Monday, January 23, 2012

Training and the Senior Pooch, a discussion with Canine Coach, Eugenia Vogel

The more I learned about dogs, the more I realize what complex creatures they are, each with their own personalities. I've learned plenty on my own through trial and error, but I felt it was important to get the perspective of a professional to help round out our knowledge about the potential of senior dogs, as well as understand what motivates our canine counterparts.  Lucky for us, Canine Coach Eugenia Vogel, a trainer for the past 20 years, agreed to share some of her knowledge on training in the interview that follows:

SP: How did you get started in training?
EV: My dad trained dogs in the military, and he showed me how to train our Doberman when I was eight years old.  He was using the much outdated and irrelevant information from decades ago, where it was common practice to wait until a dog was six months old before beginning training, then use a choke chain.  (There are so many reasons this isn’t appropriate for dogs – but that’s another interview!)  Fortunately, my dad’s training modeled for me some key things -  training with respect, be clear in what you want, and enjoy your dog.  He showed me a bunch of tricks to teach our dog, and we all had a lot of fun with training.

SP: When working with older shelter dogs is there anything special that you do to learn what behaviors they already have learned?
EV: No.  Because their history is longer than a younger dog, they may have acquired more good or bad habits, and behaviors have been set very firmly over years.  But dogs from adolescence to old age have in common the survival tactic of kind of “laying low”, not showing their true personality, for a few weeks, until they’ve surmised the safety of their environment and new roommates.  Any dog coming from a shelter should be evaluated at least two or three times by a trainer or behavior specialist for safety factors – dog/dog or dog/people aggression, resource guarding, any behavior that will need environmental management and training.

SP: The old saying goes "You can't teach an old dog new tricks", which I know is far from true. Are there different steps that you take when training older dogs vs. let's say their younger counterparts?

EV: Not as a set-in-stone rule; each dog is different, young or old, and many factors play into this.  History does have a big part in it – a bit more often than not, abuse takes a toll that requires longer rehab times than a younger dog who’s been abused.   This certainly isn’t a generalization; I’ve worked with senior dogs who were in terrible situations in a previous time in their lives just bloom and relax in a few weeks.  What I’d like to stress is that seniors can have mild cognitive deterioration, just like we can, and as a rule, I suggest doubling the amount of time you expect your senior dog to display the desired results of training.

I’m glad to report I’ve met many, many senior dogs who had a long history of training and saw it all as a really fun game; those dogs are always in “the zone”.  The training zone is when a dog first gets hooked on the fact the right training is a complete blast, and they learn each new behavior faster than the last, figuring out what their person wants as fast as possible for the most amount of fun.  These happy seniors would leave any year-old untrained dog in the training dust!

Of course, if aggression is in the picture, you need to hire a professional who uses positive reinforcement and motivational techniques.  It’s too important a behavior problem to leave to chance. 

SP: What are some of the factors that determine how fast a dog can learn and will retain something it has been taught?
EV: As mentioned above, a dog with a history of fun, gentle, effective training is a learning machine.  Other than that, there are so many variables that need to be worked on for a great training and learning scenario.  You could take a dog into 10 different living situations and get 10 different results as far as how long the training takes, but one common denominator is learning how to reinforce good behavior to keep new behaviors sharp, so the slight difference in how long training takes really isn’t that big of a deal.  It’s important to not rush training, to have the best chance at your dog retaining content and sharpness of what he or she has learned.

Humans need to learn gentle training methods from classes, in-home training, reading and videos.  An awesome starting point is http://www.dogstardaily.com/.  And go to http://www.apdt.com/ to start your trainer search and look for someone in your area just by typing in your zip code.  We also need to realistically consider the dog’s new environment; are there lots of people in the family, with very different levels of training skills?  How often is the dog trained?  Are there unintentional saboteurs setting the training back by feeding from the table or allowing leash-pulling?  Is the environment quiet enough in the early stages of training, before building up to distractions, for your dog to be relaxed enough to learn?  The list goes on…but you get the idea.

Then there are breed-specific learning curves.  For example, how long do you think it would take a Border Collie to learn to herd?  How about a Bichon Frise?  Take a dog’s breed or known breeds of a mix into consideration.  The cool thing is when a dog’s used to training and loves it, it’s really fun to teach a dog something completely unexpected from that breed!  For example, the team of black Standard Poodles who ran in the Iditarod.  Poodle people won’t be the least surprised that they did extremely well! 

SP: Have you ever been surprised about a behavior or reaction a dog had during one of your training sessions? What happened?
EV: This may sound odd, but not really.  A great perk of working with people and their dogs is seeing their surprise when their dog reacts quickly or very well to training something new; it’s a game-changer.  Their eyes light up, and they can’t wait to take over the training!  They gush and go on about how awesome their dog is, feeling optimistic about training after seeing a quick learn.  More than one client has shed a tear at the up-until-then unknown learning skills their dog has.  As with most humans, it’s just our nature that if we’re having a bit of difficulty with something, a third party’s input really helps.

SP: Do you have any tips for owners to help them reinforce all of a dogs good habits and prevent them from backsliding into undesirable behaviors?
EV: Yes!  Start talking!!!  Here’s the thing about maintaining training – constant feedback.  Sounds easy, right? But in the early stages of training, if you’re not inhaling, you should be giving your dog feedback.  The can’t read our minds all the time!  It’s not a natural thing to be blabbing to your dog all the time, but it sure is a key element to a great dog/person team.  Of course as time goes by and training gets easier and easier for both you and your dog, praising the better and then even better results takes a bit less talking.  Unfortunately, as a species, if we don’t see it, feel it or hear it, we don’t address it, one way or another.  This is really a black hole for dog training.  

A dog will repeat what is rewarded.  Let them know!  You’ll be your own best teacher for this, because if you’re doing it, then don’t do it, you’ll see a huge difference in behavior and much less eye contact from your dog.  Forget what you think people will think – your relationship with your dog is way more important than that. 

Once again I'd like to thank Eugenia for her time and all of the great knowledge that she's shared. I personally have learned quite a bit in the process. While it's always good to be engaged in your dog's training, it's inspiring to know that there are folks out there like Eugenia who have made it their life's purpose to help dogs and their people enjoy the time that they have together.

About Eugenia Vogel, Canine Coach
Eugenia learned at a young age how to train dogs when her dad showed her how to train the family Doberman puppy, and she's been honing that skill ever since.  She joined the Association of Pet Dog Trainers as it was just starting up, and has attended seminars, conferences and workshops all over the country, learning from the world's top trainers, who use science-based, gentle methods for training and behavior modification.

She's been helping people with their dog training needs for over 20 years, and continues to attend industry-related seminars.  Eugenia has written many articles and instructional materials for online and print publications, and continues to be rewarded with client referrals from people who's relationship with their dogs has become so much more enjoyable and fun with her coaching.  Approaching training with respect for the dog and the two-legged family members is crucial to any successful training program; Eugenia provides knowledge, skill and understanding to everyone in the family.

She based out of Torrance California and can be reached on her website at: http://www.canine-coach.net/.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the super tips! We added an eight year old dog to our family a month ago.She knew only sit,her name and to wait to eat her food until permission given.
    It has been easy working with her as she is a delight and food motivated. Ember has mastered "down" although it took some time. I do know this is a tricky command to teach,and not as easy as others.
    She was recently spayed so training has been put on hold.She took three days to learn to retrieve but it has now become a favorite past time for the two and four legged in our home to bond.
    I will be sharing this wonderful interview with my dog loving contacts :) Thank you Becky

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