Monday, January 9, 2006

Never Too Old to Learn New Tricks

(Disclaimer: I am not a certified trainer or behaviorist, I am sharing what has worked for me and my dogs. I strongly advise all owners of dogs regardless of age to participate in positive dog training classes with certified or proven trainers. You can find trainer in your area by visiting APDT.)

I believe a dog is never too old to learn new tricks. If one of your resolutions, goals or aspirations for the New Year is to teach your puppy or old dog how to behave then you've visited my blog at the right time. Every Monday I'll share an exercise I have used with success on my dogs.

Currently I have three dogs. Wyatt is 15 months old and has been with me the longest and while he has a niggling problem of barking in public and at other dogs on walks he is by far the best behaved. Nine times out of ten I am able to get him focused on me before the barking starts and he's the first one to comply to my commands, he rarely hesitates and if he does all that means is I've let up on training and need to spend a few extra minutes a day with him. Josie is my Beagle/basset mix and she's 13 months old and quite a training challenge. I am still learning how to get her nose off the ground and pay more attention to me, while she's better than a month ago; I still have quite a way to go with her. My newest and oldest addition is Dexter the retired racing greyhound, he presents challenges of his own, he's stubborn and wants to do it his way, but in my home it's My Way and we'll work each day until he gets the message. My Way never includes punishment or negative re-enforcement. I believe in rewarding wanted behaviors and clearly showing my dog what is expected through praise and food rewards. I want my dogs to enjoy being with me, not afraid.

The first thing I work on when bringing a new dog into my home is a marker word. To teach your pup the marker word you'll want to have a handful of high value treats (no kibble here) sit on the floor with your pup and let him smell the treat. Then say, "Yes" and give him the treat. Let him sniff again say "Yes" and treat. Do this about ten consecutive times. Letting him sniff and then using your marker word will help him associate that word with everything he does right. It will also help him associate your hand with yummy treats and all things great!

The second thing I work on with my dogs or any new foster that comes into my home is Name Recognition. Wyatt was easiest because he came to me a blank slate at 7 weeks. After our first night and naming him, I started using his name in a happy voice when I was sure he would respond. I usually did this when I was playing with him. I would say, "Wyatt!" and as soon as he looked toward me I would mark his behavior and then reward him with a piece of kibble (for an older dog you may need a more high value treat than kibble). You can do this exercise anytime you think you have the best chance of helping your dog succeed. If he doesn't respond: leave, ignore him, play with his toys or pretend to eat his treats. Don't wait for him to respond or keep calling his name. When he stops whatever he's doing and gives you his attention with eye contact say your marker word and reward, then say he's name one more time and reward the second he gives you eye contact.  Some places and times I did this was when I was watching TV, cooking dinner or reading. At first I started indoors with little to no distractions and as he improved I added distractions such as moving outside to my backyard, then front yard and finally public places like dog parks and pet supply stores. Be sure you leash your dog whenever you are in an unenclosed area. If you move to your backyard and you're unable to get a look when you call his name, try attaching his leash to restrict his movements. If you are still unable to get him to look when you call his name, then you've moved too quickly, go back to the point where you were getting his attention and start again.

In addition to working on name recognition and your marker word you should introduce the sit command too. This is a fairly easy command to teach. First you’ll want to lure him into the sit position with a treat and no verbal command. To do this, hold the treat slightly above his nose and move it back toward his hindquarters. When he plants his butt on the ground use your marker word and give him the treat. If he jumps at the treat you’re hold it to high above his nose. After say three consecutive sits with the food lure, try doing it without the food. Hold your hand in the same position you did with the food and lure him into a sit. Mark the sit and give the reward with the other hand. Once you have him doing this say nine times out of ten you can add your cue word “sit” along with your hand signal (the position of your hand when you lured him).  At first reward all correct responses, and slowly decrease the rewards until you are only occasionally doling out the treats.

Remember to always stay calm and be consistent and end any training session on a positive note. (Recommended sessions should last at least five minutes and no longer than 15.)

Next Monday I'll tell you about the Zen Game. Until then Woof, Woof and a Roo.

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