It’s been over 10 years since we brought home our retired racing greyhound, Sydney. And over the years, she has learned a lot of things. She’s learned that the family cat is not a lure, the house is not a track and, even though it’s at nose-level, the kitchen counter is not an all-you-can-eat buffet. At age thirteen, some may think she is done learning. You’ve heard the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Any trainer knows that this simply isn’t true. With positive reinforcement training you can teach a dog of any age just about anything. In this month’s featured podcast, Karen Pryor talks about how she used tips from the new book Agility Right from the Start to teach her 10-year-old German poodle Misha to overcome situations that once frightened him. But why train an older dog?
When our family began clicker training, we focused on the youngest canine member of our family, our exuberant hound-pointer mix named Sandy. With little impulse control and a strong desire to chase anything that moves, we had our work cut out for us. Sydney, on the other hand, is docile and well-trained. She is content chasing the rabbits that visit her dreams as she peacefully snoozes on her bed. So why not let sleeping dogs lie?
It didn’t take us long to figure out the answer. Typically when Sandy was working on her tricks, Sydney would come over for the treats. The younger dog did all the work and the older dog would share in the reward. “She’s sure got life figured out,” I once commented to my husband as Sydney enjoyed yet another Sandy-earned treat. One day I was calling Sandy over to practice hand touches when suddenly I felt a long pointy nose slide into my hand. To my surprise, it was Sydney, not Sandy, looking up at me with expectant eyes and a proud smile on her face. Click! She quickly snapped up her treat and looked at me again, her ears perked at full attention and her cloudy eyes sparkling with life. It’s as if the sound of a click awoke a part of her that had been sleeping for a very long time. I offered my palm again and once more she greeted it with her nose, her frail body practically trembling with excitement. Click! Why hadn’t I thought of it before! Clicker training is not only great for establishing new behaviors, but also for practicing old ones. And since there’s no force or exertion required with clicker training, it is perfect for older dogs like Sydney.
I guess I was right when I said that Sydney had life figured out. She’s figured out that even though we’ve been together for a long time, she still has work to do with me. She’s figured out that while it takes a lot of effort to get up off her bed, with little physical exertion she can get me to give her treats. As for me, I’ve learned that with the help of a little clicker, I can forge a new bond with an old friend.
Let sleeping dogs lie? Why not let the sleeping dog decide.