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Can you teach an old dog new tricks? How to change your dog's behavior

You have probably heard the phrase

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks"

...Is it true?

If so it implies that there is an age your dog can turn that means they are no longer trainable.

Thankfully this phrase couldn't be farther from the truth!

However, a dog who has behaved a certain way for a long time is going to have a strong pre-disposition to keep doing that behavior, because at this point it has become a habit.

Habits for dogs are no different than for people, and even the reasons behind them can be very similar.

I find training makes more sense when you think of all of your dog's behaviors as habits rather than just behaviors-

Because when people start focusing on their dog's behavior they tend to only focus on the physical aspects of what their dog does, rather what is a the root of creating that behavior.

Why is that important?

Because if your dog is barking that is their behavior.

People would say "I want my dog to stop barking",

without realizing that making the barking go away wont solve the full issue.

It still doesn't solve the issue of what makes the dog bark in the first place. Which means the thought that caused the barking is still there and will pop up somewhere else as a different behavior when barking is off the table.


maybe your dog barks because they are anxious, but since they can't bark they start chewing furniture instead to alleviate their anxiety...

So now you say "fix the chewing" and then they start digging holes in the yard

...and the cycle goes on and on

If we don't resolve the root issue and teach the dog a way to deal with their anxiety that we approve of, they will just choose a natural dog activity that solves their root anxiety issue for them.

Remember they're dogs not humans so they don't know that chewing/barking/digging isn't allowed in the house-

we have to teach them that AND

an alternate strategy for anxiety that we approve of.

The thought at the root of the initial barking is the long term place where lasting change can occur and where we need to focus.

Before we or our dogs behave we have a thought or a feeling.

So even down to our thoughts and emotions we have ingrained "habits" of thinking.

Which I could write a whole novel on, but I wont go there today.

Dogs are the same way. They also have habits in their thinking, and therefore habits in what they do or how they behave. Some of them are learned and some of them are pre-programmed-sometimes I think people forget that's why breeding was invented!

We bred herding dogs to herd so it makes sense that they are going to herd and have lots and lots of herding thoughts!

To change or leverage these habits I think it's helpful to think of each thought as a trailhead, and the consequent behavior as a trail stemming from that trailhead.

The more we can change that root thought (trailhead), the more power we have to change the subsequent behavior (path taken). This is why changing predictions is such a powerful tool in dog training.

However, the more worn the "trail" is, the quicker and easier your dog will gravitate to that path of thinking and behaving. Therefore the more challenging it can be to get them to switch to a "new path" of thinking.

Think about when you go for a hike how much easier it is to follow the trail, vs to bushwack through the woods and cut your own trail.

When we create a new behavior we are essentially in the bushwacking phase!

And I mean we not they because if your dog has any hope of changing their behavior, you are also picking up a new training habit.

Which means you are going to have to change what you do to change your dog's behavior.

This is where training takes time for you and your dog, and you just have to be patient and dedicated with the growing pains. You are learning a new skill and adopting a new training habit and so is your dog! And you are the nubie teaching them, so there is bound to be confusion and hiccups, and that's ok because that's what learning is all about!

BUT it's also why taking it slow is always going to work out better for you and your dog in the beginning.

Ok so when you "switch paths" like this through your new habits and training you quite literally are switching neural pathways within your dog and yourself. Which is part of why it can be so challenging, because we are all neurolgically wired in specific ways, and to change we need to literally re-wire.

The more we or our dogs practice a new neural pathway the more that new pathway gets "worn down ".Which means the more worn the path gets the more likely the dog is to pick that new path/habit over their old habit or behavior.

This is why everything we do with our dogs becomes a conversation.

We speak with our body language to our dogs and they are always watching and listening.

This is where the opportunity to learn so much about ourselves comes into training.

Your dog is essentially a clean slate in many ways because they just pick behaviors that work for them or have worked for them. They don't pick them to put you down.

Contrary to what you may have heard or thought, dogs do not do things out of spite, jealousy, to embarass you, or to impress their friends.

We do that!

We as humans tend to personalize what our dogs do rather than seeing what our dogs do as a refleciton of how we respond to them.

Because it's not always an easy pill to swallow.

Does your dog ever make you feel embarassed, angry, scared, or frustrated when they don't do what you ask?

Do you ever struggle to advocate and set boundaries for your dog?

Do you give up easily when training isn't working right away? Do you seek a quick fix?

These experiences teach us a lot about our own reactions, and way of being in the world. They also make us human!

I think one of the most beautiful teachings our dogs offer us is to learn how to ground down and find peace through presence regardless of how we feel internally, or what we are experiencing in the moment.

The more you train your dog the more you will realize that if you don't change your internal habits, you will struggle to change your dog's external behaviors or your own in a lasting way.

There are many reasons in our own development that cause us to respond to things the way we do. It's not right or wrong, it's just what is.

Our dogs provide that mirror and grant us the opportunity for growth and change without judgement. It is the gateway to presence, to peace, to true happiness.

It's the side of training that makes us human.

I think our dogs help us reconnect with all the things that make us more human.

Read all about Val and her animals on her About page!

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