That old adage, “you can’t train an old dog to do new tricks” couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, many senior dogs have settled into a routine with their guardians, and while routines are critical to their stability and happiness, routines are also gladly broken for some attention and biscuit-earning moments. Other senior dogs are waiting in shelters, where they were unfairly traded in for a newer model, for a forever home that may never adopt them in time. Why? Because one of the toughest challenges shelters have is placing senior dogs. And one of the reasons they hear most often is that a senior dog will be too difficult to train and introduce into a new home. Get ready for some major myth-busting because senior dogs are experienced canine companions with so much to offer.
First, let’s just say it. A dog can be trained to learn new behaviors, to reinforce old ones, and perhaps most importantly, to unlearn bad behaviors. Teaching an old dog new tricks is indeed possible.
There are only a few things to be aware of so we can adjust our teaching methods. Are we dealing with hearing loss? That’s easy to enough to overcome, but it’s something people don’t always think about when they begin training.
We also want to check for any visual impairment because age can dim the ability to see distance, quick movements, and peripheral vision. Pay close attention over time to whether Rover is responding to our commands or whether a visual impairment may be keeping them confused. It isn’t always obvious right away, so keep this in mind for all new commands and behaviors we want to enforce.
Lastly, brittle bones, weak joints, pain, and fear can all affect how quickly a senior dog will learn something new. As long as we use techniques and positive reinforcement, senior dogs can learn some pretty impressive stuff. Just remember that tricks like sit and rollover may not be something we want to work on, and certainly not something we want to punish if our pup is having a hard time because of sore hips.
Employing positive methods is the most effective strategy when training senior dogs. This means rewarding pups for little bits of progress and small wins as well as learning new behaviors and commands. Such training also makes the experience more enjoyable for pups and people. The bigger picture is that training and productive time spent together helps to create a strong, therapeutic bond between canine companions and their guardians.
Training senior dogs has countless beautiful benefits. Sure, they’ll know how to shake and high-five with their paw, but there’s more. Senior dogs can end up laying around - a lot. But most of the time, it isn’t because they don’t want to be active. Most of the time it’s because their guardians have become busy (we all do), and life has taken on a mundane sort of everyday ebb and flow.
Schedules and reliably knowing when their guardian will be home each day, when they’ll get their food, and when they’ll get their walk or playtime, is critical for dogs and cats. Let’s not let playtime be something that goes by the wayside. Training a senior dog serves as a way to engage and stimulate their mind. It will keep them mentally fit.
Getting our pups up and moving around is critical to their health, and it doesn’t hurt our fitness either. Playtime and training help to get our senior dog interested in moving around. Joints and muscles can get sore because of arthritis and other influences, but not moving around can also make sore joints even more painful. Getting up and active for 20-30 minutes of positive activity with their human will keep our pups that much more healthy.
As mentioned earlier, training our senior dog can mean we develop a more therapeutic bond with our pups. We learn more about their needs, their learning style, and we share small wins with them every time we successfully complete a training session. Most importantly, we gain a closer relationship, which has been scientifically proven to improve overall health for both dogs and guardians.
Here are a few, general tips to help you train your senior dog:
- Get an all-clear from a vet before starting a training program just to make sure we aren’t going to overwhelm our pups or ask them to do more than they are capable of.
- Design a realistic and suitable training program based on what your senior dog’s mind and body can handle.
- Keep each training sessions short and positive. Divide each behavior/command we want Ms. Fuzzy Paws to learn into smaller steps, working toward the final goal.
- A combination of patience, consistency, and repetition is key.
- Let Rover rest when we see him getting tired, mentally or physically.
- Find out the things that motivate your dog; you can use these as a reward during training.
- When teaching Fido how to properly socialize, introduce him to new situations and other people or pets cautiously, especially when we know that he has the tendency to be aggressive and protective.
- Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to teach senior dogs good behavior and help them unlearn bad ones.
- Give canine companions enticing treats as a reward. Just make sure they are low-calorie and healthy. EcoTreats is a premium, all-natural treat that dogs love.
- Integrate play and vocal rewards as part of the positive reinforcement. Only using treats, even low-calorie treats, mean we risk our pups gaining weight, which is bad for old dog joints.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer Penny Leigh at the American Kennel Club says that a senior dog who remains physically and mentally active will be healthier and happier. She explains, “Dogs who still feel useful and know that they have a ‘job’ tend to keep a youthful outlook, much like humans who continue to stay engaged in activities after they retire.”
Please give serious consideration to adopting a senior dog. They need more love and care when they reach their golden years, and they deserve to live out the rest of their life comfortably and happily with a forever home. Training a senior dog is not impossible. It can even be easy. And it will definitely be rewarding. As long as we put in the time and effort to properly train Old Blue, the experience will be a pleasant one and will help establish a healthy and strong relationship.
- “Training an Older Dog” Whole Dog Journal
- “Training a Senior Dog and Other Valuable Advice,” Petful
- “11 Tricks You Can Teach A Senior Dog,” Mother Nature Network