Old Dogs with New Tricks in Oracle, Arizona

Sarah, the wise old red setter.

I often get questions about training older dogs- people wonder just how successful one might be trying to train an old dog?  My experience has been that when you have lived with a dog, there comes a turning point.  Yes, early on you are training the dog, but not too far down the road the dog begins training us.  We live together and our dogs tolerate the annoying conditions we impose on their world. Meanwhile, our dogs train us to tolerate their idiosyncrasies. Our interactions dissolve to shorthand with both sides translating the abbreviations.

Older dogs read our minds. They feel what we feel.  When I think of training an older dog, I know that’s a non-starter.  We can work with our older dogs, but it has to be done a bit differently.  A trainer communicates with an older dog and shows the dog what he needs to have happen.  They share with the older dog what they wish the dog to understand.  The human thinks it and the dog understands it.  It can be amazing to realize just how smart a trainer an older dog can be.

We started years ago with Sarah, a single red setter.  For a time she led the charmed life of being the only dog in the house, complete with a second-hand comfy chair bought specifically for her. When we started to bring in other setters, however, her world changed.  Her beloved chair was suddenly subject to occupation by the usurpers.  She would step up to her chair only to find that it was now being enjoyed by another canine.  At this point, she would very calmly and deliberately walk to the opposite side of the house to look out a small window overlooking a pond where a variety of wild desert creatures would come to drink.  She would then excitedly issue a loud barking call-to-arms, letting the other dogs in on the secret that a creature had arrived at the pond to drink.  Then, as the gang assembled at the window, adding to the boisterous melee while  searching for the critter that Sarah had spotted, she would quietly return to her beloved and now unoccupied chair.

Sarah, in her advanced years, continued to train me when I brought home Sadie, a Chesapeake Bay retriever puppy.  She tagged along when I took the 6-month-old Chessie to the Verde River to learn about currents, while the water level was high from recent heavy rains.  In a shallow eddy where the river had overflowed its bank, I began throwing the bumper, sending the Chessie to retrieve it as it slowly moved in a light current.  Once Sadie got the hang of a moving bumper we switched out further into the main river channel.

Here, the water moved much more quickly. I threw the bumper for her upriver and had her sit watching as it floated towards her in the near current.  When it approached her and she was following it with her eyes, I released Sadie to fetch it.  She would launch into the river and follow the moving target until she got it.

For the next step, I sent the bumper out into the river and sent Sadie out to find it as it floated by.  I would give her a point to mark and then release her to fetch.  All went well for the first couple of throws, but on the third mark I threw the bumper a little too hard.  It flew past the current and hung up in some vegetation on the other side of the swollen river.  Sadie launched and started down river looking for a bumper that wasn’t there and never would be.

Meanwhile, Sarah, the old red setter, had taken a position in some shade upriver and was watching the show with a mix of  disinterested disdain.  With the puppy headed for parts downriver, I contemplated just how wet I was going to get to recover the bumper.  Then, I looked upriver to see Sarah now attentive and approaching me.  I gave her a line with my hand and set her out to recover the bumper.  Being the smart old dog that she was, she didn’t enter the water there, where she would be carried down stream and then have to swim back upstream to make the retrieve.  Instead, she walked back up the river bank and then entered the water confidently.  She swam, letting the current carry her and reaching the opposite bank slightly upstream from the bumper.  She left the water and walked until she was standing directly above the bumper and then she looked up at me.  I then cheerfully gave her the command, “Fetch!”

Sarah looked down at the bumper, and then she looked up at me.   “You mean this bumper?” her body language said, “This bumper right here at my feet? The bumper that you had that little creature retrieving and carrying all the time that we’ve been here? Nah, you have the creature retrieve it!”  Then she sauntered back upriver without the bumper.  She entered the water and let the current carry her back to her shady spot where she continued her indifferent non-observation of the puppy training session.  Her lesson completed, she left me to ponder, wet from my human retrieve, what I had learned for the day.

It was a lesson on whom is training whom?  With an older dog, those kinds of things can happen a lot.  Pay attention. You might learn a thing or two.