Chances are, you’ve heard the familiar adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Despite the subject of this saying, you’re most likely to hear it used to describe other human beings!
Of course, if your furry friend is getting on in years, you may be wondering whether or not there’s a kernel of truth in the adage. Can old dogs learn new tricks? Is it possible to launch new training sessions once their puppy days are behind them?
If you’re curious about dog training for older pets, we’ve got you covered. Here’s what to know about teaching an older dog, including the training methods most likely to work.
Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?
The simple answer to this question is yes! It’s never too late to jump into dog training, even if your pet is an older dog.
Dogs are clever enough to learn new tricks at any point in their lives, and even older pets are eager to learn and please. As with puppies, frequent rewards and reassurance can help older dogs with training.
However, your approach to training older dogs, as well as the consideration you’ll need for their age and health, may change from pet to pet.
Teaching Puppies vs. Older Dogs
It’s likely that the adage about teaching old dogs new tricks got its start because teaching puppies is easier in some ways. Here are a few key differences between puppies and older dogs to keep in mind:
Socialization and Acclimatization
Your dog’s puppy days are the best opportunity for socialization, which teaches them good behavior around animals and humans. This encourages them to be more comfortable in the presence of others. In addition, exposing puppies to a range of positive experiences—like loud noises or running water—can make them less anxious.
Once dogs are older, getting them comfortable in these situations can take more patience. You may need to start with tactics like introducing them to new humans one at a time.
As you probably expect, younger dogs tend to be more energetic and agile. This can make it easier for them to learn tricks that require agility or coordination.
Depending on their age, older dogs may struggle to keep up with fast-paced tricks. This is especially true if your dog is showing signs of arthritis, which can make movement more difficult.
Be sure to keep their physical health in mind as you develop your dog training plan, and be on the lookout for signs of exhaustion like dropped ears, frequent yawning, sniffing the ground, or excessive licking.
One advantage of older dogs over puppies is their level of concentration. Where you might have a hard time keeping an energetic puppy from getting distracted, an older dog is more likely to remain calm and focused during training.
Puppies are blank slates. Training allows you to teach them new behavior without considering their past behavior.
Older dogs, on the other hand, will have ingrained habits that they’ve learned over the years. If these habits clash with the tricks you’re teaching, you might have a harder time getting your dog to switch to the new habit. Frequent rewards like encouragement and petting can help spur them to try the new trick instead.
Tips for Teaching an Older Dog
Given the differences above, let’s look at a few quick tips worth keeping in mind when training an older dog.
Before you begin, be aware that training dogs who are getting on in years can take more time than training puppies. Expect your new tricks to take up to a month to really sink in, and be prepared for them to take even longer if you’re working to undo an ingrained habit.
No matter how long it takes, be patient with your dog during that time, and don’t forget that consistent, gentle training always helps.
Recognize Your Dog’s Strengths and Limits
Don’t start teaching an older dog unless you know what their current capabilities are. If your vet has mentioned that their healing may be starting to fail, stick to visual cues to help them understand when to perform the trick. If they’re struggling with arthritis, work on simpler orders like lying down, shaking hands, or heeling.
In addition, make sure to start training sessions when your dog is most alert. For some dogs, this may be earlier in the day, while others may seem to wake up as the day goes on. Stop whenever your dog gets tired by checking for the signs of exhaustion mentioned above.
Don't Overdo It
Always work on only one trick at a time. Juggling multiple tricks at once can confuse your dog, making it harder to understand what you want from them.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Dogs of any age love positive reinforcement. Depending on your preferences, you might want to use treats, petting and verbal encouragement, methods like clicker training, or a mixture of these.
Just as with younger dogs, make sure you’re only reinforcing the behavior you want to see. Don’t use treats or encouragement to distract your older dog from bad behavior like jumping onto a human friend!
Teach Your Old Dog New Tricks
Now that you’ve stopped wondering, “Can old dogs learn new tricks?” it’s time to start training your older dog! No matter their age, dogs are often happy to learn and excited to spend time with their owners. With a little patience and encouragement, your dog will have no problem tackling a few new behaviors.
As you work to teach your older dog, don’t forget about our range of K-9 training programs, including expert obedience training for dogs of all ages. To learn more about how we can help—and to give us a chance to learn about your dog’s unique strengths—book a consultation with one of our senior trainers today.
The K-9 Culture Dog Training Family