Working with older dogs – Reggie

Reggieandhydrangeassept202013 012Reggie, the 8-year-old Jack Russell terrier, has been with us since the end of July and he has many excellent qualities and several strong, irritating and persistent things that he does, which I have worked on for the last, almost, three months. Persistence, Ugh! Older dogs with ingrained habits tend to take a lot of re-training to get them to change their ways.

He’s funny, fast, strong, determined, cuddly, is good at sticking close outside, comes when called at high-speed, is good around dogs he doesn’t know, good around the horses and the cat, plays lots of games and will work for food or games or attention. He came with a repertoire of stuff like dock diving and some tricks, I’ve expanded it.

On the downside he is anxious if crated or kenneled, will shred quilts, is possessive about toys, wants my undivided attention, wants to and will vigorously chase the UPS truck/man,

Photo by William J. Grimes This is a picture o...

historically has nipped a couple of people, is compulsive about rocks and will rip up grass by the roots while playing with them (a lot of lawn), won’t let go of things he’s fetched, occasionally marks inside (two instances), loudly barks and bounces up to demand things, and is willing to get up on anything to get what he wants. And he has allergies.

Prevention/Management: As with any new dog/puppy that comes into this household his liberty was quite restricted at first and he still doesn’t get unobserved time to just do whatever his terrier mind wants to in the house (I want to prevent instances of marking, ripping, climbing or potential chasing/grabbing of whatever). And for the allergies; grain free food, sardines a couple of times a week for omega 3s, and Benadryl three-times a day, Calm skin oil massages in the real itchy times.

While prevention and redirection will often be enough with a young pup (because they haven’t experienced the joys of disassembling quilts or chasing the UPS guy) with an older dog who has done these things dozens of times, has gotten thrills and attention (good and bad) for the behaviors, it just isn’t enough and I don’t plan on managing these fixable issues forever.

Tools: crates in the house several locations, tethers, leashes, Gentle Leader head halter, outside kennel, clicker, treats/food, hand feeding in training games several times daily, chew toys, tugs, retrieve toys, rocks, other trained dogs….

The Fix: The repair of these kinds of problems starts with building a good relationship based on the dog’s strengths. What does he like best (just think of the issues he has) and how can I capitalize on that – use these/transform these to get rid of the problems, and avoid reprimands – I’m sure he’s heard enough of those in his eight years already, and eliminate the rewards for the unwanted behaviors.

But as I said above, he vocally hates and is distressed with confinement/separation and to start preventing the continuation of the things like shredding, marking and chasing he needs to be confined when he isn’t being watched or interacted with. So one of the first things is to work on acceptance and learning to like going into and staying in the crate or kennel, which is part of him being able to handle his separation and barrier anxiety. This is important stuff.

I started with him in his crate right next to me at night and while I did other work. I threw toys, filled Kongs and his food into his crate. We played games going into and coming out of the crate. I hand fed all of his meals included being in the crate and out and going in again. Training things like sit, down, stand, touch, go, come, tricks, find it, wait were done with the crate – in and out of the crate – still are being done in the crate games using food and games as rewards.

I try to have his intervals in the crate end before he would want to bark or whine or paw or push on the crate, but if he starts doing these things immediately I wait silently until he stops before I let him out or give him any attention. I am extremely consistent about what the key criteria were for him getting out of the crate – quiet (this progressively became longer intervals of quiet), no contact with crate door (this became a cued sit or down and waiting for release cue), calm (this progressively became calmer). Outside in the kennel the dog in the next run, who was quiet got clicks and food rewards and when Reggie stopped his barking then he would get clicked and reward too.

I learned his bark patterns and sounds to identify the difference between a need for water/potty and just the ‘I don’t want to be in here,’ but still aimed for my criteria for release.

He learned he needed to sit or down and stay in that posture until the door was open and he was released. He’s learned to run into the crate from a distance. He no longer shivers or cowers when kenneling up is indicated. He still has times when he complains or throws a short tantrum when the gate is latched and everybody else is out and moving around. But now he can usually handle being in it and not being able to see me.

He’s getting there, but not speedily. Mostly any complaints he has are short-lived, not mind bending marathons.

In his out of crate time we did/do games, visits to the vet clinic, library, downtown during a parade with head halter on for socialization. He’s much less scared of the vet clinic, handled the crowd at the parade just fine (we kept it short), is getting to be a much better Frisbee catcher and has mostly stopped barking to demand a fetch game – sometimes he just gets carried away and then I turn my back and if necessary walk away or if I already have the item in my hand I walk towards him until he is ready to offer a non-bark accompanied sit or a down, or put it in my pocket (out of sight) – but barking at me does not produce a game.

So where are we now? Well, now the management piece has become much easier (not perfect yet). He has much better skills but still needs stronger understanding especially on his more driven focuses, i.e, the UPS truck, tug and rock play. The shredding has to be watched for, but he will stop quickly if prompted with a kiss sound to come away. Currently I’ve removed any easily ripped up items and only have more durable materials around (this is a management strategy to use while I continue to clarify what I want him to chew on/play with). The release of toys has been mostly with a trade, but also at times with a collar hold to stop the ability to tug.

The wish to play and tug is a great thing, it will be the tool used to clarify his focus and to avoid UPS truck/man chases. The rock play, which is an extremely driven behavior, will be used and is being used to clarify at a higher level that barking and bouncing do not get results and that control cues being followed do get results of more rock play.

Can an old dog learn new tricks, sure they can. Can they get over/learn to manage their anxieties, often yes, especially if you use their likes/wishes to accomplish it. Does it need persistence and confidence building and alternative behaviors and alternative strategies – hell yes!


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sounds like Reggie has come a long way already. I agree – you CAN teach an old dog new tricks – I tell people that all the time. It takes longer to change behavior of an older dog than it does to shape behavior with a puppy but it is still done the same way. Prevention/management, having the right tools and goals and using what he likes to teach him to do what you like – a good recipe for success! 🙂


    1. Thanks Linda, I think he has too, most of the time:)But it’s sure nice to hear that somebody else thinks so too.


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