Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?

I am sure you have all heard the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. While it is a cute little saying, it is not correct in the slightest. No matter the age of your dog or the behaviors they already posses, with patience and determination you can always teach a new trick! With a few behavior modification techniques, your dog can learn a new trick or even adjust an existing trick.

Where to start?

Before you start there is one very important question you need to ask yourself – does the desired response already live in your dogs behavioral repertoire? This is critical to know because your options for training are different if your pet already does what you are wanting. For instance, if you want to train your dog to sit on command. The response of sitting is already a behavior your dog performs you just need to adjust it so they do it on command. If you are wanting to train your dog to roll over and they don’t do this regularly already, this would be a new behavior you are introducing.

If your pet already does this (sometimes), start here.

For behaviors that are already apart of your pets behavioral repertoire, there are four possible techniques that you can us to take control of the behavior:

  1. You can wait until your dogs performs the behavior and then immediately reinforce the dog with a command and reward.
  2. You can use shaping to adjust and reinforce each step of the behavior until the desired result is achieved.
  3. You can use prompting to prompt your pet into performing the behavior.
  4. A combination of shaping and prompting can be used.

For something altogether new, start here.

If you are teaching your pet a brand new behavior, you would use options two, three, and four.  Let’s dive a little deeper into shaping and prompting so you can see the pros and cons of each.

Shaping

The training technique of shaping involves a process of rewarding some behaviors and not others. The behavior is broken down into steps and you lead your dog to progress through each step taken. When using shaping, you will only be rewarding one step at a time. For example, if you were going to teach your dog to roll over, you would need to break this down into small, achievable steps for your dog. They would first need to lay down, then lay on their side, progress to laying on their back, then rolling to their other side. Depending on the dog, you may have to break the steps down even further – like going from laying on their side to having one leg up but not fully on their back. Once you have the steps lined out, you would start with the very first one and reward your pet each time they perform the action. Once this is preformed consistently, you would move onto the next step and reward when that action of performed. Once you move onto the next step you must stop rewarding for the previous behavior. The key to this technique is staying on one step until it is well established, moving onto the next, and only rewarding one step at a time. This technique can take a little time to get to the end result, but because it is slow going it is great for pets that are fearful or aggressive.

Prompting

The prompting technique is where you would manipulate the animal or the environment to elect, or prompt, a response from your pet. A prompt can be visual, physical, or anything that that encourages your dog to perform the response. A physical prompt could be pushing down on your pets hind end to get them to sit. A visual prompt, which is probably more widely used, would be using a treat and moving it in a way that the dogs head follows and forces them to sit. Prompting is generally more efficient when teaching a new behavior because the behavior is performed more quickly. The hard part of prompting is actually fading the prompt out and keeping the behavior. You can’t give a treat each and every time your dog sits on command for the rest of their life, so the treat (or prompt) gradually has to be faded out. It is best to have a plan on how you will fade the prompt out so you are not stuck prompting your dog forever.

Persistence Pays

When it comes to these two techniques, one is not superior to the other. It all depends on the behavior you want and how your pet learns. You can use either of these techniques to teach a behavior or you can combine the two if needed. The main thing is to find what works best for you and your pet. If you start out with prompting and it doesn’t seem to be working, you can always switch to shaping. Neither is incorrect!

Remember: with behavioral modification techniques, you can always teach an old dog new tricks!