I found a picture the other day of our dear Butch doing a behavior he was most known for, sitting up with his front paws in the air. It was something we didn’t need to teach. Butch would walk up to anyone and just sit like that, and undoubtedly we got a lot of questions – ‘What does he want?’
He was a really special little guy, as were and are all of our pets. Through the years I’ve seen three of our dogs live through being a senior with many health declines such as loss of hearing and vision, arthritis, and other medical issues. They all had special places in our hearts, and it wasn’t always easy to see their struggles.
We bring animals into our homes for companionship and what they give us in return is something so beautiful and meaningful. Unconditional love and the feeling of being valued by another being is a basic need we all share. Pets provide that to us. I think that is why we see time and again why people will spend money on their pets’ well being before they will on themselves, and why we mourn their loss to the extent that we do.
It is also why, when reknown dog trainer and behaviorist Kathy Sdao stood before us at the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Expo with tears swelling in her eyes as she spoke of her most recent loss of one of her own, each one of us in the audience had a lump in our throat as well.
Her presentation was one of several that she gave at the Expo. This one was on tips for ‘Teaching, Loving & Living with Your Older Dog.’
I’ve read and heard much advice on this topic from others but Kathy had a beautiful way of talking about concepts familiar to all of us as dog trainers and reminding us how that science can be applied to add quality of life to our older pets.
Here are a few of the points she shared:
Use classical conditioning to kindle the spark of life
Classical conditioning (also referred to associative or respondent learning) occurs when a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with an existing eliciting stimulus. It’s important to note that this is not learning new behaviors, but conditioning new elicitors for reflex responses.
To help you understand – A real life example of this is the dog who salivates at the sound of the can opener because it has been repeatedly paired with yummy food or that same dog who begins exhibiting a fear response (panting, rapid breathing, muscle tension) around men in white coats after a man in a white coat repeatedly did things to cause that dog pain. A child who has been bullied in a classroom may begin to perspire, get nausea, and have increased heart rate before entering that classroom again.
How does this apply to the spark in older dogs?
Well, understanding this, Kathy reminded us to make a list of what still gets our dog’s heart pulsing, tail wagging and legs moving. If we repeatedly pair something that our dog ignores with something on that list, eventually the presence of those ignored activities or objects may serve to get his heart pulsing, tail wagging and body to move.
Use operant conditioning to provide a happy retirement
With operant conditioning, behaviors are learned, strengthened and modified based upon the past consequences of those behaviors. If a behavior serves to get the animal something of value (positive reinforcement), then that behavior will increase and/even strengthen in the future. If a behavior serves to get the animal something aversive (punishment), then that behavior will be suppressed in the future.
What a powerful tool operant behaviors are to the quality of life of an animal!
Kathy reminded us to think about those behaviors that we would like to see more of in our older dog and look for opportunities to reinforce those behaviors with what is of value to him.
With young puppies, for example, we may want to teach calm behaviors like laying down and sitting but we want to actually encourage movement in senior dogs. Behaviors like pre-walk barking and turning in circles that we discourage in a young dog, we want to encourage to our older dog. How do we do that? Simply, when our dog barks and turns in a circle, we put his leash on him and maybe even give him a nice, smelly treat. (assuming those are two things he values)
Expect changes in compliance
It is important to remember that our dog’s ability to do some behaviors may be limited because of physical decline – cognitive acuity, sensory deficits, and/or musculo-skeletal degradation. His responses to our cues may no longer be flashy like sitting in a split second. “Let go of the dog you remembered,” Kathy told us, “and see the older, stiffer, confused dog doing her best.”
For clarity, we can transfer cues from those using visual and auditory senses (like the word ‘sit’ or a hand signal) to more tactile and olfactory senses (like a touch or the scent of lavender).
Another important behavior to reinforce, Kathy reminded us, is eating, as appetite fades with age. Some common mistakes Kathy spoke of include:
- free feeding (please click here to read my post about free feeding)
- putting all of our dog’s food in his bowl instead of using some for training
- trumping the meal in our dog’s bowl (if he does not eat it, then we add something better)
- lower the value of the food by following it with an aversive
- handfeeding our dog if he stops eating
Instead, apply the same principles for teaching eating as we teach anything else. If we want our dogs to eat MORE from their bowl, then WHILE they are eating from their bowl, we can add a high value treat.
About Kathy Sdao:
Kathy has been passionate about animal training ever since she quit a good job to move halfway around the world to train dolphins at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory at the University of Hawaii. Now, 30 years later, she offers her expertise as a certified behaviorist to dog owners in Washington State and across the world, to seminar and webinar audiences and to professional training organizations. Please click here to visit her site.