Training an older dog
Training an Older Dog
Most people have heard the saying, "You can't teach an old dog
new tricks." And like all clichés, this one may have a small nugget
of truth. But for the most part, if it's done correctly, an older
dog can be taught not only new tricks, but new behaviors in general.
They're not so different than humans that way. In the same way people
continue learning all their lives, so can and do dogs. In fact,
you may be surprised to know that training an older dog can actually
be easier than training a puppy in many ways. Reasons for this include
the facts that:
- Nearly any dog who is over five years old has at least learned
the meaning of "No."
- An older dog is far calmer, less energetic and excitable than
a puppy, which translates into a longer attention span and easier
time retaining lessons.
- An older dog understands dominance and 'pecking order' and will
very likely be happy to accept your leadership.
There are several situations in which a pet owner may be faced
with the task of training an older dog, and the approach should
be tailored to suit the situation. For instance, you may have adopted
an older dog from a shelter or rescue, and simply don't know much
about his background or previous training, if any. Or you may have
an older dog that you would like to introduce to some new "tricks"
- for example agility, hunting, or obedience trials. Maybe your
long time companion may just be getting old and has developed some
bad habits, or is getting peevish and snarly. Be assured you can
handle all these situations with patience, proper knowledge, and
House Training an Older Dog
If you've just brought home a newly adopted shelter or rescue dog,
your first task will be to be sure he's housetrained. If not, then
you'll want to have him become housetrained ASAP. One big advantage
of housetraining an older dog is that he has more bladder and bowel
control than a puppy - is able to "hold it" for longer periods of
time. However, in the beginning your new dog won't know where to
go, and his system may be upset from a change in location and/or
food, which can cause diarrhea. So at first, introduce him to his
bathroom area and let him eliminate before bringing him in the house
for the first time. Be patient and wait if necessary, praising him
when he does.
After you bring him inside, don't expect him to know right away
to tell you if he has to go out. Just expect it, and take him out,
very frequently at first, praising him each time he goes. Once you
are sure he is eliminating normally with no diarrhea or other upsets,
then put him on a regular elimination schedule as you would a puppy:
in the morning, after meals, after play, and at night before bed.
Accompany him, and praise him each time he goes. Make it a point
to prevent accidents before they happen, rather than deal with or
discipline him if they happen. Never punish him for an accident.
Rather, just quietly clean up any mess, and continue with your schedule.
Crate Training an Older Dog
In addition to or instead of traditional housetraining methods,
you might want to consider crate training for your older dog. Some
people think this is so hard it's impossible to accomplish, but
if you approach it matter of factly, and take it slow, there's no
reason your older dog can't be crate trained as easily and well
as a puppy.
Even if you must crate your dog right away - if you need to leave
him alone and aren't sure he can be trusted, he should adapt quite
well and quickly, as long as you don't leave him alone too long
at first. If necessary, you can crate him at night or while you're
away, but remember to also crate him randomly for shorter periods
of time as well, so he doesn't begin to associate the crate with
being left alone. Periodically crate him at odd times for just a
moment or two, giving him a treat. Also try leading your dog to
the crate, giving him a treat, and then walking away.
However, if you do have time to take it a little slower, that would
probably the best approach. Purchase the crate and set it up where
you plan to use it most often, choosing either a quiet, private
area, or in the middle of the living room. Partially cover it with
a towel or crate cover, put a soft blanket or rug and some toys
inside, secure the door open at first, and just leave it for your
dog to discover. If your dog discovers it on his own, and starts
using it as a cozy place to nap, he will virtually crate train himself
without your having to do much at all.
Of course, in time, you will want him to go to his crate on your
command, and be willing to remain in it with the door latched, but
just work up to that slowly. And always remember to vary the times
he must stay in it with shorter times with the door both closed
and open. The idea is for him to think of it not as a doggie jail,
but as his own comfy retreat - his den.
Obedience Training an Older Dog
All dogs need some basic obedience training. You simply can't live
with a dog that doesn't understand and obey a few simple commands,
and both you and he will be very unhappy if you try. Learning basic
obedience doesn't hurt your dog or suppress his natural instincts.
Rather, it allows both of you to enjoy better communication, and
a harmonious relationship. If your older dog has not learned these
basics - don't worry, you can teach him. At a minimum, he should
know sit, down, come, stay, and heel.
Enroll in obedience classes at a local pet store or ask your veterinarian
for a recommendation. Just because your dog is older doesn't mean
he and you cannot benefit from such classes, and many people find
them easier then trying to learn how to do the training themselves.
