Can an old dog learn new tricks? In celebration of Responsible Pet Ownership Month (September), we chatted with Animal Planet Pet Expert Andrea Arden to learn the answer to that age-old-question...and for her take on the do's and don'ts of owning a dog, obedience and keeping your pup happy.
Parade: How do you know you're ready to be a responsible dog owner?
Andrea Arden: One of the first questions you have to ask yourself is why do you want a pet? All too often I hear people say, "My kids have been asking for one," or, "I love puppies." While those certainly can be good starting points, people need to take a moment to realize that is—hopefully—a 15 or more-year commitment, and a puppy or a kitten is only a puppy or a kitten for so long. People who understand first and foremost how long that commitment is are oftentimes the best pet parents.
Parade: What about the financial responsibilities?
Arden: People need to be realistic about the cost of having a pet, and that not only is there that initial adoption fee or that cost, but there’s the ongoing cost of having a pet which sometimes can be quite high—there may be an emergency medical treatment; there’s grooming; there’s toys; there’s high-quality food; there's cleanup tools, all of that adds up.
Parade: Can you be a responsible dog owner if you have a busy schedule?
Arden: We all find that our time is very limited and it can be hard to juggle everything, so I suggest that people really do consider the fact that whether it’s a dog or a cat, they do require quality time from us. You need to figure out ways to get that time into your daily schedule because without doing so, sometimes it can result in behavior problems—whether it be separation issues, destructive chewing or barking (which can disturb the neighbors). It's also important to choose tools that enrich your pet's life. Enrichment toys, which are food stuffable, allow dogs and cats to essentially hunt for their food by pushing them around with their noses and paws. At first people think, "I'm not supposed to feed my pet out of their bowl?" But if they're sitting around all day not doing much, when you give them something to do and engage them in this way it makes them less likely to have behavior issues and more likely to be happy because they're doing something with their time.
Parade: What about hiring a dog walker or taking your dog to daycare?
Arden: Doggie daycare is super popular across the country. Do I think that a lot pets would probably be happier if they were at home with their families? Sure. Is that reasonable? Typically not. As for dog walkers, it depends on how your dog reacts to them. If your dog is excited when they interact, it is a nice way of expanding his or her social circle and including other people who bring him or her joy into daily life. So whatever makes it work for people financially and time management-wise I’m a huge fan of because I’d rather see an animal in a home with multiple caregivers who are responsible than an animal whose family says, "We just don’t have the time for them single-handedly, so we just have to re-home them."
Parade: House training is stressful for many first-time dog owners. Any tips?
Arden: Unfortunately a lot of the animals that are surrendered to the shelters are surrendered for the simple fact that they're not house trained and it really is not that difficult of a process if you make things easier for yourself and your pet from the get-go. When you adopt a new animal, regardless of how diligent you are, odds are that you're going to go through a period where you're going to have to put time into cleanup. You need to be sure that you thoroughly clean up accidents because you don’t want your animals to remark. Pet parents need to be really focused on time management, and one way one of the ways they can manage their time better is by choosing tools that support you and your animal. Stainmaster Pet Protect Carpet is a really good option because it does make things a lot easier—it's resistant to stains, it reduces pet odor and it helps release pet hair.
Parade: Is it true you can't teach an old dog (or cat) new tricks?
Arden: Absolutely not. Studies show that dogs moving into their senior years thrive, and actually have a better chance of being healthier physically and mentally if they're given tasks to do, if they can learn new behaviors. It’s beneficial not only for senior dogs who are already in our lives, but when we adopt a senior animal (which is an amazing thing to do because their chances of being adopted are far less than puppies or kittens). I think that it’s important for people to realize you have this wonderful opportunity for a fresh start. So even though the dog may have had a history in a previous home--and it may not have been the best history if the dog was surrendered--that doesn’t mean that who they are at that moment can’t be resolved; it most certainly can. And there's a better chance of a behavioral issue being resolved in a new home because they have a fresh start. So absolutely you can teach an old dog new tricks...and that holds true for people as well!
Parade: Can you share any obedience tips?
Arden: I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years and when I started my career, training really was a more military-style. The old-fashioned way we would get a dog to come when we called was to put them on a long leash, put them in a spot and tell them to stay. We’d march away and tell them to come and yank on the leash to get them to come to us. What we realized over the years was that that wasn’t a way to create a dog who enthusiastically responded off leash when you wanted them to come back to you.
Now we teach dogs to come when called using a fun game called hand targeting. It’s so simple you can teach the beginnings of it in three minutes. You present the palm of your hand to your dog. Out of curiosity, they're going to touch it with their nose. You say "yes!" the moment their cute little nose touches your hand and then you give them a tiny little treat. Repeat that over and over during a three to five minute session and, in time, your dog will have what we call a "light bulb moment" and understand that when they come over and touch their nose to your hand, that’s when they will hear that magic word that says what you just did was right (which is yes). Over the next week or two, you can start to practice at a further distance away from your dog and over time, you'll find that you can present your palm to your dog and say "here" or "touch" and your dog will enthusiastically run over and touch their nose to your hand, which means you’ve now taught your dog to happily come when you call.
The great thing about the way we teach these life skills now is that anyone can do it. Whether it’s somebody like myself or a young child or a person in their senior years; it doesn’t require brute force, it doesn’t require an advanced understanding of animal behavior, it’s really the very simple concept of turning training into a fun game.