Old Dogs

and new tricks

Teaching old dogs new tricks*

Training your dog (or cat, bird or ferret for that matter) has many benefits to both you and your pet. Some of these benefits are obvious, for example teaching your dog to come when you call can save it from being hit by a car as it bolts towards a busy road. Others may be less apparent at a glance, for example the way that a positive training session can strengthen the bond between pet and owner and provide important mental stimulation for the both of you

Despite what the age-old saying may have you believe, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks and for the reasons above (and many others) it is well worth your while to do so. Once you understand the principles of training you will find that with careful consideration, practice and perseverance, you will be able to teach your dog to do anything you like, provided that it is within his physical capabilities

Good trainers now rely on positive reinforcement as their method of teaching. In a nutshell this involves rewarding a desired behaviour (e.g. a ‘sit’) so that it occurs more often in future. While, the principles of teaching through positive reinforcement are quite simple they are by no means intuitive. Without some basic instruction in the use of these methods, it is all too easy for a training session to end with the trainer frustrated and angry, and the puppy confused or even scared. For this reason we recommend a course of puppy preschool followed by a course of training classes with a suitably qualified trainer (e.g. Delta accredited) to start you and your new puppy off on the right foot (or paw, as it were) - ask at reception for further information

Regular training sessions should not stop as soon as your new puppy graduates from his first series of training classes. Once you have an understanding of how to teach your dog the simple things (sit, stay, come etc.), the benefits of training can be maintained throughout his life if you continue to teach your adult dog new tricks at home, or at least practice the old ones. Many owners lament how their puppy would always come when they called but now that he’s grown up he only comes when he feels like it. In many cases, this is because the reinforcement (reward) for the behaviour has stopped. While it is not essential to reward your dog with a food treat every time he does the right thing, you must not forget to reward occasionally (a variable reinforcement schedule) or else your dog will quickly learn that it is no longer worth complying with your requests. Consider the way that poker machines pay out at variable intervals to maintain interest

As suggested in my opening sentence, the principles above do not apply only to dogs. Through positive reinforcement you can teach your cat to sit, your cocky to shake hands or even teach your husband to put the toilet-seat down. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and the physical abilities of your subject.
For more information on training through positive reinforcement, I highly recommend Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor

By Dr Ken Baker*