My partner and I adopted Ursa when she was 11 months old. She was still puppy-like, but could sit and shake hands. Part boxer, pit and labrador retriever, she also came equipped with excellent fetching skills. We did a group puppy training class and she learned how to âwait,â lie âdownâ and âcome.â
We also did some in-home training to make her less reactive when people came to the door. She and the trainer licked that one in no time: Now, instead of barking, Ursa simply picks up one of her stuffed toys or a stray shoe (she never hurts them) to greet visitors.
As the years ticked by I wanted to do more training, but never pulled the trigger. Ursa is, for the most part, well behaved (apologies to the postal workers who, inexplicably, are the target of her ferocious barking), so it never seemed essential. Still, I thought, should we have nurtured her natural physical ability with agility classes? Should we have taught her new skills to keep her mind active? Now that she is 10, is it too late?
âItâs a total myth that you canât teach an old dog new tricks,â says Laura Strimpel, owner of Taproot Dog Training, who paid a home visit on a fall Saturday afternoon to show us how.
There are some factors to consider, however, when working with older dogs, says Strimpel, who also recently opened Northpaw, a day care for small dogs and cats. Physiological issues, like joint health, must be weighed: âWhat can your dog physically do? You wouldnât want to get her into agility or fly ball where sheâs doing a lot of running, jumping or turning. She could totally blow something out.â
The next step is to determine âwhat your dog is naturally inclined to do.â Thatâs why Strimpel starts training sessions with a questionnaire to determine your dogâs breed and, therefore, natural inclinations like retrieving and hunting.
Strimpel says mental stimulation games are good for senior dogs, and itâs all about learning how to stack skills. âDoes Ursa shake?â she asks. âYep.â âDoes she know high five?â âNope.â
âItâs the same thing,â says Strimpel. âYou just move your hand.â Weâre still working on this one.
We had originally asked Strimpel about teaching Ursa to flip a treat from her nose to mouth. She very diplomatically told us that is not a trick you start with. Dogs donât naturally welcome you into their space, so moving in close to a dogâs face in order to balance a treat on the nose is no small feat. Hereâs where the baby steps come in.
Strimpel had Ursa lie down with her paws out in front. She placed one treat on one paw, told Ursa to wait, and blocked Ursa with her hand if Ursa moved toward the treat. Weâve been practicing this one since our training and are now able to place a treat on each paw and have Ursa wait. We once snuck a treat onto her nose, but she didnât like it very much. This one is going to take more work.
We do consistently practice our favorite new command â âtouchâ or what we have named âbump.â âItâs a terrific building-block cue,â says Strimpel,. âOnce you know touch, you can teach how to push things and identify objects.â
We simply have Ursa sit and then hold one of our fists out in front of us. She bumps our hand and gets a treat. Itâs simple and fun, probably just because itâs new. We can now build on that skill to try something else â like getting Ursa to use her nose to close the cabinet door where we keep her food and treats.
Obviously none of these are going to win ribbons at a dog show, but I do think our old pup has enjoyed learning new things and being tested a bit. Or maybe itâs just us.