Despite the axiom, old dogs can learn new tricks. Some senior dogs may still be ready learners. In fact, teaching a senior dog can often be a lot easier than training a puppy
. Jenna Stregowski, RVT says, “Adult dogs are often easier to train than young puppies because they have more self control.” So hyper-excitement won’t distract an older dog the way it might pull a puppy’s attention away from its training.
The key to training your older dog is to understand the special needs of these pets. With a bit of patience and some positive reinforcement, your senior dog will be eager to learn.
Rewards, Not Punishments
It’s often easier for your older dog to learn new behaviors, rather than break old habits. If a dog has been getting positive reinforcement for an undesirable behavior for many years, it may be a challenge to break this habit. The first step is to stop rewarding the behaviors you don’t want, and praise the actions you like. For example, if your older dog jumps up, don’t pet them. If you see that they want to jump up, and remember not to because they’re learning you don’t like it, bend over and lavish them with praise or offer a treat. Be clear with your feedback.
Positive reinforcement is especially important with an older dog who’s new to the family. If you don’t know the dog’s history, you don’t know how they’ll react to different training methods. Positive reinforcement is the best way to start.
Older Dogs & Regressive Behavior
If your older dog begins a new bad habit in their old age, like barking too much or eliminating inside the house, the best way to change these habits is not to punish. Instead, teach (or re-teach) the “new” trick of going outside to do their business
. Every time the dog needs relief, take them immediately outdoors to the same spot. As soon they do their business, lavish them with praise as you would have as a puppy. Remember, changing potty needs come with old age.
If you are consistent with this re-training, within a few weeks your senior dog should catch on.
Going inside after years of solid housebreaking can be a cue that your pet is suffering from a bladder infection or some other ailment. See your vet if there’s no improvement on in-house accidents. More accidents could also, though, just let you know your dog needs more bathroom breaks. You may need to retrain yourself as well, and adjust your schedule to allow for more outside time as your dog ages.
Senior Dog Limitations
Aging pets can develop physical or cognitive limitations that make training more difficult.
Older dogs can have joint or bone troubles that can keep them from performing certain physical activities. So teaching a senior dog to jump through a hoop may not be an appropriate goal.
Just as importantly, remember that, like humans, dogs can begin to lose cognitive functioning as they age. They may become forgetful or easily disoriented, acting confused or not like themselves.
Canine cognitive disorder, what some call canine Alzheimer’s, is a common condition among older dogs and can make training more difficult. Although the condition isn’t curable, there are treatments available that can help with symptoms. Talk to you vet if you see signs of cognitive disorder.
Effects of Stress on Training
can have a negative effect on your dog’s ability to learn. Changes in an older dog’s environment or routine can be overwhelming to an already confused or infirm pet. Upheaval in the environment will make it much harder for your dog to learn what is expected of them.
If you’ve recently moved or brought home a new baby, you can expect your older dog to either lose training he already had or to have a hard time adopting new behaviors. And if you are introducing a new senior dog into your household, that stress can extend training times as well.
The wise pet parent will understand these stresses and give their senior dog time to adjust to new conditions. Keep training sessions short and simple. Focus on a few key commands first. Soon enough, your pet will be ready and willing to learn.
At a Glance
- Your older dog should be able to learn new commands, as long as their health allows
- It’s better to use reward based training methods with your aging dog
- Respect the limits of a senior dog, and be patient
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.
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