Recently, I talked with a frustrated dog owner who felt like she had missed her hance to teach her dog good manners. “I want to train my Cocker Spaniel to top barking every 30 seconds,” she lamented, “but he’s 4 now and it’s too ate to change him!”
I hear that a lot, and while I understand why a pet parent would think that way, I’m always happy to tell them that it’s not true. The fallacy that an old dog can’t learn a new trick has been disproven time and again. And there’s more good news: Teaching a dog of any age new tricks and better manners usually doesn’t require extensive effort or hours of training.
Training can provide a fresh start for your dog, whether he’s newly adopted and still learning the boundaries of his new household or a longtime family member who needs a brush up on his manners. No matter how old your dog is, training that emphasizes rewards can help to reframe patterns of interaction in a way that rewards and builds desired behavior in place of undesirable habits. This is a win-win situation for you and your dog: You get less barking and more behaving, and he gets rewards for doing what he’s asked.
For many dogs, the foundation to better manners is as simple as focusing on three basic behaviors: go to your place, make eye contact and tolerate touch. Here’s how training each of these behaviors can change your relationship with your dog for the better.
Go to Your Spot
One of the most useful behaviors you can teach your dog is to move to a designated spot — like a mat or his bed — when asked. Teaching this behavior can help solve a variety of problems, including begging at the dinner table and dashing out the door. Teaching your dog to go to a designated spot can also provide a strategy for steering your dog away from problem behaviors like jumping or chasing the cat. In each of these situations, your dog replaces an undesirable behavior — jumping or chasing — with a behavior that you reward with treats and praise.
In addition, "go to your spot" can be useful when you and your dog are navigating situations where your canine may need to be directed to a designated area — for example, when you’re unloading groceries and don’t want your dog underfoot or when guests are arriving or leaving and you need to be sure your dog isn't tempted to slip out an open door. "Go to your spot" can also help to increase your dog’s independence by reinforcing that it’s OK for him to be separated from you for limited periods of time.
Make Eye Contact
In a dog’s world, direct, prolonged eye contact can often be perceived as a threat or challenge. For this reason, many dogs are fearful of direct eye contact from people. But because eye contact is a normal part of human interactions, it is something your dog is likely to encounter. Teaching your dog to make eye contact and treating it as something positive that leads to rewards and praise can help to build your dog’s self confidence and may help reduce anxiety or stress associated with human interactions.
Making eye contact can be helpful when you need to have your dog’s attention in order to distract him from behaviors you would like to see less of. Rather than simply yelling at him to stop barking, you can ask for eye contact and then follow up by offering a reward or asking for another, more desirable behavior like a down stay.
Teaching your dog to tolerate and respond to touch offers one more way to get your dog’s attention when he is exhibiting behavior you would rather not see. Touch can be used to redirect your dog when he engages in unwanted behavior; training him to allow you to touch or gently hold his collar can be useful for situations where you need to get his attention in order to ask for an acceptable behavior.
Training him to accept being touched by unfamiliar objects can also be helpful in minimizing certain fears and eliminating the related behavior. If your dog hides when it’s time to trim his nails, try introducing the clippers by simply touching them to his paw and rewarding him for calm behavior.
Every canine is unique in the behaviors they’ll benefit from the most, but for the majority of canines, these three behaviors can be used to create a framework upon which to build better manners. And no matter how old your dog is, it typically doesn’t take a lot of effort to teach these behaviors — particularly once you commit to making them part of your everyday interactions with your dog.