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Pets Learn From Observation

Sometimes, I can call for one of my dogs to come to me, but they do not. However, if I open the treat jar as quietly as possible, they are by my side in a flash. The saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is a blatant lie. The truth is that they only learn the tricks they want to learn, but regardless of age, they learn until the day they leave us.

My most recent foster fail, previously known as Red, is now Brody. We changed his name for two reasons. One, he responded better to Brody, and two, we found out he is 50 percent Golden Retriever and 50 percent Irish Setter, also known as a Golden Irish, so we wanted to give him an Irish name. He is estimated to be about three years old and learns new tricks and behaviors very quickly. He knows if I go to the kitchen pantry to retrieve a grocery bag, it means he is going for a walk. He begins to spin around over and over. I get dizzy just watching him.

However, my eldest dog, Bentley, also learns new behaviors easily; he is estimated to be ten years old. Bentley listens pretty well, but he sometimes has selective hearing and ignores our requests. At times, we let him out in our yard, which is not fenced in, and he decides to wander. The further he gets, the less he responds to commands. The only way to get him back to our yard is to physically go get him with a leash or clink the glass treat jar with the metal lid. He could be a mile away, but he comes running once he hears that clink sound.

Pets, especially dogs, learn by observing their environment and from trial and error. If the doorbell rings, and we get off the couch, walk to the door, and open it to reveal another person standing there, the dogs connect the dots quickly. After just one doorbell observation, if the doorbell rings again, they will run to the door before we even get off the couch and bark to let us and the rest of the neighborhood that we have a visitor.

Our friends have a Ring doorbell and get notifications when someone walks by their front door. Their dog will hear the notification and run to the door to see who is invading their space. Remember, the only movement by their human was to look at their cell phone. No one got up or headed to the door immediately upon receiving the notification. Yet, the dog still figured out that the notification sound equals someone or something walking past.

Pets quickly learn certain verbal commands. “Are you hungry?” or “Go for a ride?” are good examples of a question that every pet understands. Others  include, “Time to eat,” “Go for a walk?” “Bedtime,” “Treat?” etc. There are, of course, other commands that are learned begrudgingly, like sit, stay, down, high five, spin, speak, fetch, etc. These commands are learned using behavior conditioning, which almost always includes a food reward. Most mammals, including humans, are food-motivated. When our son was potty training, we would offer him a “poop treat,” which was a miniature Reese’s peanut butter cup, if he made a potty. After about 1,000 poop treats, he was potty-trained. (I think he was holding out on us just to get the treat.)

Similarly, my dog, Brody, loves to go for walks. He has learned very quickly that if he poops, we turn around and return home. What began as a 3-block walk is now a half-mile and getting longer each time. Luckily, he walks on a leash very well without pulling or stopping to smell every blade of grass. The walks are enjoyable for both of us, and I am losing weight as a result of his persistence. He has decided that one walk a day is unacceptable, and we now walk at least three times daily, but I foresee this number increasing once the time changes and the sun of the day is longer.

Trying to teach your pet new behaviors can be challenging, but with consistency and determination, success can be attained. I am fascinated by dogs that run agility courses without hesitation or lack of focus. I have seen cats that can jump from one stand to another, walk a wire, fetch a toy, and more. Some birds can also be trained to play basketball and even vocalize human language regardless of the origin.

Keep in mind that your pets are always watching. They learn from observation, and so give them something good to observe. Don’t display anger or curse out another driver while your dog is in the car with you. They might relate your anger to something they did and then associate going for a ride as an unpleasant experience. If you behave properly, your pets will follow your lead.

Please adopt, don’t shop, and support your local animal shelters.

Barry KuKes is the former Community Outreach Director of Halifax Humane Society. E-mail him at View more of his work at