Training Of Adult Dogs
Training isn’t just for puppies; it’s also about having a well-behaved adult dog. Perhaps you have adopted a rescue dog, or just got fed up with your dog’s bad behavior, then you consider retraining. Whilst most of the principles of training remain the same regardless of age, older dogs do have subtly different needs.
2.1 Reappraise basic training
2.2 Reward based training
2.3 Recognizing bad habits
2.4 Consistent Commands
2.5 Antisocial problems
2.6 Confidence building
2.7 Teaching an old dog, new tricks
2.1 Reappraise basic training
After reading Module 1: Puppy training, you are familiar with reward-based training a dog to harness the dog’s natural instincts and establish good behavior. (If you skipped module 1 and reward-based training is a new idea to you, take a little time to go back and familiarize yourself with this method.)
Does your adult dog jump up at strangers or is oblivious to your frantic recall? If this sounds familiar then you may be surprised that many ‘bad’ behaviors are not disobedience, but habits the dogs has inadvertently learnt over the years.
To explain, let’s look more closely at the dog-jumping-up scenario.
When he was a puppy, your dog had a habit of dashing at visitors and jumping up. This wasn’t nice for your guests, so each time it happened you told the puppy off and pushed him down. Unfortunately, the problem got worse, so you warned visitors before entering, to be ready to push him away. When the puppy grew into an adult dog weighing 70-lbs his badhabit meant he could knock a kid over, so when visitors call you shut the dog in a separate room.
So what’s going on?
In the eyes of a dog, attention from his master is the stuff of life. The dog wants attention, and strictly speaking he’s not too bothered if its praise or being told off (although obviously he’d prefer nice things). If you push him away, in dog terms, this is way better than being ignored. So all those times you chastised the pup and pushed him down, when he jumped up you were actually rewarding him with of attention. In other words, he learnt it was beneficial to jump up.
That’s all very well, but what other option did you have?
The next concept can be hard to grasp, especially as it is human nature to react when something we don’t like happens. But we need to remember that ignoring bad behaviour is the fastest way to teach a dog not to do something. A lack of attention means that action is not worth repeating, and the dog quickly forgets about it.
OK, so what if he humps a leg, won’t he make his own reward?
You have a point. In this example, if you ignored him he might carry on anyway. In which case, you should distract the dog and then tell him to sit. When he does what you ask, you reward that good behaviour with a treat or a big fuss. This way, doing what he’s told becomes way more attractive than the first option.
Better still, you learn to read his body language and recognize how he walks towards someone with the intention of humping their leg. Before he starts, distract him (a whistle would do the trick) and when you have his attention, command him to ‘sit’ and give a reward.
It is this same principle that applies to retraining an adult dog that has developed a‘bad habits’.
- Ignore bad behaviour,
- Learn to read body language and divert him before the problem
- Retrain the dog using rewards to make the new behavior worth his while.
Before we continue, let’s digress briefly to reflect on what we teach our dogs. If we accidentally teach them bad habits, what else might we be doing? A recent study by behaviourists looked at how dogs react to commands from their owners. They studied the response of dogs trained to respond to ‘sit’. Whilst most owners assumed their dog was putting his butt on the ground in response to the word ‘sit’, the scientists observed otherwise.
The behaviourists found that our instructions are so ambiguous and open to misunderstanding that many of the dogs weren’t responding to a verbal command at all, but body language signals leaked by the owner. Indeed, of those dogs that did react to ‘sit’, many were only registering the final sharp ‘T’ sound, and just about any word ending with a sharp ‘T’ would work just as well.
Reasons to retrain an adult
Contrary to popular belief, you can teach old dog new tricks, it just takes a little longer. From taking on a rescue dog with little previous training, to the ageing dog that is going deaf, there are many reasons to retrain an adult dog.
The upside of training an adult is the dog is less distracted by the world than a puppy, plus it helps you bond. Indeed, dogs love the attention of training so much that it is a recognized way of reassuring a grieving dog and helping him to get over a loss.
