How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

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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.

by Jennifer Viegas