It’s Spring and now that the snow has melted (for most of us), many would-be dog owners are turning their attention to rescue lists, shelters and breeders. As i look at my own dog, a 10 year old Labrador Retriever named Lincoln curled up on the couch next to me, I cannot help but think about the time when she will no longer be around enlightenment movies. Who will come after her? I find myself vacillating back and forth between pup or older dog, pure bred or mixed breed. Though I may be unclear about which direction I would go in choosing a dog, I know for certain which skills that I would like to teach my new dog-any dog for that matter, be she young or old.
Before I go into what I would consider my top five skills for dogs, I think it’s important to understand some of the things that may influence how you teach a particular skill. Factors such as age, confidence, physical limitations, and motivation will each play a part in how you train. Let’s address each one of these factors individually. Puppies are blank slates and have had less time to rehearse and commit to unwanted behaviors. You can have real influence on a puppy by insuring that he or she has the continued opportunity to interact with other puppies and dogs after they leave their litter and by purposefully introducing them to as many sights, sounds and smells as you can (in a non threatening way) to help to create a confident, social animal. By managing their environment, you can keep unwanted behaviors from happening in the first place. But a puppy can be tough. They have limited concentration, they chew and eliminate indiscriminately and they require lots and lots of attention.
If you choose to adopt an older dog, you may have to spend some time resolving and managing problem behaviors first. Your ability to socialize a dog beyond its “critical period” (to 12 weeks) is limited, so while you may be able to influence somewhat your dog’s confidence, pretty much what you see is what you get. But unlike puppies an older dog may already have progressed through their super destructive chew period and with proper supervision should have the capacity to be easily housetrained.
Doing so will insure that you both make it through this time happy and whole. Learning is stressful. Keep an eye on your dog while training and watch for signs of stress – yawning, bows, scratching in the middle of a training session, shake-offs (like the dog is trying to shake off water). These behaviors don’t necessarily indicate that your dog is unduly traumatized by learning, in fact, there is a good type of stress (called eustress) that actually enhances learning. Distress, the bad kind of stress, is what you are trying to avoid.
You can do that by keeping your training sessions short (three to five minutes for newbies). Raise your criteria gradually, for example, if you are working on a down-stay with the dog alone in the kitchen and you are asking for a 30 second stay, if you bring the dog outdoors to work on a stay understand this context will be much more difficult for the dog to perform in. Perhaps you work on a 5 second stay to begin with. Don’t make things so difficult for your dog that he gives up. Set your dog up to be successful. The mores successes your dog has under his doggy belt, the more confident he will become. You will see an animal that loves learning and will therefore be more inclined to work for you even in the most difficult kind of situations. Avoiding stress will keep your dog engaged in the training process. A dog’s capacity to perform certain tasks can be limited by physical impairments. Limitations such as deafness and blindness would be obvious impediments (but not insurmountable, by the way) but something like advanced age or lameness or injury may also inhibit certain behaviors or the capacity to process information. With an older dog you may need to modify your expectations. Does advanced age prohibit your elderly dog from being able to sit? Perhaps you teach her a solid down stay instead. Take your time, allow the old girl enough time to process information. Contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks.