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How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks: Practice!

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Dear Inquisitive Canine:

My dog Andrew is an 8-year-old Boston terrier and, in almost all regards, is the perfect dog. I knew that training a dog was honestly the most important thing that I could do, to provide him protection. Andrew did great in all of the classes. He learned all of his tricks, minded perfectly and seemed to benefit from what was expected. The problem is that Andrew seemed to have a mind of his own outside of the class.

Certified professional dog trainer Joan Mayer and her sidekick, Poncho
Andrew doesn’t come when called by name in the house or out of the house. He doesn’t listen to the commands “stop” or “stay” unless you have a treat in front of him — and only inside the house. I can’t open a door without securing him, and I worry every time anyone comes in the house or leaves the house that he will run out the door.

It is a constant worry that he will go out that door and that I would never be able to stop or catch him. Even on a leash outside he doesn’t listen. It’s almost as if his hormones take over and he loses all brain connection when out in the world.

I have consulted with animal communicators and other well-known trainers, and still nothing changes. As an animal guardian, I want to be the best parent I can be. Please help.

— Andrew’s mom

Dear mom of Andrew:

Bravo for being such a responsible and caring dog guardian! You started Andrew out on the right paw by attending classes, recognized behavioral concerns and made efforts to resolve them. You deserve a treat yourself. Thank you for writing in.

I will be happy to provide some insight into resolving some of your issues. My sidekick Poncho decided he wanted to provide some dog training tips as well. Please check out his Inquisitive Canine blog post on what he has learned about coming when called.

The topics I’d like to address have to do with both management of your environment and with dog training tips that will help utilize what Andrew already has learned in class. Both elements are important, because when you’re not training you need to manage to help prevent unwanted situations.

In your case, management has to do with securing Andrew’s environment in order to help prevent him from practicing behaviors you don’t want — such as door dashing and taking off down the street. This means doors must remain closed, gates installed to block doorways, leashes to keep Andrew tethered to you, or sequestering him to an area of the house away from escape routes during those times when there’s an increased risk of someone leaving a door open.

As a side note, if Andrew is going to be sequestered somewhere for longer than a minute or two, you’ll want to provide some sort of enrichment such as an interactive food toy or chew bone. You want to avoid turning a management situation into a timeout.

As for training tips, it’s wonderful that you’ve already taught Andrew his foundation skills in a class. Now it’s time to take those behaviors outside the classroom. What is the best way to do this? Simple: Practice each one before you need them!

Similar to when we were kids learning all about fire, earthquake and tornado drills, you’ll want to run Andrew through his behavior drills over and over again in various locations in and out of your home until he becomes “conditioned” to hearing your cues such as “sit” and “stay.”

With enough practice, he’ll react accordingly without even thinking about it. Once he is able to “generalize” these actions, you can then add in one distraction at a time. This will make it easier on him and less frustrating for you while setting you both up for success.

For additional steps you can take to teach Andrew doorway manners, please check out this Inquisitive Canine column on greeting people politely at the front door.

Another dog training tip I’d like to bring up is motivation. All animals (including the human variety) need motivation to perform behaviors. Whether it’s something we want or something we want to avoid, motivation and consequences are what drive us to make behavior choices. For Andrew, right now the environment is much more motivating than the alternative — not getting to run around and play. So you’ll want to consider the best way to motivate him in wanting to stay with you, stay within the boundaries you’ve set and come when he’s called.

I appreciate that you’re already using treats. I’d suggest for keeping Andrew motivated under highly distracting situations that you use food treats that he would do back-flips over! Small pieces of chicken or even fish might motivate him to stay and play. You can then redirect his energy to playing indoors — fetch or tug would be good energy outlets that would still keep him safe inside your home. Plus, with toys, you’re able to direct him to the opposite area of the front door. In other words, toss the toy in the opposite direction of the door. Once he’s had the practice and has become conditioned to the routine, you can then use fetch or tug as his reward with food treats.

I appreciate that you want to be “the best parent” you can be, and as much as we’d all love to have dogs that are always 100 percent, no animal is perfect under every situation each and every time. But with proper training, practice and motivation, Andrew could certainly learn that listening to you is much more fun and rewarding.

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