What is the dog’s past experience?
Call the dog’s name and watch how he reacts?
Does he coming running with a waggy tail or slink over and cower? Or perhaps he ignores the command altogether. His reaction can teach you a lot about the methods used to train him and how effective (or not) they have been. Your task is to re-educate him, in a new, fun way of learning that will make life better for both of you.
2.2 Reward-based training
The additional problem you face when training an adult dog is that you aren’t working with a clean slate. Not only do you have to write new instructions, but you have to erase years of graffiti in order to make the new message understood.
There are two issues to address:
- Rewarding new good habits,
- Ignoring old bad habits.
No-one said it would be easy!
Ignoring bad behaviour
Module 1 discussed how puppies learn, and how when a behavior elicits no response; the puppy feels it not worth repeating. Unfortunately, many inappropriate behaviors get accidentally rewarded with attention (being told off!) and become established habits. An example of this is the incessantly barking dog. Perhaps once, he barked and you yelled at him to be quiet. He linked barking with your undivided attention and learnt that barking gets him noticed.
The problem is barking is a nuisance that disturbs the neighbors. If you don’t want the problem to become worse, have to ignore him. However, the barking will get worse before it gets better, if you ignore him. It can help take the pressure off, by first having a word with the neighbor. Let them know it’s a short term nuisance for long term peace.The dog will mount an escalating verbal assault as he desperately tries to get your attention. Eventually, and with the right training, he’ll figure barking just isn’t what it used to be and stop.
Rewarding positive behaviour
Sometimes, withdrawing attention just isn’t enough. The habit is too ingrained to be extinguished without a snuffer. Key to reward based training is to teach the dog the link between action and reward, so he strives to repeat the action to get that dream treat, or fuss, game of tug, or whatever it is that gives his life meaning.
For the barking dog, it might be you go into the yard and turn your back when he barks. When he stops to draw breath (he will have to eventually) you turn round produce his favourite toy. You give him a game, and then get him to sit and give a treat. Your aim is to set a new way of thinking, that when I’m quiet in the yard Mom plays with me.
2.3 Recognizing bad habits
The chances are an adult dog has a full spectrum of bad behaviors programed into him.When it comes to his re-education don’t jump in, day one, without a plan. Take a couple of days watching the dog, learning about his behaviors and work out what to sort out first.
You want to work out:
- How was he previously trained? (Dominated or rewarded)
- Is he a confident or fearful dog
- What are his strengths (What commands does he do well?)
- What are his weaknesses (Does he come first time to a recall?)
- Do certain actions trigger an aggressive response (for instance, trying to take his food bowl away)
- What does he most love in the world? (Food, a fuss, or play)
Now you know him better, prioritize what needs to be done and put safety measures into place for those things that take a little longer. For instance, if he has no concept of sit, you need to start small (with sit) and work up to more advanced commands. In the meantime keep him safe when out and about by keeping him on a leash or long line.
The pair of you are making a fresh start, and clicker training can really help. Don’t be afraid to start at the beginning, by teaching him his name. Just as you would a puppy, call the name and when he turns to look give him a reward or use the clicker. As his confidence builds and learns to be attentive, you can expand the number of commands and up the pace of training. But as the old saying goes, ‘Don’t run before you can walk’.
The Basics of clicker training
- Find your dog’s favourite treat. You’re going to use brains, not brawn, to retrain him
- When he is relaxed, offer him a treat and at the precise moment he takes it, press the clicker
- Repeat this regularly so he associates the ‘click’ with a yummy snack
- Now ask him to sit, and when he does ‘click’ and reward simultaneously
- Next, make the reward unpredictable. This means you ‘click’ the good behaviour but don’t give a treat each time. This keeps him focussed on earning thetitbit.
