Old Dogs CAN Learn New Tricks

I didn’t think it was possible. When Toto arrived into my life two years ago, he barked constantly, lacked understanding of even basic commands, and had a habit of marking his territory — even inside the house. Before his rescue, Toto had lived outside with 15 other dogs and little human interaction, where survival skills became a necessity. From the moment of his adoption, I knew we had a long way to go.  

Today Toto is a changed dog. Much calmer and well-behaved, he can now sit on command, wait, leave things, and even barks a lot less. I never thought this would be possible, especially knowing how his life began. But what I learned through his training process is that motivation enables change to become possible — not only in dogs but in people too. And Toto’s motivation, you ask? FOOD — and also his favorite stuffed toy, “Dino.” As the self-appointed protector of our household and anything within a mile radius of it, Toto is often distracted with outside noises or activity. But when I have his favorite salmon chewy treat or Dino in hand, he instantly becomes a very attentive, polite little pooch. Of course, this transformation didn’t happen without help. Toto’s trainer, Kelly Kolodkin, has been supporting and teaching Toto (and me) every step of the way.

I remember one of our fist sessions where I confidently showed Kelly how I kept Toto calm during dinner — usually a frustrating time where he would bark until I gave up and eventually gave in to more food or treats. My routine would start before dinner when I would place Dino as well as other favorite toys on the table. As I would begin to eat and Toto would inevitably start jumping up and barking, I would throw a toy across the room, and he would take off. I could get a few bites in before he returned, and then I would throw another and another and … . I thought I had nailed it as Toto and I showed off our new method. Trainer Kelly smiled and replied politely, “Well you just made dinnertime playtime.” And then she asked, “What will you do when you have guests?” As it turned out she had a better idea on the training front that actually taught Toto to leave the table area (or take a trip to time out). He eventually learned, and our dinners are now uninterrupted and peaceful — with no toys required.

Toto’s transformation has reminded me of an important life lesson. Change is possible for all of us — but we need motivation and support. Sometime it’s a diagnosis that prompts us to change our diet or take on a new exercise routine. Sometimes it’s a financial crisis that urges us to create a budget. Or possibly it’s a relationship issue that empowers us to action. And just like Toto, sometimes change requires retraining our old habits and routines through the help of a coach or a friend.

But it takes time. Just like Toto’s bad habits grew during the first few years of his life, his transformation didn’t happen overnight. It was a gradual and intentional process, one step at a time headed in the desired direction — with lots of motivation (and treats) along with way. 

Young or old, dogs as well as people can learn new tricks. Toto is living proof!

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