There is a famous idiom in our English language, You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Attributed to an animal husbandry book penned in 1523 by Anthony Fitzherbert, it has held steadfast as a popular saying ever since. But is it true?
In short, no. All dogs have the capacity to learn at any age given the right motivation, techniques and patience from their teacher. Just as with humans, older generations may have a greater challenge in harnessing new technologies, but there are plenty of grandparents on Facebook proving all creatures are capable of learning new skills throughout their lifetime!
As with people, all dogs are unique individuals and learn at different paces. Some techniques work better for some, and less so for others. If you have a new dog that is an adult or senior, take time to get to know her and what motivates her. What kinds of foods or treats does she like? Is she playful? Does she enjoy car rides or hikes in the mountains? Make a list of all the things your dog loves and rate them. You now have a list of options for using those things she likes as rewards in training!
Patience and consistency are key. It takes repetition and more rewards in the beginning to build new skills, and then it’s important to ensure those skills are solid by increasing difficulty gradually, and then practicing in different environments with different distractions. For example, practice “sit” at home for a five-second duration, building on that to longer durations with you at furthering distances within the home, your yard, etc., before “taking it on the road” to the park where some tempting squirrels may be!
Increase difficulties one aspect at a time and vary it; if the dog cannot comply, go back to an easier step and go from there. You can fade out food rewards gradually as the dog becomes more consistent with compliance. Keep her guessing about what will reward her, and use other rewards like praise instead of treats. Give the best rewards for the best performance.
While basic skills can be easily taught through a rewards-based system of positive reinforcement for any well-socialized dog, for a dog who may have some behavior issues due to a lack of socialization or bad experiences, behavior modification training can take more time and patience, and specialized techniques. A dog who may have learned to act out in a reactive (or what some would label aggressive) way because of a fear she has will need time to rebuild her confidence. She will need to be introduced slowly, at her own pace, to what causes her fear and negative reactions. She will need to build positive associations and learn new ways of coping with her stress to have a response that is one of being relaxed in the presence of what was once feared, or even possibly enjoying it! If you have a dog like this, you should seek out a professional for help.
If you have a senior dog or a dog that may have age-related health issues, bear that in mind when training. My foster dog, Uma, has bad arthritis and elbow dysplasia, so I do not make her do “down” cues, as it is challenging for her. On the flip-side, I have my young dog, Jasper, doing puppy push-ups to burn off energy! (Puppy push-ups are repetitions of sit/down, sit/down, etc.) Likewise, if a dog has any type of brain injury or other medical concern, this may affect learning.
Keep learning stress-free; no creature can learn when it is stressed. Stress signs include licking the lips, pacing, panting, ears back, sweating through the paws, yawning, hypervigilance, crouching, tucked tail, rolling over to demonstrate passive submission, shaking off and avoidance are all signs that, when found in clusters together, indicate a dog under stress. If a dog shows submissive signs or signs of stress, end training immediately and allow the dog time to relax. Learn more about stress signs in this informative article from 4Paws University.
It is never too early nor too late to teach your dog. If a dog is awake, then he is learning! Take advantage of every opportunity to instill the behaviors you desire by using what the dog likes to reinforce them, and remember to keep the dog’s perspective in mind. It takes time for us to learn from each other, and you are learning as much as your dog when you are training! Training is a lifelong process and should be fun for both of you. Always end training sessions on a fun note, when the dog is doing well. Remember not to overwork yourselves and leave frustrated.
Thank you and happy training,
Owner, Delightful Doggies