Can you teach a rescue dog new tricks?

If the phrase, "you can't teach a [rescue] dog new tricks" is true, it's very difficult to teach new skills, or change habits or behaviour. Is this the case for preowned pooches?

We know one of the reasons Molly was handed into the rescue shelter was her abundant energy. In fact, the first time we visited her we came away confused. She was scurrying around so fast, we couldn't get a good look. She pulls on the lead, jumps up at strangers, barks at men in hi-viz and seemingly never sleeps. Would she be the untrainable puppy; the one nobody invites to their summer walkies?

Well, we're on a mission to prove that it's a load of codswallop. We believe all dogs have the capacity and capability to learn. Some might just take longer than others.

But what is the best way to bring up a puppy, and which training methods are most successful? A quick google and you're overwhelmed with literature. Tools, tips and techniques, everything from cruel methods to the downright loopy.

We want an approach that builds a happy, healthy and confident pup. A dog that responds to commands (because they can ultimately save her life) and is friendly to other dogs and their humans. For us this means using positive reinforcement.

We've read all the negative press (it's a hippy fad, lazy training...), none of which hold up. Positive reinforcement is certainly not passive; it's an active approach to conditioning behaviour. It's a non-confrontational method, which rewards (praise, play, food, toys...) certain behaviours so they are likely to be repeated.

Positive reinforcement dog training, also referred to as force-free, reward-based, or clicker training, is a method that focuses on telling your dog when he is correct, instead of only pointing out what is incorrect.

"But surely a quick tap on the nose would do the trick?", I hear you say. Nope, none of that. We'll be following in the footsteps of organisations such as The Kennel Club, Dogs Trust and Guide Dogs for the Blind Association which all advocate positive reinforcement. In fact, Guide Dogs reported an increase in pass rate from 50% to 80% in their dogs after switching to positive reinforcement methods in 2005, in addition to a significant decrease in handler training time.

[The Evidence for Positive Reinforcement Training in Dogs / The Happy Puppy Site]

So, we're off to puppy school with Heath Ross and his gorgeous canine companion Bear in Loughton, northeast London. Stay tuned.

We'd love to hear how your positive reinforcement training is going. What are your biggest hurdles and what's working well?