Friday, September 4, 2009

Pet Myths: Older Dogs Can't be Trained

Running the dog training program we hold here at HAWS, I have a lot of opportunities to talk to dog owners interested in having their dogs learn better manners. One question I get asked on occasion is, "He's already (5 year, 7 years, 9 years, etc), is it too late to train him". I always assure the owner that indeed their dog is not.

I've written quite a bit about Mystic who accompanies me on many of my HAWS education outings. My other dog is 13 year old Belle, a border collie mix -- possibly with Papillion, that I've had since she was about 8 months old. I don't use her for education programs because she gets over-whelmed with large numbers of kids trying to interact with her.

Despite the fact that she's lost some of her hearing, at 13 years of age Belle is still very agile, and her mind is still as sharp as ever.

Yesterday I held a program here at HAWS with a group of teenage boys. We were talking about dog training, and I announced that I would be bringing Mystic out to do a training demonstration. The boys asked for Belle instead, because they felt sorry for the poor dog that was whining to come out.

So I brought Belle out and did some clicker training with her. She was EXTREMELY pleased to be working, and was so focused on me I don't think she even noticed there were 6 adolescent kids in the room.

Clicker training involves no direction from the trainer, other than a click and a treat when the dog does something the trainer likes. It uses a process called shaping, in that the trainer clicks each small step that leads the dog towards the final desired behavior.

In Belle's case my intention was to train her to lie down with her head on the floor and a paw over her nose - it's something I see her do on occasion. First I was clicking her any time she lay down. Intially she was trying all the previous tricks she had been taught -- sit up, roll-over, crawl, and wave. After she was clicked several times for down it became her most offered behavior.

I then had to get her to rest her head on the floor. She was staring at me so that her head was directed upwards. I clicked anytime she lowered her head a bit, and made sure that the treat was delivered close to the floor.

It took 10 minutes, but finally she was laying down and resting her head on the floor. The next step would be to get that paw to cover her nose, but we ended it there. A good trainer trains a new behavior only a few minutes at a time because dogs actually learn faster that way. And you always end on a good note. I'm not always good at following those rules, but I wanted to make a good impression on the boys.

It was wonderful to see my senior dog have so much enthusiasm for learning after all these years. Both of us had a wonderful time, and I hope the boys learned something about older animals (people included) having value, and being capable of learning.

1 comment:

Lagomorph said...

What a nice story!