The office was quiet — maybe a little too quiet. Looking around it was obvious something was amiss. Then I saw it — my felt hat that I had worn for the best part of two decades was in shreds on the floor. The crown was in one place and the brim in another. Both were in tatters and many pieces, treasured feathers were chewed and scattered about. On the rug by the wood stove the young dog gave me that “did I do something wrong” look.
Once again I told myself that never again would I put myself in the bringing-up-puppy position. On the other side of that situation, I have had great luck training and hunting the older and sometimes abused bird dogs.
It had been awhile since a puppy chewed my boots or anything else that would cause the heart to race and tempers to flair. For at least the last 5 years my canine hunting companions have been rescue dogs adopted from shelters or from an individual. Some were good while the others were just downright excellent bird dogs.
So one of the first avenues of adventure would fall under the category of teaching an older dog a few new tricks. Advantages would be No. 1 that the destructive chewing stage had been reached and passed!
Stepping back a decade, the words “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” rattled around in my bird-hunting brain. Training an older dog to hunt just isn’t possible. How many articles had I read about bringing up pup, training videos, and advise from all the experts that never picked up a single shovel of doggie poop?
Not one of the training videos or books I’d found covered working with the older dog — or even training a dog from a shelter where no history or record was known from the beginning. One can guess but never be sure what had happened during the dog’s years prior to arriving at the pound. Training a rescue dog can be a challenge but a very rewarding one.
One of my first rescue bird dogs was an English pointer that had been mistreated, run away, and ended up in the local animal shelter. The ladies at the shelter called and ask for some help.
After I agreed, she drove out and introduced me to a dog that would later be named simply “Girl.” No one knew if she would even allow human contact much less hunt. All I could say was I would try.
It was almost a month before she allowed me near her while eating more, weeks before petting was in order. After that she was as friendly as could be and I thought her ready for the training field. Girl had a fantastic nose but would bust or flush any and all birds. We estimated Girl was at least 5 year old, and so this would amount to working with an older dog. It was very clear that Girl wanted to please; she just didn’t respond to a heavy hand as had probably happened in her past experiences.
Despite the numbers of people who believe the older dog can’t learn, nothing could be further from the truth. While it is a little more difficult and may take a bit more time for an older dog to be trained, or should I say retrained, it is entirely within the realm of possibility, provided that an owner or trainer uses patience and remains consistent in the dog’s lessons throughout the training process.
(Author’s Note: Much like people, older dogs like to be lazy at times. It may take awhile for them to learn something new, and they may not want to do it all the time. Have patience and keep things light and fun.)
START RETRAINING WITH ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIORS
The beginning step in training an older dog is remembering first that the dog has, most likely, already been trained at least once, be it properly or improperly. The older dog already has preconceived notions as to what is an acceptable behavior and what behaviors are not welcome.
Another factor to take under consideration is that the dog may have been allowed to get away with disregarding orders until an order to “come” might just tell the pup to go away.
After the adjustment process, Girl took to training and learned quickly. Teaching the “whoa” command went quickly in spite of her age — she just wanted to please in return for the gentle treatment. By the end of that hunting season, Girl was holding her coveys and singles nicely with very few errors. She never did learn to retrieve to hand but finding cripples in tall grass was her specialty.
TRY DIFFERENT COMMANDS
In order to recondition/retrain one or more of these behaviors in a dog, you have to change the thinking process. Teaching your “here” command just might have been “come” in its other world. And, “come” could have also meant there was a whipping coming when the dog obeyed, leaving plenty of reason for the dog to resist. Try different commands to see what reaction you will get from the dog.
Many times your new command word will work better than the word previously taught, and many times it will avoid the reason the dog may have learned to ignore the command or substitute other behavior.
If the dog is one you have had for years but has now started to ignore your orders, the same simple reconditioning will do the trick. This might be a good time to add a few commands to the list. But here is how it can be accomplished.
The first thing to remember is that “slow” is the only way to go. Start at the beginning — that is to say, where you began, as in when the dog first came home with you. Use a dull pinch collar and take your time.
Starting with the dog on a short check cord, have the dog sit — give the command while pushing the dogs’ bottom down. Give the command once and then follow through with the push if needed. After a short period of time, release the dog. Increase the time as the training progresses until the dog is obeying without hesitation.
Two things have happened here: First, the dog has been put back in the training mode, and second, you have once again become the teacher or as a certain TV personality says, “You have become the pack leader.”
Following the basic reintroduction to training, you can now move on to teach all the commands your dog has learned — or should have learned — or has become lax at obeying.
The off-season is the best time for retraining as well as for getting yourself and your dog in shape. Your hunting friends will be overjoyed not to have to listen to you screaming at your older dog or blowing your whistle more than a football coach during a bad practice session.
