How to train and mentally stimulate your pet

How to train and mentally stimulate your pet
Pets thrive on a predictable schedule of exercise, meals and training.

By Gina Hardter

Back-to-school season is right around the corner, but getting back into the learning habit isn’t just for kids. Explore some fun ways to keep your pet mentally enriched all year long.

You can teach an old dog new tricks

Whether your pup is young or a senior, is new to your home or has lived with you for years, it’s always a good time to take on some training. You can work on behavior basics like “sit” or “lie down” or, if they’ve mastered those skills, move on to fun and cute party tricks like “roll over,” “spin,” “take a bow” and “sit pretty.” When teaching dogs tricks, it’s important to make sure you have a lure that really interests them, whether it’s an especially yummy treat or a favorite toy, and that you aren’t overwhelming them. Training sessions should remain short, no more than 10 minutes, and follow your dog’s lead if they are getting frustrated by taking a break. With a new training session every day, you can have the most polished pup on the block in no time.

Clicker training…for cats?

Dogs aren’t the only pets who can learn tricks; many cats respond just as well as dogs to clicker training, which pairs a verbal command or hand signal with a desired trick, then rewards the cat for the behavior by “clicking” a clicker and giving them a treat. At the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, cats can learn skills like “sit,” “lie down,” “spin” and more, especially when some tasty tuna is offered as the reward. If you’re new to clicker training and not sure how to teach a certain behavior, start by capturing a behavior your cat is already doing, like performing a sit, and rewarding them with a click and a treat. Soon they will pair that action with your verbal cue of sit and perform it on command for a reward.

Training for small mammals

Guinea pigs, rabbits, mice and rats can get in on the training fun too. A great starting point is target training your small pet, in which you offer them a target, like an open hand or a target stick and teach them to approach and touch it for a reward. Start by putting the target close to your pet’s nose, and when their curiosity means they reach out and sniff it, reward them with a treat for doing so. Once they’ve learned that action, move the target further away so they move to touch it. Soon they will be running or hopping to the target for their treat. This is also a great way to help shyer pets come up to the gates of their enclosure to meet new people, as we teach some of our smaller mammals at the AWLA.

Bird behavior basics

Depending on their size and breed, different birds have different capabilities, but all birds can benefit from the mental stimulation of learning new skills. Basic tricks include training your bird to “step up” onto your finger, which is a wonderful way to bond with your bird buddy. Birds can also be taught skills like “fly to me” – always in a safe and contained space – and even house-training. Larger birds like parrots and cockatoos can also learn language, so when you are training them to speak, remember they’re likely to repeat it.

Back to routine

Sometimes summer schedules can get a bit lax, but fall is a great time to make sure you are getting your whole family, including your pets, back to a regular routine. Pets thrive on a predictable schedule of exercise, meals and of course, training, so it’s the perfect time to add a daily training session to your routine.

The writer is director of marketing and communications for the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization supporting Alexandria and beyond. More information is available at