Top 5 Skills to Teach Your Dog

Elsa Larsen
Elsa Larsen and her wonderful dog, Lincoln

Teaching Youngsters and Oldsters Alike (Part I)

Author:  Elsa Larsen,  Dog Trainer & Behaviorist
             Owner, My Wonderful Dog

It’s Spring and now that the snow has melted (for most of us), many would be dog owners are turning their attention to rescue lists, shelters and breeders.  As I look at my own dog, a 10 year old Labrador Retriever named Lincoln curled up on the couch next to me, I cannot help but think about the time when she will no longer be around.  Who will come after her? I find myself vacillating back and forth between pup or older dog, pure bred or mixed breed. Though I may be unclear about which direction I would go in choosing a dog, I know for certain which skills that I would like to teach my new dog—any dog for that matter, be she young or old.

Before I go into what I would consider my top five skills for dogs, I think it’s important to understand some of the things that may influence how you teach a particular skill.  Factors such as age, confidence, physical limitations, and motivation will each play a part in how you train.  Let’s address each one of these factors individually.

  • Age:  Puppies are blank slates and have had less time to rehearse and commit to unwanted behaviors.  You can have real influence on a puppy by insuring that he or she has the continued opportunity to interact with other puppies and dogs after they leave their litter and by purposefully introducing them to as many sights, sounds and smells as you can (in a non threatening way) to help to create a confident, social animal. By managing their environment, you can keep unwanted behaviors from happening in the first place.   But a puppy can be tough.  They have limited concentration, they chew and eliminate indiscriminately and they require lots and lots of attention.

    If you choose to adopt an older dog, you may have to spend some time resolving and managing problem behaviors first. Your ability to socialize a dog beyond its "critical period" (to 12 weeks) is limited, so while you may be able to influence somewhat your dog’s confidence, pretty much what you see is what you get. But unlike puppies an older dog may already have progressed through their super destructive chew period and with proper supervision should have the capacity to be easily housetrained.

    Training Dog
    TWP President's dog Tucker (R)
    Both she & Tucker were trained by Elsa

    Training an adolescent dog comes with its own set of challenges.  Dogs hit adolescence around 5 months and adolescence can last until the dog is two or three depending on the breed and individual animal.   Adolescence is characterized by more independent thinking; dogs will become less interested in you and more interested in the environment. Dogs go through their final phase of teething during this time.  There is also a fear period associated with this phase - confident dogs may suddenly turn shy and fearful.  Acquiring an adolescent dog will require that you be consistent in your management and training. Doing so will insure that you both make it through this time happy and whole.

  • Confidence or the lack thereof:  Learning is stressful. Keep an eye on your dog while training and watch for signs of stress - yawning, bows, scratching in the middle of a training session, shake-offs (like the dog is trying to shake off water).  These behaviors don’t necessarily indicate that your dog is unduly traumatized by learning, in fact, there is a good type of stress (called eustress) that actually enhances learning.  Distress, the bad kind of stress, is what you are trying to avoid.  You can do that by keeping your training sessions short (three to five minutes for newbies). Raise your criteria gradually, for example, if you are working on a down-stay with the dog alone in the kitchen and you are asking for a 30 second stay, if you bring the dog outdoors to work on a stay understand this context will be much more difficult for the dog to perform in.  Perhaps you work on a 5 second stay to begin with.  Don’t make things so difficult for your dog that he gives up.  Set your dog up to be successful.  The mores successes your dog has under his doggy belt, the more confident he will become.  You will see an animal that loves learning and will therefore be more inclined to work for you even in the most difficult kind of situations. Avoiding stress will keep your dog engaged in the training process.
  • Physical limitations:  A dog’s capacity to perform certain tasks can be limited by physical impairments.   Limitations such as deafness and blindness would be obvious impediments (but not insurmountable, by the way) but something like advanced age or lameness or injury may also inhibit certain behaviors or the capacity to process information. With an older dog you may need to modify your expectations.  Does advanced age prohibit your elderly dog from being able to sit?  Perhaps you teach her a solid down stay instead. Take your time, allow the old girl enough time to process information.  Contrary to popular belief, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.
  • Motivation:  To teach a new skill, your dog needs to be motivated to learn.  It’s up to you to figure out what will motivate your dog to want to work with you in any given situation.  If it’s hot dogs, fantastic - use them.  If it’s butt scratches - great, use them.  If it’s a game of tug - use that.  Whatever it is that you use to reward behavior, the dog gets to determine whether your "stuff" is worth working for.  A simple rule to remember - if you reward behavior, you should see more of it.  So, if you are using biscuits to reward "come" and the dog comes to you once and never again that’s a problem.  Try something else.  Adjust to each training situation.

Read Part II

About Elsa Larsen:
Elsa started her dog training career as a volunteer for an organization in Santa Rosa, California that trained dogs for people with disabilities.  In June 2000, Elsa moved to the east coast and created My Wonderful Dog, a non profit that that engaged at risk youth in the care and training of service dogs.  Sadly, the non profit had to close its doors in 2008 due to lack of funding, but under the original banner of My Wonderful Dog, Elsa continues to bring her expertise and knowledge to bear in her quest to create harmony between pet dogs and their owners in and around Portland, Maine and the greater Boston area. With over 15 years experience, Elsa has had the pleasure of working with hundreds of dogs on issues as diverse as dog aggression to puppy management and care.

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