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Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?

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“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” 

This well-known idiom, originating in the 1500s, is considered to be one of the oldest idioms in the English language. Generally, it refers to peoples’ stubbornness to learn new things when they are already set in their ways. They’re able to learn, but sometimes they simply don’t want to. 

The same applies to dogs. It may not be easy to teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s certainly not impossible. In fact, there are some benefits to regularly encouraging your senior pooch to exercise his brain muscles. According to Dr. Ludwig Huber, a cognitive biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, “regular brain training shakes not only us, but also dogs out of their apathy in old age, increasing motivation and engagement and thus maximizing learning opportunities.” 

Throughout their lives, dogs are natural learners. They’re curious by instinct, constantly using their senses to observe and explore their surroundings. Some even argue that the opposite of the idiom is true: older dogs are easier to train than puppies. 

Training Puppies vs. Seniors

Because older dogs are often less energetic than a frisky puppy, some people consider them easier to train; they can focus and sit still for longer periods of time, and are often less distracted. 

That being said, it’s still best to start the training process early if possible. Puppies tend to begin formal training as early as eight weeks old, which is when they often go to their new homes. One of the biggest advantages to training a puppy is that he’s too young to have picked up any bad habits—you’re working with a clean slate. 

There are still several reasons to train an older dog, though. Perhaps you’re moving, and your outdoor dog has to become an indoor dog; maybe you’re preparing your pooch for travel or a new environment altogether. Adopting a senior dog also requires training so that he can learn how to fit into his new home. Training can also prevent boredom and keep the mind sharp, or even be used as a form of exercise. 

One of the biggest obstacles when it comes to training an older dog is that in some ways, it’s double the work. Before you can begin teaching new tricks, you’ll first have to help your senior unlearn any bad habits he’s picked up since puppyhood. 

Unlearning Negative Behaviors

It takes more time to get rid of existing habits than it does to pick up new ones. Even if your dog has some bad habits, like chewing on your slippers or constantly begging for food, the good news is that it’s never too late to change a dog’s behavior. Dogs live in the moment, and enjoy bonding with their humans. Training and teaching tricks can be a fun bonding activity, especially when done in patience and love. 

Before trying to teach your old dog new tricks, take his training history into consideration. If you’ve had the dog since he was a puppy, think about any bad habits he may have picked up and how they can be countered, one by one. If you’ve adopted an older dog, try to gather as much information about his previous owners and treatment as possible. If that isn’t an option, start from the basics and go from there: see if he knows simple commands like “sit” and “stay” (or is even willing to listen to you) before diving into something more complicated. 

Choosing the Right Tricks

While playing fetch for extended periods of time is fun for energetic puppies, it can be tough on a senior dog’s joints. 

Before you get frustrated at your dog’s stubbornness, consider that he’s willing but unable to learn new tricks without the proper modifications. Energy levels and health conditions could play into his ability to keep up. Sensory changes such as deteriorating vision, or even cognitive dysfunction could be factors as well. 

If your dog has painful joints, sitting repeatedly or jumping to catch a Frisbee could be too strenuous. Simple, non-strenuous tricks include: 

  • Speak
  • High-five
  • Shake
  • Walk backwards
  • Retrieve an object (such as a leash, newspaper, or slippers)
  • Put away toys 
  • Push a ball (a modified version of fetch where the ball is rolled instead) 

The tricks you choose to teach should be individualized to your dog’s abilities, limitations, and health conditions. Pet Honesty has a variety of products specifically tailored to senior dogs, such as Senior HempMobility which supports healthy joint function and promotes mobility in dogs over the age of seven. 

Tips for Teaching Tricks

When training your elderly pup, keep the following tips in mind: 

  • Prioritize trust and a strong bond. This is more important than whether or not Fido can jump through a hula hoop. 
  • Recognize and respect your dog’s limitations. Don’t push him too far or he may be reluctant to try again. 
  • Keep training sessions short to save energy, but consistent to retain memory. 
  • Positive reinforcement—treats and praise—goes a long way. 
  • Focus on one trick at a time. Trying to teach too many at once could become overwhelming and confusing for your canine. 
  • Be patient! Training a dog is a commitment which takes time. It could take several weeks for your dog to learn a new trick. 

The priority is always to make sure your dog feels loved and cared for. Don’t worry if there’s a bit of an adjustment period before your elderly dog unlearns his bad habits, or your adopted senior is willing to break out of his comfort zone and do things your way. Training and tricks go hand-in-hand with trust, and trust takes time.