I just fed my dog his dinner, and am reminded once again of the age-old adage says that “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.” Recently, I determined to test this decidedly negative behavioral theory. As a result, the outcome encourages me in my own efforts toward building new healthful habits to help my battle against systemic lupus. This adventure started with an annoyance that I determined had to be stopped, and ended with profoundly reformed behavior in my aging dog. I proved that even old dachshunds with greying noses can be retrained in their declining years, so there is still hope for me.
How old is that old dog?
Rudy is fifteen years old next month, and not a pup by anyone’s standards. In the most conservative of “dog years” that makes him equal in age to an 80 year old person, and by many people’s standards he could be as old as 105. You can’t tell him that, because he still thinks and tries to act youthful, exuberant and only recently ceased jumping waist-high to peer at approaching visitors through the window in the kitchen door. He still thinks he is a puppy, even though he can no longer jump up on our bed due to some doggie arthritis.
I miss seeing Rudy popping up and down, with his rust colored miniature long hair dachshund ears flopping up and down in mid-air as I unlocked the door each evening. I greeted him with the commentary, “jumping doggies”. It was pretty cute behavior and lasted for well over a dozen years. He is still decidedly enthusiastic about everything.
Perky behavior gone awry!
That same perky behavioral trait became a source of exasperating annoyance and began to wear on me. At some point, it was not so cute any more. My little dog began demonstrating some serious anti-social behavior, exacerbated after my daughter and her husband came to live with us. He seemed ultra-motivated by the presence of four adults in the kitchen each evening, all gathering around the stove chatting socially as I finished cooking. He didn’t like being ignored by the humans in his kitchen.
As dinner is just about ready to be served, many nights we stand around at the counter after I have put dinner on the plates to pray together before dispersing to sit in front of computers or televisions with our meal. Other nights, we stand around and chat for a while while I finish, and then sit down at stools around the large kitchen counter and eat together.
Paws in our prayer time
Rudy began identifying this family gathering and prayer time as an excellent opportunity to get attention and remind us it was time for his dinner or for a water refill in his bowl. His food sits at the base of the counter, just to the side of the stove area. Each night he started yelping, barking, jumping and cavorting to get our attention, dancing around our feet, tripping us and creating chaos. He would grab his bowl in his mouth and flip it on the tile floor, annoying us even more. High volume and yapping kept escalating until one of us would finally raise our voice in exasperation and shout at him loud enough to get him to stop, “RUDY!”
After the outburst, the congenial chatter was disrupted, and a stressful sense of irritation was felt by all the humans in the room. Yelling at Rudy made everyone on edge, and we had all succumbed to the temptation, pretty much taking turns. Four adults had become victims and Rudy was the perpetrator! Meanwhile, after disrupting our conversation and invoking our ire, Rudy would roll around on the floor wagging his tail in front of us in victory. It wasn’t long before we were getting pretty fed up with the dog. What could we do?
Theory: I am smarter than the dog!
I theorized that he felt rewarded by the intense attention he received after accomplishing his twisted anti-social goal to become the nightly focus. This was clear when he often did not even eat the food we had put down to shut him up! My sneaky little dog was pretty smart and had figured out how to make us notice him by acting out with bad behavior, much like a child, until he got our attention. Perhaps I should consider if there was a better way to meet his real little doggie need better.
Yelling at him simply didn’t work any better than it had with my strong-willed children. Dachshunds are known for their stubbornness. In fact, hollering fueled his (and my kids’) poor behavior more. I knew I had to be smarter than the dog! I pondered how to change the behavior of my old dog, and toyed with how to apply the proven concept of conditioned response to find a solution. I wondered if it would it work at his age, or was he just too old to learn a “new trick?”
I began interrupting his antics with verbal and visual hand commands to sit and then lay down and stay. I consistently worked with him until he would finally respond each time and lay all the way down and stay in that place until fed. Within just a few days he started connecting the reward of being fed or getting water with the sequence of first being made to sit in a specific position on the rug by his bowls.
I make him stay down and be quiet while I fill the bowl, and while holding it in my hand, I squat down and pat him on the head and pet him, telling him softly how much better I like him being such a good dog. Any time he would get up from “the position” before I was done, I would stop getting him food and go back to doing something else, reminding him meanwhile to return to the “please feed me pose” using the visual command of pointing down, while saying “down.” Once he would resume the proper pose, I would resume getting the food.
When I have his food, I signal him to stay down until I place the bowl on the floor and say “okay, go ahead.” I stuck to this training consistently, and within a couple of days he got the idea, and within a week he had learned it. It has been a month now, and he is consistently behaving properly in the kitchen. If he starts his earlier antics, a hand gesture stops him and he grudgingly (but quietly) assumes “the pose” and waits for me.
The old dog learned new tricks
As a result, he is getting positive attention and affection, on my terms instead of getting yelled at. He has learned to quietly sit in the “feed me pose” on his own, without being told to so. Each time, we reward him with the pat on the head, kind words and then food. Also, we have let him know it does not work any other time. He doesn’t get to use it to push our buttons to make us do things like give him treats. This “communication” is only to tell us he wants food or water, and only works twice a day, at normal doggie meal times.
The problem was solved. We again have control of our pre-dinner chat time, and my old dog has again accepted that he will not be rewarded for trying to be an annoying center of attention. I won! I am smarter than my dog! Hurray! (Was there a doubt?)
Next, I began to correlate what I had learned from Rudy, and started to think about myself and the need to consistently exercise, and to lose about 25 pounds. I thought to myself, if my very old dog can learn a new positive behavior at this advanced stage of his life, what about me? At 55 is it too late to get weight off and drop a couple of dress sizes? In the last year I have gained 10 more pounds. I don’t want to do that annually, or very soon I will have grave health troubles!
I am inspired with new goal to drop to 155 while I am still 55. I need to comply with my doctor’s exercise goals, and eat the healthy diet that used to be my normal eating patterns before the kids moved in with us. I have most of a year left to develop the self-discipline, healthier eating habits and meet my exercise and weight loss goals.
After all, if my old dog Rudy can change his behavior in a week, surely I can succeed in the adventure of accomplishing my exercise and weight loss goal this year!
Surely, I am smarter than my dog!