Dear Sarah,

We’ve made some mistakes in training when our puppy was young, and taught her some things we really wish we hadn’t. Are we too late to change things (she’s now 3 years old)?

Miranda W

Hi Miranda,

I don’t actually think it’s ever to late to change undesirable behaviour, but it’s important to realise that the longer the dog has been doing a certain behaviour, the longer it’s going to take for them to change.

That’s because there’s a number of factors going on here. Firstly, we have behaviour that has become a habit – and a habit for a few years now. Essentially, we’re talking about neural pathways in the brain – interrupting those that are well and truly entrenched and creating new ones. Which of course, takes time.

And it’s not just the dog’s habitual behaviour and neural pathways that we’re looking at – it’s yours as well. Dogs are very good at reading your body language, looking for cues about what might be about to happen, and reacting accordingly. For example, how often have you sat down to put your joggers on to take the dog for a walk, and the dog gets really excited and heads for the door, or to the area where their lead is kept? And you haven’t said a word! What looks like magic (or really good ESP!), is actually your dog doing an amazing job of reading your subtle body cues and predicting behaviour based on previous experiences repeated over and over again.

So when we’re looking at changing behaviour in our dogs, we first need to change behaviour in ourselves. We need to teach the dog an alternative behaviour, attach a different body language or verbal cue to it, set them up for success and repeat it many, many, MANY times to develop those new neural pathways. And don’t forget that we’re trying to communicate with another species It all sounds like so much work, doesn’t it?

But it can absolutely be done. You just need to be patient, consistent and realise that it’s likely to take some time.