The Joy of New Lessons

Some dogs prefer recently acquired skills
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2017

“The new action is always her favorite!” one of my clients told me. And it’s true—whenever Stella is taught something new, she’s so excited about it.

Stella knows a lot of skills already—sit, down, stay, wait, come, heel, touch, take it, leave it. She needs those skills because she is a service-dog-in-training. Most of these skills she knows really well and can do even in hectic situations. That’s important, because at times, she has lived in a house with up to nine people ranging in age from 6 months old to upwards of 90 years, two other dogs and four cats. Not every dog can hold a stay when a three-year old is running around, cats are zipping by her, and a few adults are talking at the same time in order to work out the day’s complicated logistics, but Stella can!

During the course of her training, Stella has also learned some tricks such as bow, crawl and sit pretty—and it’s about the cutest sit pretty you will ever see. She modified it on her own to grasp her handler’s hand. It always looks to me like she is praying reverently.

One of the reasons Stella has learned these tricks is that she loves to learn new things, so we’ve introduced them along the way. In some training visits to her home, we work on something new just because it makes her happy. She likes to work and enjoys all of her training exercises, but whatever she has learned most recently provides her with a little extra joy.

It’s not clear why that is, but there are a number of possibilities. Some dogs enjoy the puzzle of figuring out what they are supposed to do. Some dogs become bored of any routine and get very excited when something unexpected is happening. Others seem to relish learning something new because of the satisfaction of getting it right. Other dogs love the new trick because many trainers use the best food or especially high rates of reinforcement with new skills to help dogs learn them faster.

Does your dog get excited about learning a new trick or other skill?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.