You've just inherited your mom's badly behaved 10 year-old Poodle, and you think there’s not much hope that Gigi can learn something new. Not so fast! With a little ingenuity and perseverance, just about any old dog (this doesn't include your husband!) can learn new tricks.
- Figure out what motivates him. Some dogs like balls, others are very focused on food and most love attention. Don't assume that whatever works for your neighbor's pooch will work for yours. Once you know the motivating force, you will be using this "key" to motivate and reward your canine for a new behavior.
- Ration the motivator. If you have a ball-centric dog, play fetch as a reward or to cement your bond with your dog. Play when YOU want to, not when your dog demands it. Get him excited about the motivator at the start of a training session — "show him the ball, do some work, play, then do some more work, reward."
- Become the CEO. Manage the relationship between you and your dog. He may need to see you as the "dog god," particularly if you have an animal with behavior issues. Remember, the CEO is often reserved with employees and sparing with rewards when in training — unlike the secretary who is more accessible!
- Use behavior shaping. Break the desired outcome down into smaller steps. For example, if you want your dog to roll over, first reinforce having the dog lie down. Next, have him lie down and roll onto his side. Finally, encourage him to roll completely over.
- Manage the environment. Find a place with few or no distractions. Begin the teaching process for a food-centric dog before you feed dinner. If your dog is distracted by squirrels or noises, don't try to train outside!
Lastly, remember that not only age but also the breed of dog influences the behavior and learning processes. In his book The Intelligence of Dogs, psychologist Stanley Coren examined 141 breeds. He used "understanding of new commands" and "obeying first command" as criteria in judging the responsiveness of dogs to commands. The following breeds performed the requested behavior (giving a command 5 or fewer times), 95% of the time or better: Border Collie, Poodle, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever and Doberman Pinscher. Although the breeds who follow have many fine qualities, they took 80-100 trials to learn a new command and then obeyed the command 25% of the time or less: Borzoi, Chow Chow, Bulldog, Basenji, Afghan Hound.
Not all of us are blessed with brains — beauty is important also! However, just as with motivating our children to do well, we must learn to motivate our four-legged children as well!