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Training Talk: Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?


Of Course They Can! Mary discusses several ways older dogs can learn better behaviors and tricks and some ways to encourage play with your older dog.

We have covered puppy training in different articles so now let’s look at our older dogs. A dog can be taught whether they are 8 months old or 10 years old. One of the main points when teaching an old dog a new trick is that we need to teach something that is new to them. For example the word “Come”. What we want when we say “Come” is for the dog to come to us. Whether it is an 8 month old dog who doesn’t respond or a 10 year old dog who doesn’t respond, we simply have to re-teach using a new word. First, let’s choose a new word to use such as “Here”, “Now”, or “Quick”. As long as you’re consistent, any word is fine to use. Then choose a new method of teaching the recall. One way to do so is detailed in the book: The Really Reliable Recall by Leslie Nelson. She is a wonderful dog trainer in Massachusetts and the recall method is guaranteed to work if you follow her advice. Our trainers also can teach recall in classes or in dayschool, but it only works if you do your homework with your dog

The hardest thing about training older dogs is that they have developed bad habits, and as Oprah says, those take 21 days to change. Most of us don’t have that kind of patience, but for that persistent individual, the results are amazing. One couple that stands out to me had a 10 year old Shih Tzu and they were getting ready to have their first baby. Their Shih Tzu was wonderful with simple tricks but lacked basic obedience. They came to class, did their homework and in 12 weeks, their pup did stays on her bed, didn’t go into the baby room, and walked nice on a leash without barking at all the other dogs she passed. Their consistency with management, diligence with their training, and patience with the process paid off enormously.

It is possible to change our dog’s demeanor but it is never an easy fix once bad habits have been established. Most of us just settle with the bad behaviors because the good ones are worth the distress. Some behaviors can be modified, such as barking at other dogs when passing on leash, counter surfing, or not coming when called. Several bad habits can be eliminated with proper management and training. Just as we manage our puppies so they don’t eliminate in our homes and chew up our shoes, older dogs can be managed to not counter surf or bark out the windows. Sometimes these behaviors are not a problem until we happen to move into a new environment, say from a house to an apartment. Take all of these elements into consideration when trying to solve your dogs’ behavioral issues. Your hound dog most likely has always barked when outside, it just became a nuisance when the new neighbor moved in. Or your wonderful first dog as a couple has become an unpredictable nightmare now that you have a toddler in the house. Reinstating management arrangements and basic training can help or even solve the problem. You don’t have to settle for the dog that always pulls you down the street or always steals food off your plate. There are many helpful classes, books, and videos that can get you back on the right path so that you can continue to enjoy your pet.

Another subject with older dogs is diet and exercise. Sometimes due to health issues and age, food rations and types can change. Your older dog may not want to go for a mile jog anymore, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t enjoy roaming around in the yard and sniffing to see who’s gone by or eating their food out of a Kong or puzzle toy. I feed my 9 year old cattle dog by throwing his food on the ground, giving 1 piece at a time, or in a fun puzzle toy designed for stimulating dogs’ minds while they eat. These types of games help keep the dog mentally stimulated no matter what the age. You don’t have to feed your pet in a bowl, be creative and inventive and make it more interesting for your pet. Your dog may not be able to run after the Frisbee anymore but may still enjoy being outside, even if it’s just for a good brushing or to be by your side while you do yard work.

Last but not least is mobility in our older pets. They still like to go for car rides with us and they still want to follow us around the house, but getting up and out may become a bit more difficult. For hardwood or slippery floors, dog booties come in all sizes and shapes and help the dog grip the floor. Another way to help with mobility is runner rugs which can connect the rooms where the dog lives. Ramps are made for cars which are easy to store and help our larger dogs get down stairs or into our vehicles. Our dogs give so much to us in their lives: companionship, laughter, exercise, so let’s take care of them in their older days for their well deserved time with us.

For more information about training classes or recommendations about certain behavior problems, please contact a trainer at Carefirst Animal Hospital.

Happy Training,

Mary Pollard CPDT-KA

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