Also, obedience classes can offer valuable social contact for both
you and your dog, and expose you to situations you may not encounter
on your own.
On the other hand, if you are the do-it-yourself type, you may
enjoy the challenge of undertaking obedience training yourself,
or you may wish to expand on lessons learned in class. Either way,
if you do plan to train your dog yourself, there are several approaches
- Older methods employ devices like choke collars and leashes
to control the dog's behavior and provide an uncomfortable stimulus
when the dog doesn't comply. Training techniques following these
principles are still used by some trainers, but are largely falling
out of favor compared to more humane, modern methods.
- Newer training techniques employ some type of reward system
to encourage your dog to engage in the desired behavior, and are
based on the principle of rewarding right behavior, while ignoring
bad. Basically, you get your dog to do what you want him to do,
and then give him a reward for doing so - again and again, until
the behavior is reinforced and habitual. You keep the behavior by
continuing to use rewards on an occasional - and unpredictable -
basis. But here too, there are several different approaches:
" One approach favors the use of toys, praise, petting, and other
" The most common of the newer approaches uses a food-based reward
system, which most dogs seem to respond well to.
" "Clicker" training employs food or treats in combination with
a clicker, or sound-maker, and then transitions to voice commands
once the desired behavior is established.
All of these newer techniques should work fine with your older
dog. Just be sure you always treat, especially in the beginning,
whenever your dog performs as you ask, and be very slow to reprimand.
Keep it fun and positive and you'll be pleasantly surprised at how
quickly your older dog picks up good obedience behaviors!
As with all training, there are several rules to keep in mind that
will help matters to go along better. These include:
- Keep training sessions short. You can accomplish far more in
three five-minute sessions than in a long fifteen-minute session.
- Reward good behavior; ignore bad.
- Stay positive, and make the sessions fun. You want your dog to
look forward to working together, and be happy to do as you ask.
A happy dog will be a far better trained one than an unhappy, fearful
- Don't repeat commands unnecessarily. Saying, "Sit, sit, sit" over
and over only teaches your dog to ignore the first time you say
something. Once your dog knows the command, give it once, and then
- Be consistent. Choose a method, and then stick with it. Don't
try using a choke collar one day, petting and toys the next, then
food, and then treats, then a clicker. Your dog will be confused
and won't learn, and you'll be frustrated. Also be consistent with
commands and treats. If your dog gets rewarded one day for doing
something, and then does it again with no reward, he won't understand
what he is to do. Be consistent.
- Always end a training session on a positive note!
Retraining an Older Dog
If your older dog has any bad habits, or you acquire an older dog
that has not been trained to your liking - it is possible to retrain
him, but this will be a little harder than teaching a new behavior
from the beginning, and will likely require more time and patience.
That's not to say, however, that it cannot be done.
It may help if you try not to think of it as 'Retraining', but
instead as merely training. That is, if your dog does something
one way, and you want to train him to do it another way, just concentrate
on the new behavior you're trying to get him to do, instead of the
one you want him to stop doing.
For example, if you've acquired a shelter or rescue dog, you may
notice that he begs at the table. His previous owner may have allowed
this behavior, so it is not a "fault," though it is a behavior you
want to eliminate. The way to do it is by ignoring it, unless your
dog should go so far as to actually jump up on you or worse, on
the table! At that point you would need to reprimand him.
But try instead to teach him to lie quietly in the other room while
you are eating. Employ a version of "down" and "stay" for this.
Lead your dog to where you want him to be, get him to lie down,
and stay. Reward him. Then leave, and go to the table. If he gets
up, lead him back and do it again, and repeat until he understands
that he is to stay there while you eat. When you are finished, let
him up, and reward him again.
Just use this technique of training the behavior you do want, and
ignoring the behavior you don't want to retrain any behaviors you
want to change.
Training for New Activities
As with people, mental and physical exercise will help your dog
stay alert and healthy into old age. But your dog doesn't know this,
and it will be up to you to ensure he gets what he needs. Make an
effort to keep his mind engaged and his body exercised, and both
of you will reap the rewards. There are a lot of different ways
you might go about this, and different activities you might try
out for size, including:
- Agility training. This is a sort of exercise/obstacle course
for dogs, in which a dog negotiates a series of standard obstacles
while being coached through the course by his handler/owner. Those
who engage in this relatively new sport are very enthusiastic. It
can be done as fun and exercise, or competitively at various levels.
- Hunting. Maybe you've never considered this, but even an older
dog can be taught to point and retrieve. Even if your idea of hunting
is to arm yourself with a trusty camera and field guide, your dog
can be trained to flush out those birds for your lens to have a
crack at. And if you want to hunt in earnest, consider that your
older dog, steady and calm, may be perfect for your hunting companion.
