Close

Myth or fact: You can’t teach old dogs new tricks

Many people believe dog training is only for puppies because, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But is this true? According to Dr. Jill Sackman, a veterinarian in behavioral medicine and a dog training expert, the answer is a definite no. Older dogs can be trained just as easily as puppies. In fact, behavioral training is important for your dog’s overall mental health and relationship with you.

Contrary to popular myth, a dog’s capacity for learning generally does not decline during the aging process. In fact, older dogs may have a more developed attention span than puppies, which can actually make the training process a little faster.

While the complexity of training is typically the same for puppies and older dogs, there are a few things to keep in mind when teaching tricks to an adult or senior dog:

  • Age may vary, but the methods stay the same. The best practices and most effective training methods can be applied for both puppies and older dogs. Adult and senior dogs are generally just as receptive to training tools such as clickers and positive reinforcements. Because the overall method should remain the same, you can learn more in our puppy training article.
  • Be sensitive to physical limitations and endurance. Keep in mind your older dog might not have the same energy or physical ability as a puppy. Watch for signs of weakness or exhaustion during training and don’t overwork your dog. Keep training sessions short and simple and allow plenty of time for rest between sessions.
  • Lifelong mental stimulation is key. While the ability to learn and intelligence levels don’t typically decrease, your dog’s cognitive mental health can decline slightly over time. Fortunately, you can counteract and prevent this decline by keeping your dog’s brain stimulated on a regular basis. Consider adding more playtime for your older dog or providing interactive toys. You can also practice “nose work” at home – which involves hiding birch, clove or anise scents around your home and rewarding your dog for finding them. This activity doesn’t require a lot of a physical energy but provides a high level of mental stimulation, making it ideal for older dogs. Learn more about nose work here.
  • Positive physical health can help improve behavioral health. Keeping your dog in great physical shape can help aid positive mental health. Taking your dog on walks, playing more fetch and maintaining healthy weight can make a big difference in your dog’s mental alertness and behavioral health.
  • For older dogs with an unknown past, start with the basics. If you adopt an older rescue dog, you may not have a lot of information about prior training. In this scenario, it’s best to begin by training basic commands such as “sit” “lie down” or “stay.” Training basic commands can help your dog bond with you and integrate into your home.
  • Reversing bad behaviors may take more time. An older dog may have had more time to develop bad habits, and reversing these habits can be a bit more challenging – especially if the dog was previously rewarded for them. With consistent training, most behaviors can be corrected, but keep in mind that it may take extra time and patience.

“Adults and senior dogs require just as much interaction and stimulation as puppies,” says Dr. Sackman, “It’s never too late to enroll your dog in a training class, and it’s never too late to teach an old dog a new trick.”

For questions about behavioral health and dog training, contract your primary veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.