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Teaching an old dog new tricks

Last week was road safety week, and in our workshops, we emphasise the importance of having our dogs safely under control when we are out and about with them. As a young dog growing up in a rural area, my Norfolk terrier Lily learned to pause with me at the side of a lane when she heard a car approaching. At fourteen years old, she is now profoundly deaf, and while I don’t miss the frenzy of barking when the postman arrives, or the stress that used to accompany fireworks and gunshots, I also need to remember to be her ‘ears’ when we are out walking.

Lately she’s been falling into deeper sleep than usual, not even stirring when I arrive home. Much as we teach children not to disturb dogs when they are resting, I have to resist stroking or gently nudging her awake. For any dog - especially one without hearing - being woken suddenly can be extremely unsettling and may cause them to behave unpredictably. Once awake, Lily cannot hear where I am in the house, and if she cannot see me, she will seek me out. While I am impressed by her amazing sense of smell, with her head down and nose to the floor she is often oblivious to everything else. More than once she has walked headlong into me, coming through a door in the other direction.

Recently, I revised her basic obedience skills, incorporating sign language, as part of a training module for my degree. The finished video captured some truly memorable moments, such as the time I taught her to ‘lie down’ using the Do As I Do training technique (not for the faint-hearted, it involved me lying on the floor and getting up again, over and over, until she copied me). I replaced a traditional clicker with a ‘hand flash’ and learned to exaggerate my hand gestures and facial expressions because she could not detect my tone of voice. I looked back on that video as I was writing this blog and it reminded me that, just as training should continue throughout a dog’s life, we should also keep learning with our dogs. Positive, reward-based training provides physical exercise and important mental stimulation for dogs and owners alike, and as Lily proves, you're never too old to learn a new trick or two!