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You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

For this year’s Beast of the Bay edition, I thought I would share with you a little bit of information about my other Bay Area-born endeavor. Don’t worry; it is also a dog-oriented venture, albeit one that deals with the other side of the coin from puppyhood.

What do I mean by other side of the coin? Well, at SIRIUS Puppy Training, our local puppy training school, our mission is to teach new puppy owners how to best communicate with and manage their brand new puppy in order to prevent common and predictable behavior problems from becoming lifelong annoying or even dangerous habits. Let me rephrase that: In puppy school, we don’t actually address behavior problems so much as we address normal puppy behaviors that people perceive as problems. We teach owners how to get their pup to do the kind of things we humans would prefer over most normal canine behavior.

Let’s take house training, for example. While peeing and pooping are completely normal puppy behaviors I hardly think any true dog lover could object to, most folks would prefer that their puppy learn to eliminate outdoors, perhaps even in a specifically designated doggy toilet area. So if you have a house-training issue, the problem isn’t that your dog eliminates; the problem is where he chooses to do so and maybe also whether he’s able to “hold it” for a bit, and if so, for how long. Anyway, I digress. Puppy class gets ’em while they are young and impressionable and sets them on the right path, away from destruction and toward a long life in a loving home. We teach people how to sculpt their roly-poly puppy-clay into the dog of their dreams.

On the other side of the coin, we have the fallen or forgotten. Shelter dogs. In most cases, shelter dogs are also perfectly normal dogs, but ones that perhaps did not get the memo about how picky we humans are about living with canine companions once the puppy honeymoon is over. Perhaps they are unlucky dogs that never received nor therefore benefited from early guidance and training; dogs with owners who thought puppy behavior was cute until 40 pounds later; or dogs with owners who stuck their head in the sand and assumed that their puppy would “just grow out of it” whatever the “it.”

Shelter dogs generally end up in shelters through little to no fault of their own. Most are quite young, teenagers really. And we all know that teenagers have lots of energy, low impulse control, and have not yet learned how to pilot their bodies that have grown to adult size before their brains. Remember all of those normal doggy behaviors I mentioned above? Normal dog behaviors left unchecked beyond puppyhood are the types of behavior we call “behavior problems.” Things like house soiling, chewing, barking, digging, pulling on the leash, jumping up on people, guarding food or toys, etc. When puppies do these things, we call it cute; maybe they end up in puppy class if they are lucky. When adult dogs do these things, they are labeled as “bad” dogs and end up in shelters.

So, while my primary dog business is all about steering puppies into the glorious sunset, Open Paw, my animal shelter program, picks up at the other end of the spectrum. Open Paw is a nonprofit educational program for shelter animal residents as well as for shelter workers and volunteers. We train people and dogs (and cats, too) because it is essential to educate at both ends of the leash to produce the best results. Think of Open Paw as a finishing school for dogs that also does a public service by preparing people how to speak in a way dogs will understand. In an Open Paw shelter, everyone speaks a common language via training principles and protocols, and we teach in a way that makes learning fun for everyone.

In most shelters, dogs come in lacking the skills they need to make it in a companion dog home. Then, while in the shelter environment, even with the most well meaning of them, these problems become worse because it can be difficult to create good habits in an institutional setting. Additionally, new, undesirable habits also form very quickly as a kenneled dog begins to adjust or sensitize to life in a shelter. Think about shelters you’ve visited: barking, jumping, lunging, and reactivity are the norm in so many of them, as are tons of uneaten kibble sitting in an oversized bowl and an absence of chew toys or any sort of environmental enrichment beyond perhaps a blanket.

Our goal at Open Paw is to assure every dog in the shelter environment gets hand-fed and handled by humans every day, two to four predictable potty breaks outside of their kennel each day, environmental enrichment toys to keep boredom at bay while they await their new home, downtime in a real-life room or shelter office area away from the noisy and overwhelming kennel area so they can remember what it is like to feel calm and secure, and, finally, pro-active training throughout their day that helps improve the skills that will also help them find and excel in a lifelong loving home.

So, while I will always maintain that it is so much easier and more efficient to teach a puppy good habits from the outset, one can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. It’s never too late to train.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.

Main article photo by: Dave Parker-Creative Commons