Who Says You Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?
In case you didn’t know, next week is ‘Adopt a Less Adoptable Dog’ Week, and because senior dogs are so often overlooked at shelters, this is the perfect time to look at some tips for training an older dog. Afterall, who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Like all clichés, this one may have a small nugget of truth. But for the most part, if done correctly, an older dog can be taught not only new tricks, but also new behaviors in general. Just as 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:
- - Nearly any dog 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.
Of course, there will likely be some obstacles, too, as older dogs are more ‘set in their ways’ and have passed the point in their lives where they’re learning new behaviors, but with just a little patience and diligence, you’ll have your older pup trained in no time!
House Training an Older Dog
If you've just brought home a newly adopted shelter or rescue dog, your first task will be making sure he's housetrained. One big advantage of housetraining an older dog is that he has more bladder and bowel control than a puppy. Initially, while Fido may be able to ‘hold it’ for longer than a puppy, he won't know where to go, and his system may be upset from all the recent changes, which can cause diarrhea. When introducing him to his new bathroom area, be patient, praising him when he goes potty.
Don't expect him to know right away that he has to tell you when he needs to go out. Instead, just take him out frequently, praising him each time he goes potty. Once he’s eliminating normally (and with no diarrhea), then transition to a regular schedule as you would a puppy- in the morning, after meals, after play, and at night before bed- continuing to accompany and praise him. Also like puppies, it’s best to prevent accidents before they happen, rather than deal with or discipline after they do. Never punish him for an accident- just quietly clean up any mess, and continue with your schedule.
Should you decide to take things one step further by crate training, proceed just as you would with a puppy.
Obedience Training an Older Dog
All dogs, both young and old, 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. With a little effort on your part, Fido will soon know sit, down, come, stay, and heel.
Start by enrolling in obedience classes (check your local pet store). In addition to helping Fido learn new behaviors, 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’re the do-it-yourself type, you may enjoy the challenge of undertaking obedience training yourself, in which case, 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- whether it be food, toy or praise- 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. These newer techniques should work well 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 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. Not only will Fido be confused, but you'll be frustrated. Consistency is key.
- - Always end a training session on a positive note!
Retraining an Older Dog
Chances are, your older dog may have a few bad habits, especially if you adopt an older dog that hasn’t been trained to your liking. Have no fear; with a little extra time and patience, it’s definitely possible to retrain him! In fact, it may help if you try not to think of it as 'retraining', but as merely ‘training’ instead. 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 your new rescue dog begs at the table, it’s probably just because his previous owner may have allowed this behavior. To eliminate this behavior, simply ignore it. 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.
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, an older dog in many different ways, and correcting problems is no exception. It should be noted, however, that there are some problem behaviors, like extreme aggressiveness, that really can’t be ‘trained out.’
Begin by evaluating the nature of the problem, then decide on a training approach. Essentially, there are two types of problem behaviors you will encounter in an older dog: bad habits and those that are a result of the aging process.
The first type, bad habits, is responsive to training. These include annoying behaviors- barking, growling, nipping, or jumping- and destructive behaviors- chewing, digging 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, then just as he stops barking, give the command and treat him the instant he is quiet. Of course, you'll need to repeat many times to ingrain the new behavior.
The second type of problem, age-related behavior, is a little more serious because it will likely include behaviors your dog simply can’t help, such as tremors or loss of hearing. There are some age-related behaviors, however, that may be correctable with training, such as house soiling (or loss of house training), cognitive dysfunction (the inability to understand or respond to commands) and fearfulness.
Begin by ruling out or treating any underlying medical problems. For example, example, a drop in dopamine levels, which can be easily treated with medication, can cause cognitive dysfunction. Next, addressing the problem behavior will be a matter of retraining.
If Fido has lost his house-training, for example, then you’ll proceed as if he was never housetrained. DO NOT punish him for accidents, but merely clean them up, and proceed with rewarding him for pottying outdoors. Keep in mind, though, that if your pup has lost bladder or bowel function, he may be physically unable to please you, regardless of how much he may want to. So as with all training, make it easy for him by taking him out more frequently, or by providing a designated ‘potty area’ in the house.
Now you know the truth: you CAN teach an old dog new tricks! Have confidence when choosing to adopt an older dog- and in training or retraining 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!
Erin Thomas is the owner of Summerville's Lowcountry Pet Sitters, the area's premier in-your-home pet care service. For more information, please visit www.LCPetSitters.com or call 843-327-7487.