Old Dogs CAN learn new tricks

September 12, 2013


The old saying that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is just that – an old saying.  Older dogs are perfectly capable of learning.  Don’t think that because you’ve just adopted an old dog that his age makes him unable to learn basic obedience cues such as “Sit”, “Down” and “Come”.  He could even learn some party tricks.

There are a number of factors that influence how much and what your senior citizen can learn.  These are:

  • Your dog’s training and behaviour history.
  • Your dog’s physical condition.
  • Your commitment and experience as a trainer.
  • What methods you are using to train him
  • Mental conditions that may limit his cognitive abilities.

Your dog’s training and behaviour history:

If your dog has been trained from an early age and enjoys the training, he can certainly benefit from ongoing training – learning new skills and brushing up on known skills.  Exercising his brain will keep him more alert than a dog who is not challenged mentally.

If your dog has had no training apart from house training teaching him new skills is more of a challenge but if you go about it in a gentle and positive manner he is just as capable of learning as a younger dog.

Your dog’s physical condition:

Elderly dogs sometimes suffer from arthritis, hip dysplasia and general aches and pains that accompany old age so care must be taken that the training does not tax your dog beyond what his body can handle.

Your consistency and patience as a trainer:

The more consistent and patient you are, particularly when teaching an old dog that has had no training in his youth, the better results you will get.  Stick to positive methods, be aware of your timing when rewarding behaviour that you want and realise that it takes a while and a lot of patience on your part to clear the cobwebs out of a disused attic.  There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the light bulb moment when your dog begins to understand what you want.

Training Methods:

Dogs trained with aversive methods tend to shut down and resist training whereas dogs that are trained with positive methods are usually keen to carry on the “training” game their whole lives.  There is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that dogs trained with positive methods are quite willing to keep on learning – while those trained with physical and/or verbal punishment are more likely to shut down and less willing to offer new behaviours.

Cognitive Ability in Senior Dogs:

Canine Cognitive Disorder is a very real phenomenon.  Clinical signs include disorientation,  increased sleep (especially during the day), altered interactions with family members, loss of housetraining, decreased ability to recognize familiar people and surroundings and decreased hearing, to name a few of the more common signs.

Gypsy - now a very active 12 year-old.  My heart dog.

Gypsy – now a very active 12 year-old. My heart dog.

Dogs’ personalities don’t change much after puppyhood and adolescence.  Anxious or fearful dogs tend to remain anxious or fearful although with careful treatment they can be helped to be less so.  But, what you can do is teach your old dog how to behave in a certain situation.

First steps in teaching your dog new behaviours:

First, reward the dog for performing a desired behavior when that behavior occurs naturally. For example, give your dog a food treat for sitting or lying down.  These behaviours occur naturally throughout the day so carry some of your dog’s daily ration around with you in your pocket so that you can “capture” these behaviours whenever they occur.  If your dog’s normal dry food is not attractive enough to be worth doing “stuff” for, then select rewards that are more appealing such as small blocks of cheese, or pieces of Vienna sausages.  Eventually your dog will start “offering” these behaviours in the hope that his reward will be forthcoming.

Your next step would be to start teaching your dog the cue that is associated with the behaviour that he is offering.  As he begins offering the sit or the down give him the cue “Sit” or “Down”.  He will soon realise that when he hears either of these words and he responds with the relevant behaviour, a treat will be forthcoming.

Even canine senior citizens will learn fairly rapidly using the above technique.  Obedient responses to cues are valuable as a means of increasing mutual understanding between owner and dog.  The very act of spending time with your dog, plus the sense of accomplishment and communication that training brings, is well worth the effort and improves the quality of both the owner’s and the pet’s life.

If you make sure that your aging dog is always learning, always occupied and always has something new to think about, he will probably be more likely to stay bright, alert and mentally active for a long time, perhaps well into old age.

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