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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 approach.


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 to consider.

- 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 non-food rewards
" 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 dog.
- 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 reward obedience.
- 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 yourself.

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 include:

- 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 could be
- House soiling, or loss of house-training
- Cognitive dysfunction, or an inability to understand or respond to commands
- 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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