“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
We rarely tap into the fullness of a dog’s mental capacity during his or her lifetime. And, as with humans, it’s beneficial to start learning early and continue perfecting new skills throughout life.
My own dog, Stuart, a 6-year-old bull terrier, does some very entertaining behaviors and tricks. He does them so well, in fact, that it’s tempting to just keep doing the same ones over and over. Sometimes, it feels like he tries to communicate, “We’ve done that, now what?”
Stuart occasionally initiates new behaviors on his own. Months ago, he started bringing me shoes and magazines. I hadn’t taught him to do this, but I enjoyed it, so I’d exchange a treat for the offered shoe or magazine. I gave these objects names: “shoes” and “magazine.” Now he brings them to me when I ask for them by name. I’m now expanding his vocabulary by adding and naming new objects.
When folks inquire about whether their dog is too old or too young for one of our classes, I’m sometimes surprised at their perception of age. We encourage owners to enroll puppies in Head Start Puppy Class when they’re as young as 8 weeks old. Remember, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”
The oldest dog we’ve enrolled in our basic Family Dog Training class was a 13-year-old Australian shepherd named Charlotte. Charlotte stayed at home when her owner, Heather, went to college. After college and marriage, Heather wanted to reconnect with Charlotte.
Charlotte seemed distant and not as interested in life as she used to be. With training, Charlotte’s demeanor brightened noticeably. She was more engaged with her family and lived a good many more active years.
Training is bonding and stimulates the brain. Charlotte was the star of her class.
We’d surely have trouble finding homes for many shelter dogs if adolescent or adult dogs (approximately 5 months to 2 years old) couldn’t learn new things. Teaching a dog to be part of a family requires ongoing training.
Trick training usually begins with “sit,” “down,” “come here” or “stay.” These are “foundation” behaviors, formerly called “commands.” As with all of our training, we use lots of positive reinforcement, including treats.
Our emotional state of mind changes when we’re teaching tricks. We’re not so serious. We think it’s more fun. Consequently, it’s more fun for our dog. Training is a lifelong process that keeps strengthening our relationship with our family dog. Don’t let your relationship grow stale — keep it fresh.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training with more than 25 years of experience.