It’s been over 10 years since we brought home our retired racing greyhound, Sydney. And over the years, she has learned a lot of things. She’s learned that the family cat is not a lure, the house is not a track and, even though it’s at nose-level, the kitchen counter is not an all-you-can-eat buffet. At age thirteen, some may think she is done learning. You’ve heard the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Any trainer knows that this simply isn’t true. With positive reinforcement training you can teach a dog of any age just about anything. In this month’s featured podcast, Karen Pryor talks about how she used tips from the new book Agility Right from the Start to teach her 10-year-old German poodle Misha to overcome situations that once frightened him. But why train an older dog?
Like most greyhounds, my 13 year-old greyhound, Sydney, has a quiet, gentle soul. But boy, can she bark! She barks when she wants to go out and she barks when she wants to come in. She barks when she’s happy and she barks when she is bored. I admit, it can be irritating, particularly at 5am when I want to relish that last hour of sleep before my alarm sounds. But would I consider permanently silencing her so that I can get that last hour of sleep? No. So what to do?
It’s a quiet Saturday morning in my small coastal New England town, a perfect time to take a long walk on the beach with my dog, Sandy. With a cup full of coffee and a pocketful of Charlee Bear treats, there is no better way to start the day. As we set out for our walk, something in the distance steals Sandy’s attention. I get a sinking feeling that my peaceful morning is about to come to an abrupt end. Over the crest of the dunes on the other end of the beach, he comes into view—a handsome young goldendoodle, tail wagging and ready for action. “Sandy, stay,” I warn her. She gives me one last look as if to say “I’m sorry’ before she heads off in the opposite direction. “Sandy, come,’ I plead, but faster than a tail wag she bolts, kicking up sand in her wake. As I watch her tail disappear into the dunes, my frustration turns into despair. I feel the eyes of the other dog owners looking at me in sympathy. “She’ll come back,’ I assure them. Or maybe I’m just trying to assure myself.
One of the often-overlooked rules of reinforcement is to use a variety of reinforcers. The two key words in that sentence are variety and reinforcers.
We're all creatures of habit, so it’s easy to fall into a routine where the reinforcement is well...routine. I like sushi and reward myself with it at lunch, but offer it to me on the same day for dinner and I don't find that reinforcing at all!
So a key to successful training is to keep it interesting. Vary your reinforcers. You can mix up reinforcers in the same session. You can vary them from session to session.