WORK ON CONDITIONING
Your bird dog will need to be in first-class condition on opening day whether it’s a “new” older dog or one that has been sleeping on the rug for years. Retraining is always a bit easier after your dog has worked off some of its pent-up energy.
Get out in the field and let your dog run and hunt on its own. This is where the light training works nicely — stop the exercise for a moment, snap on the check cord, and teach. Here again, go slow and stick with short sessions. Then let your dog get back to the run.
CONSIDER A TRAINING COLLAR
As much bad publicity as the “shock collar” or electric training collar has been given in some circles, in the right hands it is a great training tool for both young and older dogs. The true purpose of the correction is to startle the dog — to get the animal’s attention so that training can commence or continue.
An electronic training system is nothing more than a tool. It needs to be used with common sense, a consistent training plan, and as a part of a broader plan that uses generous amounts of praise and petting.
Always start with the lowest setting that will produce a slight reaction. If your dog yelps or cries out you are using too much power. Most training collar manufactures will give you complete instruction on the proper use of their product. Read the instructions and use the collar as if you were wearing it — an idea some hunting widows have suggested.
Many times a slight nick with the electric collar will snap a dog back into obeying the commands. Several reinforcements on the training field may be required, however the rest can take place on the hunt.
INTRODUCE YOUR DOG TO DIFFERENT TERRAINS/BIRDS
Upland hunting in the United States is highly diversified in both terrain and of course in birds. Introducing your older dog to a different landscape and species of bird or birds can be an interesting activity. As an example, a dog that has hunted only quail for years may be a bit taken aback by the size of a grouse or a pheasant.
Several years ago one of my rescue dogs — an English setter named Chip — had become one of my favorite quail hunters. He was driven to a state where pheasants were the primary game bird species. The morning went very well until Chip found and pointed an old rooster hidden well into a thicket.
Chip knew a bird was close and did what he had done for many years; he pointed the bird. The fact was he was almost standing on the pheasant. When we walked in for the flush the rooster launched with more noise than normal. The surprised and startled dog fell backward as the bird left its hiding place.
That sudden flush could have had an unhappy ending, but after about an hour the dog was back on track and pointing nicely. The downside could have been a pheasant/bird-shy dog that might back away from game.
Taking your dog to a hunting preserve for an introduction to a new bird is one way to accomplish positive results. Staying in control of your dog, maybe using a check-cord, is the best method for introducing a new experience while another person does the shooting — if killing a bird or two is required.
Retrievers can suffer from the same malady. Take, for example, a gray-muzzled black Labrador that has only hunted puddle ducks and is well accustomed to bringing back the ducks to your blind. A phone call one morning invites you and your dog to a friend’s goose hunt. Needless to say, there is quite a difference in the size of those birds. Add the fact that your retriever must stay quiet and down while hunting inside a decoy spread and this really is a new hunting experience for the dog.
The “down and stay” commands are rather important here. Before your hunt, spend a little time working on these commands. Unless you have plenty of time you may not teach the commands quickly. However, if they were taught years ago but just never used, sometimes a refresher course will do the trick.
After arriving in the field, allow the other dogs to do the work until you have a goose to introduce your dog to. Throw one several times and then and let your dog try for the retrieve. The hunt can resume after only a short time.
PAY ATTENTION TO BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS
It is not unusual for behavioral problems to develop in older dogs, and they may even develop multiple concurrent problems. It is also important to note that while some of the changes associated with aging may not seem significant, even a minor change in behavior might be indicative of underlying medical problems or a decline in cognitive function.
Since early diagnosis and treatment can control or slow the progress of many disease conditions, be certain to advise your veterinarian if there is any change in your pet’s behavior. A preseason checkup is always a good idea.
It is important to note that once new habits are learned, retraining and changes to the environment may also be needed to resolve problems. These problems are not to be expected, but kept in mind and recognized if they should develop.
PREPARE FOR THE INEVITABLE
I should make one mention about the downside: I hate to mention this obvious but nevertheless realistic fact, but an older dog rescued from a shelter will not be with you as long as will that bouncing-ball-of-fur puppy. It is quite unfair that once a man has found a good hunting companion, the dog’s years on this earth will not match those of the man. However, the shared passion for the field many times will make up for the seemingly early loss of your dogs.
Please keep in mind that some of the problems of the older dog may have similar causes to those of the younger dogs. Those might include changes in the household and changes in the environment. Some other reasons might be moving a considerable distance to a new home, a change in work schedule, a family member leaving the home, or new additions to the family.
On the upside, some older dogs can be more resistant to these changes than would a younger dog.
Training or retraining an older dog will take time and patience, but what I have learned is that bird dogs acquired past their puppy stage can become the best hunting companions, and of course, just the best all-around companions. In other words, you can teach old dogs new tricks.