How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

02 July, 2020

As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But is that really true? As it turns out, this old cliche couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been scientifically proven that you can teach your dog new tricks, no matter how old or stubborn he may be. All it takes is a little practice and patience … and a whole lot of treats!

At Dog Quality, we’re dedicated to making senior dogs’ later years their happiest yet. Teaching your pup new tricks can be a fun way to enhance his quality of life and bond with him at the same time. We know from firsthand experience that dogs are never too old to learn. In fact, training can help to exercise dogs’ brains and keep their minds sharp. Ready to learn how to train a stubborn dog to do new tricks? Here’s what to do.

What You Need to Train Your Senior Dog

Before we start, there are a few things you’ll need to set yourself (and your dog) up for training success. The first one is obvious: treats! Rewarding your dog is your gold ticket to reinforcing the behaviours you’re trying to achieve. Go for treats that are high value, meaning your dog would quite literally drop everything to get one. Small treats are best so you’re not overfeeding your senior dog. Have plenty on hand because training a stubborn dog can take time!

On that note, the second most important thing you need is patience. Teaching your senior dog new tricks will take longer than training a puppy or younger dog, so give yourself plenty of time and don’t expect your dog to pick up new tricks instantly. Your senior dog may also get tired faster than he used to, so watch for signs of exhaustion like yawning or sniffing the ground. If he loses interest, don’t be discouraged. Just take a break and try again later on. When it comes to training senior dogs, the key is to be patient, encourage your dog with affirmations and treats, and have fun with it. Soon enough, your dog will catch on.

Tips for Teaching Senior Dog New Tricks

If you have a senior dog that’s developed some less-than-favourable habits, or a stubborn dog that refuses to obey, training can feel futile. You might think your dog is set in his ways and is too old to learn new tricks, but don’t give up! With a few simple tricks of your own, we’re confident that you can teach your dog all kinds of new things. Here are some best practices for training senior dogs to do everything from sit and stay to shake a paw and roll over.

Keep training sessions short.

As we mentioned, training may be especially exhausting for senior dogs. Studies show that aging dogs’ brains may experience many of the same cognitive declines as humans’ do, particularly when it comes to learning, memory and problem solving. That’s why shorter training sessions can help your dog retain as much of his new tricks as possible. Start with intervals of 10 to 15 minutes and adjust according to your dog’s engagement level. 

Listen to your dog.

We don’t literally mean listen to his bark, but paying attention to your dog’s physical behaviours can tell you a lot about how he’s feeling. If your dog starts to get distracted or tired, he may yawn, sniff the ground, lick his lips or show other signs of boredom. This will be an indication that he’s had enough for now, so just take a break and pick up where you left off later. 

You can’t over-do positive reinforcement.

When it comes to training dogs of any age, positive reinforcement is truly the key. This doesn’t only mean giving your dog lots of treats, though. Positive words of encouragement can be extremely effective in reinforcing your dog’s behaviours. Treats will certainly help in the beginning, but when you praise your dog at the same time, he will eventually respond to commands without expecting treats every time.

Use hand signals.

Many older dogs experience hearing loss, so they may not be able to hear your voice commands or words of praise. Even dogs in the process of losing their hearing may have difficulty responding to your voice alone. This is where hand signals can come in handy. With each new trick, use a unique hand signal to show your dog what you want him to do. For example, if you want to teach your dog to stay, you could hold your flat palm out in front of you like a “stop” sign. Remember physical touch can also help to reinforce your dog’s behavior, so when he obeys, be sure to give his chest a rub.

Focus on one trick at a time.

Learning new tricks can be much more challenging for senior dogs than younger pups, so it’s important not to overwhelm your dog with too many things at once. Pick one trick to focus on at a time and don’t move onto a new one until your dog has mastered the first. This will keep your dog from getting confused and improve his chances of success. 

Be patient.

We really can’t stress this point enough. While you can teach old dogs new tricks, it will not happen overnight. In fact, it can take senior dogs twice as long to learn new things than younger dogs. Try your best to stay calm and not get frustrated if it’s taking your dog longer than you’d like. With patient, consistent training from a loving owner, he will pick it up soon enough.

When Not to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

We know we said that no matter how old or stubborn your dog gets, he’s never too old to learn new tricks, but there’s always an exception to the rule. In this case, the new tricks you decide to teach your senior dog will depend on his physical and mental health. If your dog has arthritis or other joint issues, teaching him to catch a frisbee or fetch is not a realistic (or safe) goal. Likewise, if your dog has dementia, he may not be able to remember new commands or behaviours.

For dogs with physical ailments, start with low-impact tricks like lie down or shake a paw. For dogs with cognitive issues, be as patient as possible and show plenty of compassion. Remember that you should never push your dog beyond his limits and the point of teaching him tricks should never be to entertain you and your friends. The goal of training is to support your dog’s physical and mental health as he ages. After all, that’s the best way to guarantee you’ll have your furry companion for many years to come.

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