A word about your pet’s anxiety
There are all sorts of emotional implications for you, the owner, to taking on a rescue dog. Quite possibly he had a rotten start in life, and you feel a responsibility to improve his life from now on. This is great, and you probably go to great lengths to reassure him that he’s safe now. As a responsible owner you get the dog checked out by the vet. He’s anxious and sits trembling in the waiting room. You fuss and stroke him, whilst talking in a soothing voice.
This is the WRONG way to reassure him. That attention rewards his fear and you inadvertently reinforce the behaviour. In fact, what you should do is ignore his fearful signals and make sure your own body language is open and relaxed. This sends the message that you are not worried, so why should he be frightened. If doing nothing is too difficult when faced with your pet’s trembles, indulge in a spot of training in the waiting room. Get him to sit, and reward him. This takes his mind off the wait, and rewards assured behaviour. Do NOT indulge your human need to give him comfort. Remember, this teaches him to worry and with enough bad habits already, he doesn’t need a new one.
2.4 Consistent commands
To successfully train an adult dog you must avoid confusion and keep all commands consistent. Confusion creeps in if one family member uses a different training word to everybody else. If Tom, Dick, and Harry all say ‘down’, but George says ‘drop’ the impact is more profound that the dog not understanding George.
Think about it. The dog learns by repetition. Whilst he’s learning to lie down, he has no idea that two different words mean the same thing. He therefore has no consistent clue what is wanted of him when someone says ‘down’ and someone ‘drop’. If by some miracle he does respond, it is only because he’s reacting to a common gesture, or possibly associating the opening ‘D’ with a command.
That consistency also applies to tone of voice. It is confusing for the dog for Tom to say ‘sit’ in a high-pitched excited way, and Dick in a low serious manner. The poor dog has difficulty recognizing the same word said in two different tones. Indeed, some dogs react more to the tone of a sound, than the vowels associated with it. This is used to great effect when training sheepdogs to respond to the whistle.
Aim for consistency of:
- Command words
- Tone in which the word is said
- Hand gesture to accompany each command
Repetition is key
Dogs learn by repetition, hence the importance of hearing the same consistent commands. Think of this in terms of learning a script. The more times you read and recite it, the more familiar it becomes. The same is true with dog training.
The other side of repetition is dogs love routine. Practice regularly, at a similar time of day, and the dog will come to anticipate and look forward to training sessions – after all he gets Mom’s undivided attention during that time. Having him ready and willing to learn is half the battle already won.
The exception to the repetition rule
OK, having emphasized how important consistency is, to now say you shouldn’t give a reward after each correctly executed command, may seem a little bizarre. But it bears emphasizing that once the dog has learnt the link between behaviour and reward, his attention may start to wander. If he gets the reward each time, familiarity starts to breed contempt. He stops trying quite so hard; after all, the treats are easy to come by.
Instead, introduce an element of ‘predictable unpredictability’. This means clicking, but not giving him a treat each time. The click is the equivalent of an IOU, which keeps his focus. The lack or a treat each time, keeps his attention firmly on the job in hand because he knows he has to impress you to get the ultimate reward.
The adult dog’s rule of learning
- Rewards help him learn more quickly
- Punishment is of no benefit
- Intermittent rewards help keep the dog’s focus
- Learning should be fun- keep sessions short but frequent
- Everyone uses the same commands, tone of voice, and gestures
2.5 Antisocial habits
An adult dog may have developed antisocial habits for any number of reasons. He might have missed out on training in earlier life, or picked up the wrong message along the way, and the result is a dog with antisocial habits. One habit guaranteed to make him unpopular is urinating in the house, whilst a bad habit which could put his life in danger is refusing to come to recall. In this module we look at how to put these problems right.
Urinating in the House
No matter how much you love your dog, if he uses the house as a toilet your relationship will be stretched to breaking point. However, you need to be aware that not all inappropriate urination is down to poor training, the dog might have a health issue. A dog with a bladder problem will have an increased need to go to the toilet, which could result in him getting caught short in the house.
