Ember joined our family last Spring; at the time, she was just two weeks shy of her eighth birthday. We decided to add a second older dog to our family knowing there are many senior dogs in need of forever homes. When she arrived, Ember had some basic commands like “sit” and “come,” but there was certainly a lot that she needed to learn. I wondered what it would be like to train an older dog who had been raised in the country.
When my husband and I drove home with her I was smitten already. She literally chose me. We had looked at other dogs that were available but she came through a doorway into the room where we were waiting and immediately did a massive “full body” wag. She came right over to where I was sitting on the floor and sat beside me, leaning her full body weight on me. She wiggled closer to further “let me know” that she was there and then licked my neck to seal the deal. Her tail never stopped wagging, especially the tip, which we now call her “rattlesnake move.”
After deciding that we wanted to take her home, we put her in the car. I made sure to give her lots of treats on the way home. I was delighted to see that Ember, like all Labradors, is a “foodie.” I realized that food could be used as motivation when training her further.
The first few weeks we worked on “sit” and walking her on-leash, which proved to be quite the challenge initially. Ember had never been in a city, and was easily distracted by all the noise and new scenery. She would zigzag in front of us randomly, despite trying to keep her on a shorter lead. We were constantly tripped by her sudden moves as she cut in front of us to get closer to a scent. I found that walking her with other dogs that were seasoned leash-walkers helped; soon, she caught on to the rhythm and the crisscrossing stopped. This whole process did take a few months, but today – almost nine months later – she is a delight to walk.
Teaching "down" also took months for Ember to grasp. I do remember hearing that this is one of the hardest commands to teach a dog as it places a dog in a position of submission. It required a lot of patience on my behalf and our family members to work with her. Today I can honestly say that she will lay down eighty-five percent of the time when asked. Sometimes we get a blank, empty stare look from her. I think that that look translates to her saying "I don't know what you are asking” or “huh?”
Retrieving a ball also took a few weeks to master, but is her favorite pastime now. She takes great delight in bringing back a ball; I can tell from her "happy ears," wagging tail and the enthusiastic bounce in her step.
The one dog trick that has proven to be the most challenging to teach is shake-a-paw. Ember is the sixth dog in my life and all of my previous dogs have mastered this fun trick. Most often, Ember will look at us as if almost in a trance, or like we’re speaking Swahili.
What we find the most entertaining is that Ember will give a paw when asked but only about twenty percent of the time. She does understand the concept, but for some reason decides on her terms what day she will wow us with mastering the skill.
She does it the most for my older daughter Emily who has been the most patient with Ember and this simple trick. We find ourselves laughing each and every time as the outcome is so hit and miss.
When Ember "gets it" she is so happy and often does a victory lap around the room. On the other hand, when she doesn’t make the connection to what we’re asking she often will just lie down on the floor.
On another note, I wanted to share lessons that I have learned when working with an older dog.
1. Don't compare them to previous dogs owned, as each and every dog is truly unique.
2. Keep training sessions short to avoid frustration for both the two- and four-legged.
3. Find out what rewards work well for positive reinforcement. For us, praise and dog treats – or, Ember’s favourite, carrots – work the best.
4. Have the whole family onboard for training sessions to break up the monotony of only one person working with the dog.
5. Be patient!
6. Try having other dogs demonstrate the trick to those who haven’t.
7. Ask for advice from other dog savvy people or trainers. There is always more to learn!
8. Put aside a trick or skill for a bit and take a break, even for a few days.
9. Re-evaluate the trick. Is it really an issue to not learn it? For example, it’s not really a big deal that Ember can’t shake a paw on command every time.
10. Celebrate all your achievements with your beloved canine no matter how big or small.
The love Ember has given us in less than a year is wonderful. She is an awesome addition to our family and I believe that she has extended the life of our other, fourteen-year-old Labrador Abby, longer than we anticipated. And certainly, teaching her a few tricks has been fun, interesting, challenging and funny along the way.
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