Whether you just rescued a senior dog or you have a dog that you have been lucky enough to own for his entire life, most senior dogs are not big jumpers. Even my dog, CC, who is approaching senior status at 11 years old, prefers a lift when it is time for her to be up on the bed. And mind you, this dog used to scale my counters in search of a stick of room temperature, sweet cream butter I always keep at hand for cooking.
Generally, a senior dog’s hips tend to be arthritic, so he may not have the same spring in his step as he used to. However, if a dog was a counter surfer as a puppy, then he most likely still has his dog eye on the prize, which is whatever you have on the countertop.
An Unexpected Training Result
An example of a senior counter surfer is Tulip. This gorgeous 13-year-old English Springer Spaniel always had her eye on the prize. If Tulip saw anything sticking off of the counter, she grabbed it and took it. What’s interesting is why she did it.
Tulip’s owners brought her home as a puppy. She grew fast and she grew tall for a Springer Spaniel. They enjoyed training her so much and Tulip responded to these given jobs very well. They trained her to do a couple of random tricks that they thought would be fun to show off to dinner guests, including taking treats off of the counter one at a time. Everyone praised her like crazy when she performed flawlessly.
For years Tulip remained the star of the show, performing these tricks for guests at dinner parties. She loved the praise and the treats on the counter. Who wouldn’t, right? I would want to counter surf as well if I were Tulip. Then, one day, she got really big and the “treats” on the counter smelled good! Tulips owners noticed that their human treats began disappearing from their counters. They then realized that they had inadvertently trained their dog to become a continual counter surfer even when she wasn’t showing off for guests.
Tulip’s owners knew they needed help before their senior dog would not only hurt herself, but also possibly eat something that would be harmful and, at her senior age, cause her severe issues that she might not be able to recover from.
Retraining A Counter Surfing Senior Dog
In the search for behavior adjustments for their well-trained senior spaniel, her owners and I decided on three steps to stop her counter surfing:
1. Remove all temptation from the counters.
2. When they were working in the kitchen they would either crate Tulip or baby gate her into an area where she would be safe from harm.
3. Utilize Tulip’s biggest motivator as her reward. All praise for Tulip would now be given out only when she did things they wanted her to do, like some new tricks that Tulip was about to learn. They would allow her to perform a few tricks for guests, which pleased Tulip and her guests very much; however, she was not free to roam like she did before until after the guests were gone and the kitchen was cleaned.
Find Your Senior Dog’s Motivator
In order for you to teach your senior dog a new trick, you must first find what motivates your pet. What drives him into wanting to learn a new behavior? Or what motivates him to perform an old trick? Once you determine that factor you can begin.
Tulip loves crazy praise. If you praise her like she just became President of the United States, she wants to do more for you. So we reserved all praise and love for when Tulip gave us her full attention and performed her tricks.
Senior dogs may have diminished senses — less sharp sight, be hard of hearing or have a lessened sense of smell. All dogs love a great ear scratch and lots of verbal praise and physical pats on the back. So reserve the attention for the dog and use it as a reward for the right behavior if they are like Tulip.
Also, Tulip loves to chew. Springer Spaniels are gun dogs who were bred to point, flush out and retrieve game for their owner, so it’s no surprise that Tulip is very happy with some form of a chew stick or chew toy reserved as a reward for a job well done. She loves to have something in her mouth. And because she is a senior dog, the fewer treats she is given, the healthier weight she can maintain.
Tulip is also very treat and food driven. Her owners learned that no people food from the counter or the table is to be given to Tulip under any circumstances. It is not good to give her something from the counter or table, and then expect her to respect the counter or table later. Additionally, everyone in the household had to be on board with this decision. If one person gave Tulip food from the counter then the mixed message would only confuse the dog and she would end up counter surfing again.
Be Patient, Be Positive
Regardless of the breed or temperament, there are many training techniques that can be utilized for curbing the behavior of the senior dog counter surfer. Clicker training, positive reinforcement and purpose-driven dog ownership are among a few of the ways in which we can mold and shape our dog’s behaviors, and around more than just the kitchen and the living room. The most effective methods for modifying your dog’s behavior are positive methods mixed with a patient owner. Senior dogs may also require extra time to process new information.
All breeds deserve a patient owner when training. We utilized service animal training techniques to give Tulip a new set of commands to learn. We know that soon she will be able to pass her service animal testing and go visit some seniors in a care center soon. There, she can show off her tricks and spread more joy to people. And the counters and furniture will get a well-deserved break.