If the dog was well house-trained, and suddenly changes his habits, get him checked out by the vet and take a urine sample along for screening.
Possible causes of bladder discomfort and an urgency to urinate include:
- Bladder infections
- Crystals in the urine
- Bladder stones
- Bladder polyps
- Urinary incontinence issues
If the dog is not desexed, especially if he is male, talk to the vet about neutering. High levels of testosterone in an entire male can prompt a dog to mark his territory with urine. Combating this is an uphill struggle that is made much easier by settling down that excess of hormones!
This needs tackling from several angles at the same time.
|Desex an entire dog||Decrease hormone levels||Speak to your veterinarian|
|Deodorize places where he has urinated in the house||To remove scent markers which encourage him to return||Avoid household cleaners containing bleach or ammonia. Look for ‘ammonia free’ cleaners, or use a solution of biological washing agent, followed by a solution of bicarbonate of soda|
|Make his previous indoor toilet areas less appealing||By using his instinct not to foul his den, you can discourage his bad habits||Put his food and water bowls down in the areas (now deodorized) where he previously toileted.|
|Pre-emptive action to stop him going back to places he previously urinated||By distracting him before he urinates you can establish a new, good habit||Learn to read his body language. As he sniffs prior to lifting his leg, distract him with a whistle. When you have his attention do some basic training (sit) and reward the good behaviour. Then take him outside to toilet|
|Crate train||If his house training has completely broken down you need to go back to basics and retrain, as if he was a puppy.||First get him happy and comfortable with the crate. Then use his instinct not to soil the crate to encourage bladder control, taking him outside regularly and praising when he urinates in the yard|
|Never punish||If you catch him in the act, punishment makes him fearful of you, and more secretive about his habits||Ignore the incident and clean it up straight away|
Training to recall
To train an adult to recall takes plenty of patience and will take time. While you are re-educating him, keep the dog on a leash or longline when out for walks so that you keep control. If you let him off and frantically call him back at an early stage in retraining, you will undo all that good work.
The steps of testing recall
- Clicker train him to associate click-clack with a reward
- Decide on the word you will use to recall him eg ‘Here’
- Work in a space with few distractions, indoors is ideal
- Start by rewarding him when he happens to walk towards you.
- When he has learnt that coming to you makes nice things happen, you are ready to start using the command word
- As he approaches you click AND say ‘Here’ at the same time (only say ‘Here’ once)
- Only use the command once he is actually walking towards you
- Practice, practice, practice
- Carry treats with you indoors, and when he moves towards you, ‘Here’ and reward when he reaches you
- The next step is in a quiet place, call his name to get his attention, and they call ‘Here’
- If he does not respond, do not repeat the command (it will work the first time or not at all) – instead, go back to saying ‘here’ once he is moving towards you.
– When training never call ‘here’ if he is distracted. It probably won’t work and only teaches him to ignore the command.
– Never get involved in game of chase. You won’t catch him and he’ll think it’s fun. Instead, turn and walk away
– Never, ever punish him for a delayed recall
2.6 Confidence building
Some dogs are pretty intimidating: the sort of dog that you approach and he snarls, you step closer and are met with barred teeth and a volley or barking. An aggressive dog like this needs treating with extreme caution because he would bite if pressed. However, many ‘aggressive’ dogs are actually fearful dogs.
With this in mind consider the following scene.
A dog is in the rescue center. Everything smells strange, he has no idea what is going to happen next, and on top of that the man who brings his food has a beard (and the dog was once beaten by a man with a beard). So when a stranger comes and peers into the kennel, the fearful dog feels threatened and growls in response. Unbeknownst to the dog, that person wants a new pet but he has children and won’t consider an aggressive dog and walks away. What the dog has just learnt is a show of aggression gets him left in peace. Next time strangers stare, he growls and bares his teeth. They leave pretty quick. This fearful dog now learns to cope with stress by making it go away with a display of aggression.
