Old Dog, New Tricks

George is a very good dog, and a much-loved member of our family. His personality is amazing, which is what makes him such a perfect fit for our household. He’s laid-back, but goofy. He loves everyone he meets, and is absolutely exceptional with babies and small children. Despite his enormous size, he’s very gentle. However, like humans, dogs are not born perfect, and they need lots of practice to be the best that they can be.

When we adopted him, he was already house-trained, and saying his name would get his attention. He knew basic commands like “sit,” “lie down,” and “come here.” Still, he had some behavioral issues that needed to be ironed out, as is the case with all animals, but especially rescues. Training is also something that should be a life-long process. Even the best behaved canine can benefit from ongoing training because it provides them with intellectual stimulation. This is the story of how we teach George.

At the time of his adoption, George was six or seven years old, so some of his undesirable traits were pretty well ingrained in him. That old adage is false, though. You can definitely teach an old dog new tricks. First, I want to outline our philosophy on animal training so you have an idea of where we’re coming from. We subscribe to the Patricia McConnell school of thought and own several of her books. We find this to be the most ethical and effective means of dog training. Cesar Millan’s approach has gained a lot of popularity due to his television show, but his methods seem to train dogs how to live in packs of other dogs, rather than in houses with humans.

It is extremely important that you NEVER use corporeal punishment on a dog (or any animal for that matter). Doing so would be both cruel and pointless. Physical punishment does not discourage behavior in the vast majority of cases. It only serves to make the dog afraid of the person, so the behavior will continue when the person is not in the immediate vicinity. Even worse, it may cause the animal to lash out. An increase in fear often manifests as aggressive tendencies in canines. Punishment in general also fails to teach the dog what they are supposed to do, so rewarding the desired behavior works much better.

Instead, figure out what your dog is motivated by. Some will respond best to play, others to physical affection. George is a glutton for treats, so we keep them handy. When we first adopted him, I sewed a little fabric pouch that attached to my belt loops where I could stash his treats. Then, someone left it on the coffee table while we stepped away, and it was of course in shreds when we came back into the room. Since then, I have created a couple patterns for drawstring pouches that are a bit more durable (which will be available on my Ravelry soon), but we haven’t made the same mistake again.


We’ve taught George quite a few commands since he joined our family, but the one we’re happiest about is “show me.” When we first brought him home, he used to bark whenever he wanted something. He’s now learned to give us a certain look, which prompts us to say “show me.” At that point, he’ll walk to certain areas of the house and sit down, depending on what it is he wants. If he needs to go outside, he sits by the front door. If he wants food or water, he’ll sit next to the bowl he needs filled. It takes a lot of the guess work out of caring for him – and he’s learned not to bark at us, too.

The next important step in George’s training will be dealing with his aggression toward other dogs. Because he’s the only dog in the house, it’s very rarely an issue, but we love dogs, and would be happy to adopt more. Unfortunately, the only way to deal with dog aggression requires exposing him to other dogs. With his size and strength, that could become dangerous if not handled properly, so we’ll have to do something that I’m dreading. We’ll have to get him a muzzle to wear to training classes. I really dislike the idea of a muzzle because so many people use them inappropriately, but in this case it’s a necessity for keeping other dogs safe. It is my responsibility as a dog owner to ensure that no one is hurt by my dog.

The final point I want to make is that it is essential for anyone with a dog to learn canine body language. There are some great resources online if you search for them. Body language is the first indication when your furry buddy is feeling anxious or threatened. Seeing these signs allows you to alter the situation and make the dog more comfortable, because otherwise your dog may feel the need to protect himself or herself. It is extremely rare for a dog to bite someone without cause, but in most cases, the dog is blamed for the action. Depending on who is hurt and the local laws, this may mean that the dog must be euthanized, which would be a horrendous outcome of an avoidable scenario.

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