Teach an old dog new tricks and get rich in the process

Dog trick instructions: teach your dog to find you money
By Laure-Anne Visele, March 2015

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

I run Canis bonus, a behaviour therapy  practice for dogs with behaviour problems. I am also the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague). I graduated in Zoology, and am a licensed dog trainer and certified applied animal behaviourist. After my day job, I review dog books and write about behaviour for my blog and other specialist websites.

I work in English, French, or Dutch and only use animal-friendly methods. Find out more on my training page.

Do you live close to The Hague and are you wondering if your dog’s behaviour is normal or whether we can do something about it? Tell me what’s going on in a few words in the contact form and I’ll get back to you in the next two days.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

My dog is old. I am not even sure how old.

Animal control officers found him roaming the streets of France five years ago, and put him in a shelter. He was deemed unadoptable (too ugly, too fat, too scared). He got moved in extremis to a Dutch shelter where I found him, trembling and obese, in the corner of a room. As soon as I saw him my heart broke. I came close and he climbed into my arms, shaking. That is the moment I knew he would be my dog. 

… I found him, trembling and obese, in the corner of a room. As soon as I saw him my heart broke. I came close and he climbed into my arms, shaking. That is the moment I knew he would be my dog.

His chances of adoption had been slim, but the looks/weight/behaviour problems wouldn’t be an issue for us. On the looks front, we’d fostered a ridiculously beautiful dog and my husband couldn’t wait to downgrade as he got tired of the constant attention. We were also ready to tackle the obesity problem. The behaviour issues were going to be a gamble but who better than a behaviourist to take up the challenge?

So I convinced my husband to take a chance and after much deliberation, we took him home. It was Valentine’s day 2009. That is when I drove my guy home. That’s the kind of dog we got at first:

  1. Looks: He looked – still does – like a Frankensteinian cross between English Bulldog and Jack Russell.
  2. Weight: Morbidly obese doesn’t cut it. There was no other way to describe him than “hairy traffic cone”: a fat,broad base with a pointy head and orange-white stripes. It took us a few months, but he shed six kilos and now weighs a (still plump) nineteen.
  3. Behaviour: He was scared of e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. Spotted another dog? Ran away. Heard a car? Crawled and froze. TV was on? Barked and lunged. Saw bubbles in a drink glass? Stared and growled. You name it, he was scared of it.
ursine sloth

My dog is no looker. He has a lot in common with the ursine sloth on the looks front.

he looked like a hairy traffic cone: a fat broad base with a pointy head and orange-white stripes

So we systematically desensitized him to his demons and taught him to trust again, and to take life less seriously. We taught him not to worry about beer and television and puppies and tall strangers.

For years we enjoyed the fruit of our love and labour: a dog with superficial quirks but happy and cooperative. Until about two years ago, that is.

The C-word: Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

A couple of years back, he started to unlearn things he’d known for years, forgetting:

  1. that 6am is not the greatest of times for getting up
  2. that not all small dogs are the devil’s spawn
  3. that he has his own dog-flap door to the garden and that the garden is where we go potty.
  4. (and most heart-breakingly) that my husband does not turn into an axe-wielding murderer at night.

dog alzheimer's

The diagnosis made sense, but it left us feeling powerless. After all, it was an organic disease so there was nothing we could do right?

Wrong.

A lot of head scratching, systematic desensitisation, and many consults with colleagues later, I took the trip to the vet behaviourist. She concurred that he was showing symptoms of cognitive dysfunction – roughly speaking, the equivalent to Alzheimer’s disease. The signs he was showing where:

  • Occasionally confused about space
  • Occasionally confused about time
  • Unlearning toilet training
  • New fears
  • More prone to anxiety.

The diagnosis made sense, but it left us feeling powerless. After all, it was an organic disease so there was nothing we could do right?

Wrong.

Tackling Canine Cognitive Dysfunction: it’s not just pills

So I was going to get my old dog to do the canine equivalent to the Guardian’s crossword puzzle every day.

Sure you can moderate some of the symptoms (e.g. anxiety, fear, insomnia) with medication but you can also slow down mental decline through cognitive training. Human sufferers are often advised to learn a new language or do crossword puzzles at the early stages, to slow down the disease’s progression.

So I was going to get my old dog to do the canine equivalent to the Guardian’s crossword puzzle every day. I was going to teach that old dog new tricks. Relentlessly so.

