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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

by Dr. Carol L. Falck, V.M.D.

Now that Back to School Season has arrived and Fall is approaching, it’s the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time with your pets!  Pet training is a great way to engage in fun & rewarding activities with your favorite four-legged friend.  

How do I get my pet (cat or dog) ready for training?

Whether you choose a structured class or a more relaxed approach, there are several things you can do to ensure that training is successful:


1.  Make sure your pet is in tip-top shape.  Schedule an appointment with a veterinarian to be sure your pet is a good candidate for the training program you have chosen.  Your veterinarian may recommend some diagnostic testing, such as blood work or x-rays or parasite screening to help determine your pet’s health status. 

2.  Consider a diet upgrade or a supplement.  If the training will involve intense physical activity, consider giving your pet additional meals, a higher calorie performance diet and/or a supplement.

3.  Find some healthy, highly palatable treats to encourage focus and peak performance.  Many treats that pets like may not be healthy.  Don’t be fooled by a fancy package or a misleading label – always check the ingredient list! 

4.  Puppies should receive proper socialization before training.  Dogs become aware of their surroundings by three to five weeks and develop social skills up to twelve weeks.  An excellent way to make sure they are exposed to a variety of other dogs and people is to attend a puppy socialization class.  A good class will consist of supervised opportunities for interaction as well as exposure to new situations and items.  Play time will help increase musculoskeletal coordination, improve social skills and facilitate learning.  A well socialized puppy will be easier to train.

5.  How many sessions should be included in a training class?  It depends on the type of training class but most classes include 6-8 sessions.  Classes typically are approximately 60 minutes.  Under normal conditions, the average dog has an attention span of roughly fifteen minutes, so there should be many different training activities during the class with several short breaks.   Dogs that are highly food motivated will focus on a task better and therefore, be easier to train. 

6.  Can a dog really be too old to learn new tricks?  As dogs age, they exhibit a general decline in organ function, including brain function.  Most dogs are considered senior at 8-10 years.  So, it can take longer and require some patience to train an older dog.  Some dogs will exhibit more pronounced cognitive decline showing human Alzheimer’s disease-like signs.  These dogs may sleep more especially during the day, be less active, show less interest in familiar people and surroundings,  be thirstier and urinate more than normal (called polydipsia & polyuria) and pant excessively.  Your veterinarian can help you determine if your dog has this condition and if medication may help.  The earlier it is detected, the easier it is to manage.  See also for more information and a Senior Dog Canine Cognitive Dysfunction checklist that you can complete and take with you to your veterinary appointment. 


7.  My cat is really smart – can I train him to fetch?  There are many behaviors that cats can be trained and persuaded to do.  These include shaking hands, turning lights on, sitting, fetching and walking on a leash.  A cat’s brain is wired to learn differently than a human or a dog.  Cats learn best with gentle encouragement and repetition. 

While many cats respond to a food reward, some may prefer affection.  Take advantage of your cat’s favorite rewards.  The training sessions should gradually increase in length.  Start with 3-5 repetitions.  Stop immediately if you detect any resistance.  Some trainers are successfully using clicker training for cats.  See for more information about clicker training and how to get started. 

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