My husband and I consider ourselves to be experienced dog owners. We celebrated our pup’s 4th birthday this spring and to be completely honest, she is a dream. One thing I have noticed about most dogs though is that they never seem to behave as well when other people are around. I find myself saying, “I swear she’s usually so calm when it’s just us,” pretty often when we have people over, and I hear it all the time when I’m visiting the homes of fellow dog owners.
We first brought our dog home when she was very young. She was 6 weeks old to be exact. And for months, I was in full-on doggie training mode. I knew exactly how I wanted her to behave and I did all the research to learn the best way to teach her certain skills. She knows to come when we call. She doesn’t eat her food until we say so. And she even did really well with “leave it” from a very young age, which is crucial when you have kid’s toys lying about. When our dog was about 4 months old, we transitioned from apartment living to owning our very own home. I think this is when the training stage stopped and for some reason (busyness can probably be to blame) we just decided that she was fine how she was.
Now, with a wonderful, loving dog at the ripe age of four, two puppies have come into our lives and have got us questioning our own dog’s behavior. No, we did not get two puppies, but my parents who live just down the road did. These puppies are a large mix breed and were much older than our dog when we brought her home. Our best guess is they were 12 weeks old with some pretty stubborn habits. As a result, my parents took training very seriously straight away.
The arrival of these puppies made us realize two things. Firstly, there were certain behaviors that they had that were really annoying to us as ‘guests,’ such as getting all up in your business every time you sit on the couch and jumping up to love on you when you least expect it. My husband and I realized that our dog does the same thing. She may listen to us when we tell her to, “go lay down,” but our houseguests are not always so well-respected. The other realization happened when I offered to keep each puppy one day a week for my parents to help them with their separation (from each other) anxiety. There were tons of very useful tricks and commands that my parents had taught their dogs out of necessity (because there are two of them) that we had never even considered teaching our dog.
So my husband and I found ourselves asking the age-old question...can you really teach an old dog new tricks? It was not only out of a desire to have a well-behaved and lovable dog, but I realized that if my parents’ dogs were spending time with me every week, they probably wouldn’t want me undoing all of their expensive training.
When you approach training your grown dog a new trick or command, don’t think of it as all that different than when you trained your pup the first time around. Consider the following tips to make sure you find success rather than frustration in altering your dog’s behavior.
Dedicate some time. If you have read any literature or watched any youtube videos on training, you already know that consistency and repetition is key. If you want to change your dog’s behavior when it comes to going out back, you will probably need to let your dog out back more often than you usually do. Schedule some time to work on a certain command or trick and do it as many times as you can within that time.
Use what you know about your dog. If you’ve had your dog for a while, you probably have a good understanding of what rewards your dog responds to the best. If your dog thinks that verbal praise and physical touch is the best thing on Earth, you can probably use that to your advantage. Training a dog that you already have a tight bond with can be way more relaxed than training a new puppy.
Don’t rule out rewards. If you expect your dog to listen to you just because you're the Alpha, you may find yourself getting frustrated by trying to change their behavior. Even the most owner-pleasing dog cannot perform a task if they don’t know what it is. Use treats, dog food, always paired with physical and verbal praise to make sure your dog associates your new command with the action they are doing.
Back to basics. If it’s been several years since your last training session with your dog, you may need to remind them what it means for you to be holding yummies in your hand while asking them to do something. I don’t know about you, but we definitely don’t give our 4-year-old dog a treat every time she sits. Spend some time reminding your dog that you will reward them when they do what you ask, even if it’s just the basics like sit, stay, or come.
This may also be necessary if you’ve adopted or rescued an older dog. Try to get an idea of what they already know by starting with the basic skills. In addition, you are showing your new dog the type of relationship you want to have: good behavior = reward. You never know what a rescue dog’s past experiences are when it comes to training and commands, so make sure that you offer tons of praise and walk away if you become frustrated.
Consider your location. Something to consider whether you are training a new puppy or a seasoned pooch is if your dog can translate a skill to another location. For example, my dog does not push past me to run out the back door at my house, but when we visit my parents' house, where there is a pool in the back, it’s a whole different story. Set your dog up for success by planning for occasions like this. If your dog has spent the last several years pushing past you on their way to the water, keep her on a leash, or open the door in a way where they can’t run by until they’ve heard and met your command. Having treats ready-in-hand is always helpful too.
Don’t forget about front door training too. Once your dog has mastered a command, take it to the next level. Your dog will rise to meet your expectations and if you never attempt to train your dog on front door manners, they will never develop them on their own.
Run the distraction test. Once you believe your dog has acquired the desired new behavior, make sure to continue the training process with some purposeful distractions. A skill that can only be performed with zero distractions is worth nothing. This is still part of training so keep your treats and/or rewards handy. A distraction like a rabbit in the yard or your dog’s favorite neighbor coming down the sidewalk acts as a reward in itself, so you must have something enticing to keep your dog’s attention on the task at hand.
Make sure everyone gets the memo. If you have multiple people living in your house, it is important to make it clear to everyone about the behaviors you expect from your dog. If you require your dog to sit before going out, but your husband, your teenager, and your mother-in-law do not enforce it, you will be wasting your precious time. Show the people who live with and care for your dog how you are training them and exactly what to say so that your dog has clear and consistent expectations.
This tip became very obvious to me on the first day that I kept one of my mom’s puppies. I knew that she made them wait before going out but I never thought to listen to or ask what she said. As I opened the back door, her dog perfectly waited and looked up at me for permission to go out. I said, “Go!” and nothing happened. I said, “Let’s go!” and still nothing happened. The door was open and this dog was just staring at me and I had no idea how to get her to go outside. Finally, I tried, “Okay.” and it worked but it could have been a really rough day if I hadn’t figured it out. This showed me that my parents are extremely consistent in their use of, “okay,” when signaling their dog to go outside.
Whatever you do, don’t lose your patience. Introducing a new skill to an older dog can be confusing and stressful for both of you. If your dog’s first experience with recall is followed 5 minutes later with you shouting and locking them in their kennel, they are not going to be eager to work on that with you again. If you feel yourself losing control of your temper, ask your dog to do something you know they will be successful at, reward them, and call it a day. Negative reactions can undo many hours of dedicated training time, so even if you scheduled an hour and only made it through 5 minutes, you will be saving yourself lots of time by taking a break rather than pushing forward when you are too frustrated.
Whether you want a well-behaved dog for when company is over, or if your dog’s annoying behaviors have driven you up the wall, you can absolutely find success in training your old dog new tricks. Use the bond you have with your dog to your advantage. Your dog loves you and wants to please you no matter what. If you are well-prepared and take the necessary time, your dog will absolutely meet your expectations and might even impress you along the way.
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