- Therapy. Increasingly it's becoming known and accepted that dogs
have a positive and healing effect on both the sick and the aged.
An older dog, with its calm steadiness and worldly experience is
especially well suited as a therapy dog for work within a hospital,
nursing home patients, or the homebound. If this appeals to you,
you might consider checking your telephone directory, or asking
at your veterinarian's office or local pet store for therapy training
in your area.
- Herding. There is a sport for dogs who have that "herding" instinct:
such as Australian Cattle Dog, Australian Shepherd, Collies, Bearded
and Border Collie's, Sheepdogs, German Shepherd, Puli's, and Welsh
Corgi's. The name says it all.
- Search and Rescue. This is another area in which an older dog
might be a distinct asset with his greater ability to remain calm
and steady in a stressful situation. Of course, this can be strenuous
so you will have to evaluate your dog's physical ability to do the
work, but if he isn't elderly, and is in good health, it could be
a rewarding activity for you both.
- Scent Hurdling. This is a sport in which teams of handlers race
their dogs over a series of hurdles, with the object being to return
a scented dumbbell and return over the hurdles. All involved seem
to have a great time!
- Tracking. Some dogs seem to always have their nose to the ground,
and if yours is one of them, this may be something to try. It involves
tracking a human scent and finding lost articles as well as people.
Classes aren't easy to find, but if you ask around and keep your
eyes open, you might find a posting of a seminar in your area. You
might also enjoy buying a book on it, and trying to train your dog
As you can see, there are many, many different activities in which
you and your older dog might become involved. Try one or more just
to see. The important thing to realize is that your older dog is
capable of learning new activities.
Correcting Problem Behaviors
Very often, older dogs are placed in shelters or with rescue organizations
because of problem behaviors their previous owners weren't able
to cope with. But you now know that it is possible to train, or
retrain and older dog in many different ways, and correcting problems
is no exception - however, there are some problem behaviors - like
extreme aggressiveness, that really cannot be trained out.
Your first step, will be to evaluate the nature of the problem,
and then to decide on a training approach. There are basically two
types of problem behaviors you will encounter in an older dog: bad
habits, and those that are a result of the aging process.
Some examples of the first type that are responsive to training
- Annoying behaviors, such as barking, growling, nipping, or jumping
- Destructive behaviors like chewing or jumping on furniture
Take barking, for instance. Oddly enough, one of the most effective
ways to teach a dog not to bark is to teach him first to bark. Do
this by finding a stimulus that results in your dog barking, then
when he barks, treat/reward him immediately, and pair it with the
command, "Bark." Do this repeatedly until he barks on command. Then
you can introduce the "Quiet" command. Remove the cue or stimulus,
and just as he stops barking, give the command and treat him the
instant he is quiet. Of course, as with all new behaviors, you'll
need to repeat many times to ingrain the new behavior.
The second type of problem is a little more serious, related as
it is to the aging process itself, and may include behaviors your
dog simply cannot help, such as tremors or loss of hearing. Examples
of some other behaviors that might be correctable with training
- House soiling, or loss of house-training
- Cognitive dysfunction, or an inability to understand or respond
- Fearfulness, or timidity
In order to know how to handle these you'll first need to either
rule out or treat any underlying medical problems. For instance,
cognitive dysfunction can be caused by a drop in dopamine levels,
and that can be effectively treated with medication. After any medical
problems are taken care of, then addressing the problem behavior
will be a matter of retraining. As mentioned above this is usually
best addressed by just training period - acting as if your dog simply
needs to learn the right way to do something.
If he has lost his house-training, for example, then you will proceed
as if he never was housetrained. It will do no good to reprimand
or punish him for accidents. Merely clean them up, and proceed with
rewarding him for doing his business outdoors, as you would with
a puppy. However, you may need to modify his environment if his
bladder or bowels have lost function. In that case, no matter how
much he may want to please you, he may be physically unable to.
So as with all training, make it easy for him to obey. Take him
out more frequently, or provide an area in the house where he can
go, do all in your power to help him, reward him when he performs
properly, and you should be able to correct any problems that arise.
Now you know the truth: you can teach an older dog new tricks!
Know that training an older dog is a rewarding and possible. Success
is likely to be no more difficult than it would be with a puppy.
You can have confidence in either choosing to adopt an older dog,
or training, retraining, or finding new activities to do with the
older dog you already own. Be confident, positive, persistent, and
consistent. Above all, have fun. Your dog will appreciate it, and
so will you.
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