A common expression is this phrase: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While not technically true, there is a bit of wisdom in this phrase; dogs tend to act in ways that has gotten them what they wanted in the past. The longer a behavior is reinforced, the tougher it will be to change. Here are a few tips to help get your pooch to quickly learn desired behaviors.
1. Find two different types of treats to reward good behaviors
If you’re like many dog lovers, you probably have a stash of several different treats, toys, and other canine accessories set somewhere away from your pup’s reach. While several types of treats are fine, it is important to have two distinct different types. When you are working on reinforcing a behavior, it is important to have something small, inexpensive, and numerous. Many stores sell bulk “training treats,” so you can give a small reward to encourage your dog as they are learning new behaviors. In addition, it is important to have a bigger, more rewarding treat to give out, either when a successful training session is complete, to reward extended good behavior, or as a signal that it is nearly time for bed. Your dog will quickly learn the difference between the small rewards and big rewards, and will change their behavior accordingly.
2. Pick only one or two behaviors to work on at a time
Especially with a new puppy, it can be tempting to train several behaviors at once. However, training new behavior takes time - you didn’t learn algebra while learning to swim, and your brain is much more advanced than your dog’s. Rank the behaviors and commands you think are most important, then teach them one or two at a time. With new puppies, housebreaking is probably the most important. As your dog starts to figure that out, you can begin working on leash behaviors. Move from proper leash behavior to sit, stay, and lie down. From there, you can continue to teach whatever behavior you desire; dogs are much smarter than they are given credit for, and certain breeds can learn over 200 distinct words. Figure out what behaviors would be most useful in your situation, and then teach them.
3. Consistency is key
The single most important part of training new behavior: you have to be consistent. Dogs learn quickly what works best for them; if they learn that they do not need to respond when you give a command, it can be tough to break that habit. Teaching behaviors the same way over multiple weeks will help make that solidify that behavior so that it happens naturally. This is especially important if there is more than one person in your household interacting with the dog. Make sure everyone is on the same page about what behaviors are being worked on and which are being discouraged, so you will not have to waste time and energy changing a habit another family member created.
Dogs want to learn and please us. Bring your best praise voice to the table, and make sure to give plenty of love and encouragement when your pooch is learning a new behavior. Good luck, and be patient.