Crossword helper

Keeping cognitively declining dogs from falling apart: keep that gray matter working

I started experimenting with all sorts of training tricks and techniques (all force-free, needless to say). I took him out of retirement and we:

  • started clicker training again: free-shaping him in endless guess-what-I-want-you-to-do games with hilarious missions and even more hilarious guesses;
  • dusted off the old SATS training manual: teaching him to touch a tree or a bin or a bench with a colder/warmer signal;
  • worked through our Do-As-I-Do DVD’s: teaching him to copy my body language;
  • played around with assistance dog tasks: teaching him to ‘find home’, ‘find my phone’ or ‘find my car';
  • ‘ditched that dish': he got all his food through games or food puzzles; and
  • learnt new tricks: we are happily ploughing through the Kikopup tricks catalog together (Emily Larlham).

It didn’t matter how slow or imperfect he was, all I wanted was to keep him mentally stimulated.

Fighting cognitive decline with dog tricks: where we are

…I am rediscovering how much fun it is to engage with my dog instead of leading two parallel lives

Not only does it seem to be working – he is more alert and less forgetful again – but I am rediscovering how much fun it is to engage with my dog instead of leading two parallel lives. And I am having a ball coming up with new tricks to keep my old guy busy. 

One of the tricks that gets us the most laughs at the park is “find the cash”. I hide a bank note in the woods for him to find – yup, it also works if someone else hides it and I’ve never touched the note.

dog trick

Teach your old dog new tricks

Many people have asked me to teach them this trick, and it happens to be one of the easiest in the book, so I figured I’d share it with you here. And if my elderly dog can learn it in under three minutes, so can yours.

Dog trick phase I: Sniffing a note pays off

  1. Ask your dog to wait.
  2. Take a bank note and throw it on the floor close to your dog, and say ‘OK’ or whatever your release word is.
  3. As soon as the dog looks at it, or even better, sniffs it, say ‘good boy’ (or click if your dog is clicker-trained) and give him a treat.
  4. Repeat until he pounces on the note on your ‘OK’.

Dog trick phase II: Sniffing a note is called ‘Where’s the cash?’

  1. (Next session) Ask your dog to wait.
  2. Say ‘Where’s the cash?’ in your happiest, chirpiest training voice.
  3. Take a bank note and throw it on the floor close to your dog.
  4. As soon as the dog sniffs it, say ‘good boy’ and give him a treat.
  5. Start from 2 again: take the bank note back in your hand, ask him “Where’s the cash?” and throw it again. Only this time a little further away.
  6. Repeat until he totally gets it. Most dogs – even mine – will get there in a few seconds.

Dog trick phase III: Move the bank note

  1. Do not let him see where you’re hiding the cash this time. Just send him on a mission to find a treat or something.
  2. When the dog is busy finding the decoy treat, place the bank note in a different place to where you’d been working, but still in full view and still reasonably close to you.
  3. When the dog is back from his treat foray, ask ‘Where’s the cash?’
  4. He’ll start looking and sniffing around. If he’s having trouble, try to hold on before you give him a hint. Don’t wait so long that he gives up in frustration, but try to encourage persistence.
  5. As soon as the dog bumps his nose on the note, say ‘good boy’ and give him a treat.
  6. Repeat a few times in reasonably easy spots (in plain view and close-by), picking a new spot each time.

Dog trick phase IV: Take it outside

  1. (start in a reasonably distraction-free environment the first few times you try outside) Send your dog away so he doesn’t see you hide the bank note, and hide the note somewhere reasonably easy the first few times, and very close to you.
  2. Ask him ‘Where’s the cash?’ when he’s back, and watch him search the note. As soon as he bumps the money with his nose, say ‘good boy’ and give him a treat.
  3. Repeat a few times in spots increasingly further from you, and where the money is increasingly hard to find (start lodging the cash in higher surfaces like tree bark, for example). There are endless hiding places in the woods:  in the grass, in a bush, under a stone. Just use your imagination.

Dog trick phase V: Showing off your money making trick

When out on a walk, wait until someone passes you by then casually drop a bank note and say ‘where’s the cash?’ It’s bound to start a conversation and most people will even offer their own money to make sure you’re not cheating.

MONEY

Take it from me: don’t play this on a windy day

Have fun, and heed this one last word to the wise: do NOT play this game on a windy day…

Comments

What do you reckon? Do you have experience dealing with Cognitive Dysfunction? Do you also use tricks as a therapeutic tool? Does your dog make you a million dollars a month? Don’t be shy and leave a comment.

Illustration credits

No changes were made to any of the illustrations.

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