Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

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Jack - day one

Jack – day one

A few days ago, our friend Kimberly over at Keep the Tail Wagging posted about being a dog parent and the things you learn about dogs in the midst of parenting them. We’ve had five dogs in our life and even more if you count the dogs we each had growing up. My grandfather actually raised dogs – collies – back many years ago, so you could say I have a lot of experience.

But I have to admit I was somewhat unprepared for SlimDoggy Jack and Maggie our two most recent additions. At the core of my unpreparedness (is that a word?) was the prejudgements I’ve made about my breed of choice – Labrador Retrievers. Labs are happy-go-lucky, overtly friendly, lover of all things playful…right? Well, I learned the fallacy of that thinking. I’ve written about Maggie previously in our Tale of Tails series, so today I’m going to write about Jack.

We knew from the start Jack was going to be a handful – first off his size was a clue – 105 lbs of big strong male Labrador. The fact he was on Prozac for ‘behavior’ issues should have been another clue. But I was blinded by love. He was a big handsome yellow – just what I’d wanted! But, I will admit he almost went back to the shelter a couple of times those first few weeks.

He was a terribly anxious guy. We got a crate for him so that we could use it if necessary – our Becca was still alive then and she was somewhat fragile due to her spinal issues, so we had to make sure he wouldn’t accidentally knock her down – that could have been catastrophic for her. He would lie in his crate panting like a freight train. His size, exuberance & anxiety made him like the bull in a china shop and he seemed to be constantly underfoot. Within 2 days, I knew I was out of my league as far as training him. I’d never had an anxious dog, so we called in a dog trainer. Luckily, Pete (the trainer) worked with the shelter we got Jack from and had some prior knowledge of Jack. He also provided a bit more background and reported that Jack had been a heavy barker and digger…two behaviors we have not seen any evidence of in his time with us.

We had already started exercising him more to try and burn off some of that pent up energy, but we really wanted to wean him off the Prozac and get him to mind his manners and relax in our laid back household. Pete was a godsend and helped us over the immediate hurdles. One of his first recommendations – a simple sheet draped over his crate to give it more of an enclosed feeling worked wonders. We worked for several weeks with Pete and got Jack to the point were he didn’t counter surf or sofa lounge and he would listen to us at least about 85% of the time – as long as there was no more interesting distraction. We’d at least reached the goal of a peaceful and laid back household.

Don’t get me wrong – Jack has had issues – he’s wary of people and still doesn’t like strangers and he really doesn’t take kindly to strangers petting him. That’s hard for some people to understand…yes he’s a big ‘ole Lab…but he doesn’t love everybody, so please don’t try to pet him on top of his head or hug him! He’s unpredictable with other dogs – and by that I mean, sometimes he’s interested, sometimes he ignores them! He’s never been aggressive, so I guess its just what mood he’s in whether he wants to sniff or be left alone. (He pretty much ignores Maggie – a token sniff once in awhile, but otherwise she doesn’t exist…much to her dismay as she loves her big brother).

What about the teaching of new tricks?

The question at the top of the page is whether you can teach an old dog new tricks? We got Jack when he was 8 – after a year in a shelter. He had some obvious behavioral issues and character flaws. Could I teach him to be a house dog with proper manners? I’m glad to say the answer is absolutely YES! The tactics we used on Jack were completely different than the tactics I used with our puppy Sally or our rescue Tino or Becca. They were much easier and more much more malleable. Becca had been a service dog in her previous life, so she had wonderful manners. Sally & Tino were youngsters, so they didn’t come to us with a suitcase full of bad habits like Jack.

In my opinion, there are three keys to training a dog (Note: I am NOT a certified dog trainer, so don’t quote me on any of this stuff, these are just my opinions!)

  1. Find their motivator. Usually it’s food and with Jack, food is like air…he will run through fire for a piece of carrot.
  2. Consistency. You need to pick your key commands and use them consistently every time, without fail. It’s how they will learn what is expected. Consistency around the amount of time spent on training is critical too – it needs to be an everyday thing, especially when first starting out. After a while, you can slow it down, but continue to use the commands and expect the same behavior all the time. As soon as you stop training, they stop learning.
  3. Love them and praise them. I truly think one of the reasons Jack has been fairly easy to get under control is because he loves us. After being in a shelter for a year (albeit well cared for – if maybe overfed) he loves and appreciates his new life. He gets 2 square meals a day and treats as his waistline allows. He gets exercised every single day, usually multiple times. He has a beautiful acre yard where he can come and go as he please…with lots of critters to sniff and chase. And most of all, he has us, who love him back.

I could write tons more about the techniques we use with Jack & Maggie and probably will over time. We’ve worked with a couple of different trainers, which I think has been very helpful because you get different tips and insights from each of them. We just started clicker training and Jack seems to love it, but it could just be the treats.

I’m proud to say that Jack has developed into a pretty happy-go-lucky, loving Labrador as I originally wanted, but it hasn’t been without some pain and some frustration. He still has along way to go to be as socialized as our other dogs were, but he is eager to please us…and there’s always the food.

Tell us about your experiences training your dogs – what’s worked? What hasn’t worked? Do you use a trainer? What do you think of clicker training?



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  1. This is a great post and your 3 keys to training a dog are absolutely right on the mark…Sharing this one
    GizmoGeodog recently posted…Florida Dog Art Festival–Mostly Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    • Thanks Gizmo!

  2. I agree with Gizmo…you are right on the mark (at least that’s what my totally non-professional self says). Consistency and constant reinforcement are key.
    Sage recently posted…I Must Be Living Right!My Profile

    • I’m not a professional either, but I play one on the internet 😉

  3. Thanks for the mention! One thing that astounds me is how unnecessary it is to treat our dogs when we’re training them. Giving them loads of love and affection when they do right works just as well. I love it when they do something right and come to me for a hug and not a treat.
    Kimberly, The Fur Mom recently posted…A Mastiff Blog | Switching Your Dogs to a Raw Diet; a 1, 2, 3 PlanMy Profile

    • I love that feeling too. We are in the weaning off the treats mode now as I tend to agree with you.

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