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It's Easy to Teach an Old or Young Dog New Tricks

by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD

Want your pet to learn? Reward it when it does what you want, says zoologist Patricia "Trisha" McConnell. But to get the best results, hand out rewards like a slot machine, not a vending machine.

"It's always appropriate to make an animal glad it did something you asked it to do," McConnell says. "The trick is to vary the reinforcements you give."

The best way to reward pets is a common question McConnell and co-host Larry Meiller address on CALLING ALL PETS, a weekly call-in show produced and distributed nationally by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Not only do animals tire of rewards given too often, they also come to expect a treat every time they perform a particular task and that, too, can be counter-productive. "For instance, Larry likes lobster and I like chocolate, but if we got these treats all the time, it wouldn't work because we'd be satiated," says McConnell.

So, instead of being like a vending machine, dispensing a treat with every quarter, be like a slot machine, giving the pay-off randomly, McConnell advises. She uses that technique with the border collies she raises at her Southern Wisconsin farm.

While some people are too generous with rewards -- especially food or pats on the head -- others object to the whole idea of reinforcements, McConnell notes. "They want their animal to do whatever they say just because they said it. My advice to them is to get a stuffed dog."

McConnell is also astonished at how many people use punishment as a training tool. "That is not the way to train a pet to do something," she says. "You end up with an animal that is scared of you."

McConnell acknowledges that there are times when it's appropriate to physically correct a dog but says it doesn't take much to get the message across. Simply startling the dog -- by clapping your hands, throwing a bean bag (not at the dog!) or dropping a book to the floor -- and then immediately redirecting its attention to what you want it to do is enough.

The trick, she says, is in the timing. "Good corrections occur within less than a half second of the misbehavior," McConnell says, adding "so most of us need to speed up our reaction time."

It also means learning to pay close attention and to anticipate your pet's next move. Take McConnell's working border collie, Cool Hand Luke. At home on the farm, when Luke goes right, instead of left, McConnell startles him with a loud "AH!" just as he starts his turn, not after he's taken a stride or two in the wrong direction. Then she repeats his left turn signal (in this case, a whistle) and lets him keep working sheep (the best possible reward for a Border collie) if he goes the correct direction.

Learning to keep your cool is important. "Getting angry at misbehavior may be tempting," McConnell says, "but it doesn't tell your pet what it should be doing. So work on correcting your pet as quickly as you can, without getting angry."

In addition to advising pet owners on her radio program, McConnell operates Dog's Best Friend, a consulting firm that provides behavioral problem-solving and training for cats and dogs. She also is a certified border collie breeder and assistant adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.