Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

We have a 2yr old Sprocker Spaniel (springer/cocker cross) called Tilly. She is a typical Spaniel: loving, loyal, curious, clever & tennis ball obsessed – no other type of ball will do! She is very obedient & has great recall, but she is also quite timid, very submissive & nervous of traffic, so hates lead walking & associates the lead with panic & fear. She has been like this since 4 months old when something spooked her – we have no idea what – & afterwards she refused to leave the driveway & panicked when we put her on a lead. 
  Tilly with her ball. 

We spent lots of time & money on building confidence through training/behaviourists/ supplements/pheromone collars etc & got to a reasonable point where she would walk but pulled like a train -desperate to get to her ‘destination’, – she was always rewarded by being let off the lead for a ‘play’ at some point on our walks. 

During last winter it was too wet to walk ‘to’ anywhere from our house – all the local parks were waterlogged, so we drove to places further afield that were less muddy. This was probably a mistake as she lost her confidence & went back to square one, refusing to lead walk from home again – very frustrating when we had worked so hard….. We had to start again with the training & we are now at the point where she will walk nicely between two  people – safety in numbers!

  Tilly happily off lead on a walk.

I belong to a Sprocker Spaniel Facebook group & recently I saw a post about an older dog needing rehoming- her family circumstances had changed & they could no longer keep her. She was nearly 8 yrs old & because of her age no one had come forward to adopt. She was calm, confident, good on a lead & very cuddly. We decided to foster her with a view to keeping her if Tilly liked her & she settled with us, as we thought that an older dog might give Tilly more confidence- 8 yrs is no age for a spaniel – they can live a long time!


Here she is in a great pose:)

Once we got her she settled immediately & bonded with all the humans in the house instantly, she seemed to ignore Tilly & behaved like an only dog, sleeping well &, although didn’t ‘play’, loved holding soft toys, socks, shoes etc in her mouth.

The only issue seemed to be that she didn’t respond to her name – actually she didn’t respond to anything – words, whistles etc – I wondered if she was deaf- but she could definitely hear food being prepared!! We couldn’t get her to pay attention to anything & as she is black we kept losing her in the garden when letting her out before bed, as she just seemed to ‘wander’ off in the dark, not deliberately ignoring us, but her ‘nose’ was her dominant sense & leading her astray:) 


Settled with a cuddly toy & fast asleep

This meant that we couldn’t let her off the lead anywhere except in the security of a garden, so we bought a really long padded lead from Clix –  (available from Amazon here) -for taking her to the park etc – but kept her on a short training lead most of the time, she didn’t seem to mind being on the lead, but out in the big wide world everything was new & exciting especially water & we nearly came a cropper a few times- she didn’t pay attention to us or high value treats at all outdoors. 

It seemed a shame that she couldn’t be allowed off-lead to use her working instincts – the complete opposite of Tilly!! So we had to find a way to train a recall – although we wondered if this would even be possible with an older dog

 She did know some commands eg ‘sit’ ‘stay’ ‘paw’ etc so we decided to build on that & with some brilliant advice we set about training.

Firstly we decided to change her name I.e. use a different ‘cue’, as we felt her name must have been over-used in the past – she didn’t even turn her head or look at us when we used it – we decided on ‘Bella’ as a suitable name & began training. Using her food as training treats, & a clicker,  we ‘clicked & treated’ for the slightest acknowledgement of us without any words, then, once we got her attention voluntarily, we started using her name before commands, eg ‘Bella sit’ etc, clicking & treating different variations of commands for a few minutes several times a day. In fact we stopped putting her food in a bowl & only rewarded her for ‘working’ so all her food came from us. She loved this ‘work’  as it was great fun – she has a typical spaniel ‘work ethic’. Within a couple of days she had learnt her new name & came in from the garden when called. Result!!

Now to try to train a proper recall. Using an Acme dog whistle we ‘blew & treated’ using her food to establish a ‘Pavlov’s dog’  classical conditioning response to the whistle. This takes a little time & we did this over several days, indoors first, slowly increasing the distance from next to us in same room, away fromus insame room, next room, garden etc. This worked easily indoors but outdoors she was still ignoring the whistle so we pulled back to indoors extending the distance more gradually. 

At the same time we played other games outdoors – eg hooking the long line over a post & we would take turns to run away from her calling her name & ‘come’ – no whistle – this she loved, but only once she had sniffed out the whole area first! We seemed to be making good progress at least in getting her attention. The long line was 10 metres & we attached 2 extra leads so we had a line of about 15 metres to play with. During a walk along an open fenced field we dropped the lead to see what she would do – she didn’t run, just pottered along following her nose… once on a ‘trail’ though, she got faster so we had to keep up with her, as she doesnt ‘check in’, or seem to need to know where we are, this is obviously going to take alot longer than we thought as it turns out she had been let off the lead once & ran off she was never let off again.

Our best bet is probably to work on forging a stronger bond with us & Tilly -who needs to know where we are at all times – & then, hopefully, she will want to at least follow us or be around us, watch this space…….. the bond is coming.

From this …….   
……..to this in a week.

Bonding in Progress!

I feel this lovely dog has not had the opprtunity to learn, but has great potential, she has a brilliant ‘sit stay’ & when in ‘work’ mode is very focussed. She would make a great agility dog if in an enclosed area. I just hope its not too late to train a good recall.


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