How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

By Jennifer Viegas

How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Advanced age doesn’t bring flexibility to a halt. We are all able to adapt to change, even if the adjustment takes more time for some than it does for others. As a result, it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. “It’s absolutely a myth that older dogs cannot learn,” says Erin Kramer, a professional dog trainer. “They’ve simply had the bad habit, whatever it is, for a longer period of time.”

Kramer, who owns and operates Puppy Love Dogs in Northern California, shares how she trains senior dogs, teaching their owners a thing or two along the way as well.

Work With a Professional Trainer
If you’ve owned your senior dog since it was a puppy, you probably have developed a close bond. Your dog has evolved ways of behaving around you, even predicting your emotions and reactions, which can make it difficult to get your dog to change.

On the other hand, “when a new person comes in, this individual introduces a new element, so the dog is inclined to pay attention more,” says Kramer. If your budget does not permit working with a professional trainer now, consider asking a friend to help you train your pet, just to add a fresh face to the mix.

Make a List of Rules
Kramer has her clients make a list of household rules that they would like for their dog to follow. The rules have to be specific. For example, is it OK for the dog to jump up on you but not on houseguests? Can your dog jump on certain furniture but not others? Often problems with dogs begin when owners are unclear about rules.

“If a dog jumps on a guest and gets a head rub and attention, from the dog’s point of view, that’s a payoff,” says Kramer. “If a dog wants to sniff a tree and pulls you over to it with its leash, it’s figured out how to control you to get what it wants.”

Use Real Life Rewards
Kramer also begins training sessions by asking owners to make a list of everything the dog values. Depending on your dog’s breed, this can vary. Toys, for example, usually motivate prey-driven dogs. “When I train police dogs, I actually have the bad guy stand behind one of the dog’s favorite toys,” she says. “Terriers tend to be more internally focused and want to please themselves.”

Once you identify a reward your dog covets -- be it his food bowl, a toy or a favorite biscuit -- you can then practice walking to that item with your dog. The goal is to keep the leash loose so that you are controlling your pet’s approach. “If the dog rushes or is overly excited, give the ‘Sit’ command and have your dog hold for five seconds before continuing.” This simple technique can solve all sorts of ingrained senior dog habits.

Keep These Three Factors in Mind

1. Timing “If your dog gives you a guilty look when you come home, and all of the garbage is spilled on the floor, it’s useless to punish your dog at that point,” says Kramer. She explains that the dog probably went through the garbage a few hours ago and would not associate the punishment with the crime. “Senior dogs don’t live in the past,” she says.

2. Motivation This changes for each dog and is often tied to breed. However, “most dogs are motivated by food,” says Kramer, “but they have to earn it.”

3. Consistency “Don’t change the rules, or else you will confuse your dog,” she advises.

Use Doggy Psychology
There’s good reason why your senior dog has lasted so long, and it’s not just due to genetics. Your dog has learned a lot over the years, but it also has the ability to change and to learn even more. When Kramer works with older dogs, she wants them to think: “This lady has everything I want. She has the canine jackpot.” You are therefore your dog’s most important reward. Senior dogs might require a patient, gentle hand during training, but with the right approach, you will both succeed and begin a new life’s chapter.

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Dog Daily. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.

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Posted on February 9, 2012

Haruka says: Old Dog Haven in Arlington,WA are the best.. they have final reugfe and hospice care and take in all seniors from all shelters all over WA.

Posted on March 11, 2012

Yanie says: I'm not sure it's a question of the cimraiticalpty of gentleness' but rather the convenience of punishment and control. I understand the dilemma. Someone gets a dog and expects the dog to behave a particular way and the dog doesn't. The results are frustrating, annoying and/or costly to the owner. Ultimately everyone has to make a decision regarding how they are going to manage and train their dog(s). And there are going to be owners who come up against a situation which, for whatever reason, they are either unable or unwilling to manage/train their dogs in a way which is not only fair to the dog and takes into consideration their physical and emotional well being and also gets the desired results, without hurting or scaring the dog.I'm not sure how one defines what is a mild' correction or not. If a punishment is going to work we know it has to be potent enough for the dog to be impacted by the consequence enough to change their behavior. If we need to keep applying the correction we haven't corrected anything. We are managing the situation using the threat of punishment, not training and changing a behavior. We should at least be clear on this, whatever we choose to do. My own frustration is with excuses that are made to use painful/scary training techniques because someone has put a dog into into an untenable situation and expect it to toe the line, whatever it takes, without acknowledging their own responsibility in the equation or trying to understand the dog's perspective. If you are broke you could argue the value of robbing banks to get money to pay your mortgage so your kids have a roof over their heads. The result is justification enough for the technique. It doesn't mean that those of us who are working for a living are on the wrong track.

Posted on April 20, 2012

Kane says: Beautiful video ! I volunteer at dog uercse and it is so true that most seniors are not lucky enough to get out of a pound to be adopted, thankfully most uercses will have a few senior dogs at all times. Seniors are gentle, wise, and usually very easy, laid back dogs, make excellent best friends ! They may not have as long to live as a puppy or very young dog, but remember you can give them the best years of their life, and they will be forever grateful to you.

Posted on April 20, 2012

Akshay says: Through dogster with the help of Best Friends I was able to trshectraoe a senior dog rescue who's elderly owner had passed away. THE most gratifying rescue I have ever been apart of since I was constantly wondering where are her golden years after so many years of loyalty companionship?KIDDO is never far from my mind and always in my heart and I now realize my own rescue pup is in her twilight hours/years but she has me when many have no one and are overlooked or ignored at shelters.

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