Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

Feb 28, 2019   Tracey Aston   Training

A pet should begin training as soon as they are brought into their new home. Puppies will lose their attention span fairly quickly, so when they're young up to 6 months, training sessions must be kept short so they can retain more information. If the puppy seems distracted or bored, stop the training and come back at it later. What about older dogs? Is the age old adage “you can't teach an old dog new tricks” really true? Fortunately, it is not! Dogs can learn new behaviors at any age and adult dogs can even be easier to train as they can focus for longer periods of time. There are many reasons why a pet parent would want to train an older dog – the family has moved to a new location and the pet hasn't been exposed to certain things, like stairs; a pet parent could have adopted an older dog; senior dogs are more apt to have mobility issues and need trained to use ramps and harnesses, or just like every human being, you realize you made a mistake during training in the pet's younger year and need to correct something.

Whatever the reason, an older dog can still learn not only new tricks, but also new behaviors and manners. Older dogs are just as intelligent as their younger counterparts and can concentrate and focus for longer periods of time. Therefore, teaching a new behavior, manners or trick may even be easier with an adult dog. To be realistic, it may take longer to unlearn bad habits than it will be to teach new habits.   A dog won't understand why they've been allowed to do something all their life – like barking or digging – and all of a sudden they aren't allowed to do it anymore. Also, just like us, habits are hard to break. It's always going to be easier to teach a new behavior than to unlearn a bad one.  In addition to breaking bad habits, an older dog may be more stubborn or set in their ways, this will require patience on the part of the pet parent but it is not impossible!  The main point to remember is to teach your pet what you want them to do and not get frustrated focusing on what you don't want them to do. For example, if a pet is barking every time it sees the mailman, give the pet a new task to perform when the pet sees the mailman. So instead of barking, work on teaching the pet to come to you, stand by the door, lay down or go to their crate. This can be achieved more easily with clicker training, which allows the trainer to mark positive behaviors in their dogs. Our blog post Clicker Training is full of helpful information on learning to clicker train your pet.

According to the PetMD article Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks “unless they're exhibiting signs of significant cognitive dysfunction, training shouldn't be any different than with a younger adult dog, though they may have less stamina for repetition.” “Learning helps to keep a dog's brain in shape. Start with easy dog tricks as you would with puppies, but once they're succeeding, don't be afraid to try more complicated dog tricks.” “When a dog is confused or failing, it's usually because of something the human is or isn't doing, like not being clear, rushing or combining too many learning behaviors together. One of the biggest challenges in training adult dogs is clear criteria and generous reinforcement.” “Regardless of age, when we slow down and reward each tiny step, we get happy dogs, eager to cooperate.” Patience is very important, but with senior dogs, extra patience and compassion are essential when teaching dog tricks, particularly if they struggle with cognitive and physical decline”

It's always going to be easier to train a new pet on what behaviors are expected than to have to break bad habits, but that isn't always possible. Adult dogs and even senior dogs can learn new behaviors, manners and tricks. The trick pet parents have to learn during this process is patience. 

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