front position (sitting squarely in front of you) into a heel position (sitting at your left side). Start with your dog in a front position. Hold a treat in your left hand, close to your dog's nose. Take a step back with your left foot and turn your body slightly to your left.. Slowly move your left hand out from your dog's nose in a semicircle so that your dog walks to your left and slightly behind you, then turns towards you and ends up at your left side, facing in the same direction as you are. Hold the treat just at your dog's head and move slightly back so dog sits at your left side (heel position). Say "finish" and reward with treat.

In the beginning, focus on the overall movement and don't worry if your dog is crooked when sitting in heel position (for example). Once your dog understands the overall behavior, you can fine tune it by only rewarding the straighter sits and ignoring the crooked sits (for example). If your dog is reluctant to follow the treat, try asking for a "touch," offering verbal encouragement, or gently using your leash to guide your dog through the movement. After several repetitions, repeat as above using the hand signal without a treat. With practice you can gradually reduce your hand and leg movement to a minimum.

Start with your dog in the down position. Use a treat to lure your dog to lay on his or her side and then say "yes" and give a treat. After several repetitions, add the word "bang" once dog is in position, then say "yes" and give a treat. Move on to hand signal only (no treat) to get dog into position, then say "bang" and say "yes" and give a treat. Once your dog is reliably flopping over, try starting from the sit position and using your hand signal to get the dog into the flopped-over down, then say "bang" and say "yes" and give a treat. Our goal is to have this become one fluid movement from sit and even stand. Advanced version: add a tragic head pose to the flopped-over position, or possibly a paw raised in the air – if your dog offers something like this, say "yes" and give a treat and run with it!

Take a Bow
From a stand position, hold a treat in your hands and lure your dog's head towards the floor. When your dog is in the bowing position (head down and tail in the air), say "yes" and give a treat. If your dog has trouble keeping his hind end in the air, you can (a) gently touch under his belly or (b) encircle his waist with a loose leash and gently pull upward while you are luring his front end to the floor. Once your dog can get in the bowing position, say "bow" before giving the treat. Work up to asking for a "bow" then saying "yes" and giving a treat.

Zig-Zag Through Your Legs
Put your foot up on a chair and ask your dog to go "through" your leg – when he does, say "yes" and give a treat. Practice until your dog is comfortable with this. Next, with your dog on your left and a treat in your right hand, take a large step forward with your right foot. Hold the treat under your right leg and ask the dog to go "through" from your left to right. Repeat with dog on your right, stepping forward with your left leg, holding the treat under your left leg and asking for a "through." Each time, say "yes" and give a treat.

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