Can you train an old dog?

PUBLISHED: 15:28 18 February 2016 | UPDATED: 15:28 18 February 2016

Teach your old dog new tricks

Teach your old dog new tricks

(c) Apple Tree House

You can teach an old dog new tricks, says dog behaviourist Helen Goodall

When I get a call for help and advice for a dog behaviour problem, my approach is always based on providing a positive environment for the owner and dog to learn in. Any therapy programme I set is underlined by ‘positive behaviour association principles’, and the influence of positive leadership. So, what does this actually mean and how does it work?

A dog retains the ability to learn at any age and will respond to new situations. If something negative happens it will cause a dog to be cautious or fearful, making him wary of repetition. However, even if the occurrence is negative, but something really positive happens at the same time, and this is then repeated, he will start to look for the positive marker, learning to associate the negative occurrence with something positive.

As owners we can replicate this positive response, establishing that nice things can happen, eventually overriding a fear reaction. We can establish the positivity with good timing, using food rewards or positive response toys.

You might need to reduce the fear aspect to start with. For example, if your dog is fear reactive of having other dogs come near, just seeing them from a distance while giving the positive marker is a better way to start. Consistency is then essential, only building to the next stage when the dog’s behaviour is reliably positive.

The benefit of using this approach is kind to the dog, encourages stability in worrying situations and the ability to listen and focus on the owner. Your dog will start to build trust with you, as you are the source of the positive marker.

Essential basic training will help this all come together. The best results I see in behaviour modification are from those dogs good at responding to basic ‘obedience’ commands. They have learnt to focus on the owner for as long as they ask, regardless of external distractions, before they are given the reward. This takes time and lots of consistent, patient training, before the fear element is even introduced. Through this basic training, which should be incorporated into home life as well as when you’re out, you can establish your own consistent guidance and prove your own skills in positive leadership – essential in gaining your dog’s trust in threatening situations.

Many owners have found using positive modification rather than using dominant ‘alpha’ tactics, improves their own confidence. Your dog can learn to overcome fears, feeling confident with you. He can learn to trust your guidance and rely on you to keep calm and stay safe. w

Helen Goodall is a Suffolk based dog behaviourist.

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