You’ve no doubt heard the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but if you have an old dog yourself — or are thinking about getting one — you’ll be happy to hear that just isn’t true.
I have a 10-year-old dog myself, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been pretty lax with training him. Sure he can sit (when he wants to), and sometimes he even stays for a few seconds, but that’s about as far as we ever got.
It’s never been an issue until recently. Now, it’s no longer just me, my husband and our unruly min-pin, Max. We’ve added two kids to the mix, and they don’t pair well with an untrained dog. He steals the food from their hands and darts out the door when they’re too slow to close it. Let’s just say it’s not working.
So I talked to a few dog trainers to find out if I’d waited so long that all hope was lost, and I was pretty excited when they both essentially told me that it’s never too late.
In fact, dog behavior specialist and trainer, Blake Rodriguez, owner and founder of Dream Come True K9 in NYC, says training an old dog can actually be less work than training a young one.
“People want the puppy that starts from scratch, but that’s a lot of work,” he said. “An older dog has the potential to be easier than a puppy.”
He went on to say that puppies, known to be full of energy, often need more attention and focus than most people can give.
“Puppies’ energies just don’t match up to training,” he added.
The root of the challenge
According to Rodriguez, the biggest challenge with training an older dog is actually its loyalty — one thing dog lovers love most about canines. The problem is, dogs aren’t just loyal to people; they’re also loyal to habits.
“They don’t know what’s good or bad, they just know what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
That’s why, when you suddenly change the rules or routines on an older dog, they take a while to come around.
“To the dog, this is something that worked. They see no reason to change it,” Rodriguez added, explaining that though it may take some time and patience, your dog will likely come around to your new way of thinking.
Jodi Hass, owner and master trainer of Root Training in Highwood, Illinois, says one major difference between training an older dog and a young one is the reward system that works.
“Puppies want treats, and adult dogs want petting or praise when they’ve done well,” she said. “In senior dogs, they really just want verbal acknowledgement.”
That claim is backed up by a recent study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience that found as dogs age, verbal rewards work better than treats — likely because as dogs get older, their relationship with you takes precedence over food. Turns out, you are more than a food dispenser to your dog. Kind of warms your heart, doesn’t it?
Hass quickly pointed out that one big hurdle with training older dogs often comes in the form of physical limitations.
“With an older dog, we always have to find out first what the physical limitations are, and then we train to that weakness,” she explained.
She said that since many older dogs have issues with backs, hips and other joints, some of the more physically challenging tricks and training exercises are off the table, but there’s still plenty they can do.
Those physical limitations also play into the way you should train your dog.
“With a puppy, we train in short bursts through the day because of their short attention spans,” Hass said. As the dogs get older, she extends to longer durations, but then brings it back to short bursts throughout the day for senior dogs because they tend to tire out faster.
“A puppy takes more patience,” added Hass. “An older dog will not take quite as long unless there is a history of abuse or neglect.”
Rodriguez is firm in his belief that old dogs are just as trainable as puppies — if not more. “The brain stays young forever,” he added.