My recent column on how to make your dogs live longer, healthier lives is prompting a follow-up on the age-old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
That’s not true, according to celebrity dog trainer and long-time military dog trainer Mike Miller.
“Dogs are capable of learning new things until they draw their last breath,” Miller told us in a recent interview. “It just takes a little more effort and practice with an older dog than with a puppy.”
One good example is the way Mike works with older dogs which need to unlearn some bad habits.
“I’ll train unwanted behavior patterns such as if a dog has jumped on people his whole life and now you don’t want that.
“Sometimes people concentrate on trying to get across to the dog, ‘Don’t do that, don’t do that,’ and they don’t give them the tools to do something different and to learn a new behavior.
“You can’t just say, ‘Don’t jump on people anymore.’ You’ve got to say ‘Don’t do that; let’s do this.’ You teach the dog to sit and stay and if the dog holds that, he can’t jump on people.
“If I were doing sit and stay training with a 4-month-old puppy and then with a 6-year old dog, I would expect the older dog to be able to sit and stay for a longer time. It would have a higher level of self-control. The puppy will learn rapidly but it will be playful with a limited attention span.
“There’s a difference between teaching a dog and training a dog. A lot of people will teach their dog to sit and stay but it won’t do that when someone comes in the door. A trained dog will sit and stay wherever you want him to.
“Sometimes a person tells the dog not to jump up at the door, but then sits down with the dog’s paws on his lap and pets him. The dog doesn’t know the difference between having his paws on you at the door, where it’s wrong, and having his paws on you sitting down where he gets petted.
“The dog sees them as the same thing, as in, ‘My front paws are on you and sometimes I get petted for that and sometimes I get fussed at.’ And he remains confused.”
Mike emphasizes that timing is important in training a dog.
“People take their dog outside to go potty, the dog goes potty, they come back into the house and the dog gets a treat. The dog doesn’t equate the treat with the potty but with being in the house.”
Oops, that could be said about our dog Callie and me. Still, treating for the potty at the potty spot seems odd.
A veteran veterinarian, Dr. Beth Steward, agrees that old dogs need to learn new tricks. She says working breeds and terriers almost demand something to do.
“They are bored out of their minds with nothing to do. They tend to be chewers.
“Even rescue dogs with no previous training can learn as much as anybody, with patience. Teaching them new things helps you and your dog alike.”