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Common knowledge and witticism tells a person that old dogs are incapable of learning new behaviors as is often bespoken in the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.
Despite the numbers of people who would proclaim this decree to be solid truth, we are here to tell you that it nowhere near the being an accurate description of the truth.
While it is a little more difficult for an older dog to be trained, it is entirely within the realm of possibility if one uses patience and remains consistent in the dog’s lessons throughout the process.
The first step in training an older dog is remembering that this dog has, most likely, already been trained once, be it properly or improperly. The older dog already has preconceived notions as to what acceptable behaviors are and what behaviors are not welcome. If you wish to change one of these behaviors you have to reprogram the dogs thinking process.
For instance, a farm dog may have been trained to protect the barnyard and chase stray animals and predators away from the barn. Unfortunately, the dog now lives in your town house and thinks your cat is its mortal enemy. We have to reprogram the dogs thinking to make it understand that chasing the cat is not acceptable.
So how would we handle this situation?
To start, make certain that the cat will be safe by placing the cat in a pet carrier or some other sturdy structure that prohibits the dog from actually physically contacting the animal but still allows for both animals to see, smell and hear each other.
This provides a way for both animals to acclimate to each other in a safe, though possibly a bit stressful, situation. This small step teaches the dog and cat that both are going to have a presence in the home.
After the animals have both calmed a bit give them each a small reward, such as a piece of kibble. Be sure to give the dog lots of verbal praise and affection when it is not barking or trying to get to the cat as this reinforces his good behavior. These rewards are quite important in teaching older dogs as they help to retrain their minds that this behavior is good and is rewarded, thus making them want to repeat the behavior.
This will also show the dog that you are accepting of the cat’s presence and you expect him to be accepting of the animal also. Repeat this process several times over the course of a week or so, until both animals seem fairly accustomed to the presence of the other and their aggressions seem to have subsided. At this point, you are ready to move on to the next step.
This step will require an assistant to help with one of the animals. Have the assistant leash the dog and hold him firmly on a very short leash. After instructing the assistant to maintain control of the dog, open the pet carrier and bring the cat out carefully.
Your dog will likely move towards the cat so be sure the assistant has him held tightly and be careful not to let the cat panic and escape your grasp. Gradually bring them closer together and let them calmly adapt to each others presence. Repeat this step several times over the next few days and by the end of the week, these two animals should be like old chums.
Through this exercise, we see the basics of teaching an old dog something new.
It involves first recognizing the dog’s previous training and then deciding what is applicable and what needs changed. Then reinforcing the good parts of the dog’s behavior with plenty of positive rewards and verbal praise while restricting or redirecting the parts of the behavior you want to stop.
We also see that it is necessary to change the behavior in small steps rather than a complete change all at one time. This serves to help the older dog by not confusing him totally.
With small steps the animal feels that it is learning new tricks rather than a complete behavior modification. This also allows you to spot trouble before it grows to large to handle.
It also is essential to exercise patience and be consistent so that you may indeed teach your old dog some brand new tricks.
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