By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS September 14, 2009
It takes about 5 minutes to train a puppy to learn most new behaviors but how long does it take for that behavior to become a habit? When I started training Lucy, my Dad's 8 week old Australian Cattle Dog I was hoping that not long. By then I had been training her for a week through the puppy learn to earn program (a.k.a. Creating the Perfect Pup in 7 Days) and she seemed virtually perfect. She would automatically sit to get petted, to get her leash on, to go out the door and come back in, and even when she greeted guests, including a young child. And she could walk on leash and come when called even when playing with other puppies.
The idea was, that I would teach her as many of the behaviors and skills she would need as an adult in the first week I had her and before she had to time to learn all kinds of bad stuff. Now the question was, would she behave well for my parents too when I brought her home for the first time to see them? She was good for all the guests and students that I had interact with her. So I was hopeful that summer day when I brought her home.
Of course the wrench in the plan was that my parents are elderly. My dad is 81 and my mom, though younger, has bad knees. And although they've owned dogs for over 25 years, like most long-time dog owners, they are not dog training experts.
Lucy Arrives at Her New Home
As I lifted Lucy out of the car outside my parent's house and into her new surroundings I was happy that she was immediately interested in exploring. She was used to the suburbs and now she was in San Francisco, a busy city. The sounds and traffic didn't phase her. But once in their house when my parents first tried to get her to pay attention to them, I knew I was immediately in trouble. At my house, she would automatically sit when you made a smooching sound to get her attention. At my parent's house, as I instructed my dad how to get her attention and reward her for sitting, she acted like they were invisible. Instead, she lunged towards the roses or grabbed twigs off the ground. Then when she did sit and look at my dad, by the time he started delivering the treat to her (kibble from her meal and treats) she was off doing something else. Or when she sat, he'd get the treat down to her level, but it was 2 feet away from her face. She'd remain seated as if puzzled then shrug her puppy shoulders and walk off.
At this point, I realize that due to my parents' age, coordination, and ability to learn the exercises, I'm probably going to need to train Lucy for more than a week. Yes, it turns out that senior citizens generally move more slowly than the average adult. And in my experience most middle-aged adults need training on delivering the food or other rewards quickly enough to reward the correct behavior and make the interactions fun. Furthermore I quickly learned that my dad just did not have the attention span of one of my regular behavior consult clients. I had written a 32 page photo-illustrated book of all of the learn to earn exercises I had trained Lucy to perform and I envisioned teaching my parents how to perform at least half of them during the next 2 days. After working on just one, treat delivery speed and rewarding her when sitting, I could tell, what I really needed was 30 sequential days. Two days per exercise. Realistically, that wasn't going to happen since I live nearly 100 miles away.
Will My Dad Bond to His New Dog
I wondered if my dad, who had practically forced me to get this puppy for him, would bond to her. She wasn't like his last Australian Cattle Dog, Roody. In her new environment she was more of the typical rowdy, energetic cattle dog. The type that grows up and gets in trouble from bad habits down the road.
But my dad, who'd been waiting all week for me to deliver Lucy to him, wasn't about to give up. My instructions were that my parents were to have Lucy on leash at all times when she was out of her crate and that she work for every single kibble of her breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the day by sitting. The only other way she could earn kibble was if they uttered her name and immediately gave her a treat so that she would learn that her name meant that she should look towards them for something good to happen.
On day two as I left for work, Lucy was still focused on me and happy to be petted by my parents, but not on sitting in a focused manner for them. I wondered if I would be taking her back with me when I left the next day or whether my dad would have the patience to keep at it in spite of the early disappointment. To my delight, when I got home after work, my dad reported proudly, “Lucy's much better. Now she's sitting for me.” And when I watched she was. She was also sometimes jumping on him because he sometimes held the treat too high or rewarded her too late. But at least she was focusing on him.
That night, I left, hopeful that they would read the instructional manual I'd made for them since I wouldn't be able to return for over 2 weeks. Clearly one week hadn't been enough to form a habit for Lucy, but hopefully if they performed the exercises correctly at least 50 or 60% of the time her earlier training would kick in. And more importantly, hopefully my dad would get her out for the all-important socialization since she was still in her prime socialization period. She was already enrolled in puppy socialization class.
With steady training she would become a part of his household, rather than developing the serious behavior issues that dogs with the Australian Cattle Dog reputation can pick up. Because as much as I like Lucy, I had bought Lucy for my dad, and I didn't want her to become my permanent pet.
To see the puppy learn to earn program that Lucy went through, and the instructions for my dad go to: https://drsophiayin.com/app/uploads/2015/12/LearntoEarn11.2009.pdf
To see video of day 1 training go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yN6FzBmy2YM