Flight or fight
Surely, you say, the dog must have already had aggressive tendencies – after all, he could have cowered or hidden away. The answer is something called the flight or fight reflex.
The body’s response to danger is to release massive amounts of the hormone adrenaline. This hormone prepares the body for action by accelerating the heart rate, drawing oxygen into the lungs, and pumping blood to the muscles. In this heightened state of arousal the animal can either run away or stand and fight.
Given a choice, most animals flee (they are less likely to get injured). However, if that option is not available (eg the dog locked in a kennel, or trapped on the end of a leash) his only option is to fight back – hence the aggressive display.
Of course, not every aggressive dog started out as a fearful one, but many do. If your dog is otherwise a softie, but becomes a snarling savage when faced with a bearded man, the chances this started out as a natural reaction to fear. So how do you overcome it?
Build his confidence.
First a word of caution. With any aggressive dog, never take chances. If he is a danger to the public keep him muzzled. If he give clear ‘go away’ signals, stop and give him space (continuing towards him ups the pressure, making him more likely to attack) Whilst retraining, do you best to avoid any factor that trigger the aggressive behavior.
- Muzzle if in doubt
- Never approach an aggressive dog
- Avoid direct eye contact
- Avoid the trigger factor where possible
The must-have treat
It will come as no surprise that clicker training and rewards are an important part of retraining. However, with a fearful dog you have an additional problem – he has a dry mouth (all that adrenaline from flight or fight) and the chances are most treats will have all the appeal of cardboard. You need to offer a super tasty moist treat that smells pretty good as well, to whet his appetite and be easy to swallow. Good options to try include liver-based treats, smelly sausages, or cheese.
How to build confidence
Undoing years of learnt aggression takes time.One trick that may help is to fit the dog with a snug T-shirt. The pressure against his body gives some dogs a feeling of reassurance, a bit like having a hug! First you need to teach him to trust you and reward that trust, then you can slowly introduce the trigger factor, but at a distance where it is not a threat.
Take the example of a dog fearful of bearded men, here’s how to do it.
- In a relaxed environment teach the dog to respond to the clicker
- Arrange for a stooge (a friend with a beard) to stand sufficiently far away that the dog takes no notice of him
- Get the dog’s attention and reward him
- Have the stooge take a step closer
- Reward the dog if he takes no notice
- If the dog’s body language shows signs of arousal (backing away, wide eyes, erect fur, tense body) have the stooge back away
- You aim is to reward the dog for ignoring the fearful stimulus, and gradually edge stooge closer
- Take this in slow steps over many sessions
- If the dog becomes fearful – end the session, and next time restart with the stooge more distant
- Eventually, you want the stooge to be close enough to throw the dog rewards, and start to build a new message that bearded men are nice
2.7 Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
It’s time to debunk an old myth. Not only is it entirely possible to teach an old dogs new tricks, but it’s good for them!
Even if your senior dog is impeccably behaved, spending time teaching him a new trick improves his quality of life.
- Learning something new stimulates his brain and mental stimulation and slows up the brain’s natural ageing process. Just as physical exercise conditions muscles and keeps you fit, so does mental exercise
- Teaching your dog a new skill helps you spend time together and strengthens bonding
- Regular training sessions with your pet can take his mind off things such as the loss of a close companion
Elderly dogs considerations
Work within your dog’s physical capabilities. Remember, he is likely to have stiff joints and unable to sit as quickly as in his younger days. If he has arthritis, concentrate on tricks he can do whilst standing up. Take into account factors which may make him slower to respond to commands, such as deafness – if necessary train him using a combination of verbal commands and hand gestures. And finally, an older dog has a short attention span, so regular five minute sessions are ideal.
Of course, don’t forget to motivate him with rewards and lots of praise!
Some tricks to consider:
- High five
- Walking between your legs
- Push a ball
- Tap an object with his paw
- Pick up a newspaper
- Walk backwards
- Roll over