Is it Too Late to Train My Older Dog?
Is it ever too late to train an older dog? Although some adult dogs might learn more slowly, it's never too late to teach an older dog to listen and obey. Some adult dogs might even learn better because they're less easily distracted than when they were puppies. Plus, the new training exercises are a great opportunity to build your bond with your furry best friend. Whether you're retraining a dog that needs to unlearn some undesirable habits, or you're training an older dog for the first time, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.
You May Need to "Untrain" Bad Habits First
Adult dogs might pick up a few bad habits that take some time to train away.1 Your first step in training an older dog might actually involve "untraining."
The good news is older dogs are still very eager to please; they want to learn what makes you happy. To build on this, use positive reinforcement so your dog will see the new habit makes you happy. Also, give him his favorite treats while training, so he feels even more motivated. Ultimately, you want him to find the new action more appealing than the old habit.
Some habits you might have to "untrain" could include chewing magazines, chewing your shoes, or even barking at the front door. With older dogs, these bad habits might stem from how they were raised at a previous home. If you adopted a rescue pet that didn't have many boundaries at his former residence, you might need to help him learn boundaries do exist in your home.
The key is to redirect his behavior to a more positive action. Maybe teach him to fetch a magazine rather than chew it. Teach him to lie on his bed when a guest visits. If you can give him an alternative activity that he enjoys, then you'll have an easier time breaking a bad habit.
Fixing Bad Housetraining Habits
One area where older dogs might need a little retraining is housetraining or going potty. If you need to re-housetrain your dog, start from the beginning. Establish a mealtime and potty time routine. Make sure you take her out at the same time every day. This helps your dog know what to expect and when.
If she has an accident, clean it thoroughly. Don't rub her face in the accident; it will just make her timid and scared of the whole process.
Give her lots of praise when she goes outdoors.2 Make sure you praise her right after she's finished going potty outside (before you go back indoors), so she connects the praise to the action.
Use the same phrase every time you take her out, like "go potty." You may have to use this many times before she recognizes it since there's a chance her former home used a different potty phrase that she has to unlearn.
You might also need to use a crate when house training an older dog, just like you would with a puppy.3 If she's not used to crates, introduce the crate slowly and keep a soft crate pad inside so your pup feels comfortable.
And remember, some older dogs might have incontinence issues that affect training. They may need more frequent outings or even doggy diapers. A Superior Orthopedic Indoor/Outdoor Bed with a waterproof backing can help them sleep more comfortably.
It's Not Too Late to Teach Your Dog Socialization Skills
Socialization can be a challenge when training an older dog. The best time to socialize a dog around people or other pets is when he's a puppy (less than 16 weeks old).4 If you miss that window, don't worry; it's not too late. Socialize him slowly, watching his cues closely to know if you're pushing him too fast. If he's only comfortable in your backyard, then focus on socializing him there at first. Be patient, give extra treats, and remember that setbacks may happen. You might not have the most social dog in the world, but you can definitely help your pup be friendlier and less scared.
"Place" Is a Great First Trick to Teach
You'll have the most success with your older dog if you start with tricks that are easy to learn. Use these simple commands to build her confidence, then build to more complex commands.
One of the easiest commands to start with is teaching "place" using the K&H Original Pet Cot. Once learned, it's a great help in "un-teaching" bad habits, like barking when the doorbell rings. Instead of barking, she can learn to go to her "place" and not get so worked up. If your dog is too old to jump on a cot for "place," you can use a bed that's close to the ground, like the Ortho Bolster Sleeper.
Teaching "place" is a simple step-by-step process. First, gesture to the cot and praise your dog when she gets on it. Then say "free" and invite her to leave. Once she is consistently getting on the cot after seeing your gesture, begin saying "place" before you gesture. Each time she gets on the cot, give her a treat, say "free," and encourage her to leave.
Over time, shrink the gesture until she's getting on the cot simply by hearing you say "place." With repetition, she'll respond to "place" and "free" without gestures.
After that, you can teach her to "place" herself based on specific sounds, like the doorbell. First, ring the doorbell, say "place," and give her a treat when she gets on the cot. With repetition, she'll eventually learn to go to the cot by habit whenever she hears the doorbell.
As an added bonus, it's much easier to take your dog on trips with you once she's learned basic commands like "sit," "stay," and "come." Why not reward your dog's perseverance by taking her for a car ride in her Bucket Booster Pet Seat and then going for a walk in a new area she's never visited?
A Trick Like "Shake" Is Also a Good Start
Teaching a trick to an older dog essentially uses the same steps you would use to teach a puppy. You may need to spend more time on each step before moving to the next. Your older dog is just as eager to learn as a puppy, but he may need a little more patience.
For example, to teach "shake," your dog will need to sit, so make sure he knows that command first. Next, show your pup a treat, then put it in your closed fist.5 Hold out your closed fist with your palm up. Your dog will likely paw at your fist. Open your hand when he paws at it and give him the treat while praising him.
After he has this down, follow these same steps without putting a treat in your fist. (You'll still give him a treat, only you'll have it in your other hand or your pocket.) After he masters this, start saying "shake" as you present your hand. Then you can progress to shaking his paw when you say "shake."
This trick is ideal because it's easy to learn and doesn't require an older dog to move around too much. It's a great way to build confidence with your pup.
Teach More Complicated Tricks After You Have the Simple Commands Down
Maybe you want to do more complicated tricks with your older dog, like scent tracking. This is absolutely possible, but it's important to make sure your dog has mastered the basics, like "place," "sit," "stay," and "come." Older dogs might pick things up a little more slowly; they really need that solid foundation of basic commands before learning complicated tricks.
After your pup has mastered the basics, you can try a new set of slightly more difficult commands. Consider tricks like "high five," "speak," and "kiss." If your dog doesn't have hip issues, then a trick like "crawl" or "roll-over" could also be good. You might consider teaching your dog to retrieve something, like slippers or a leash. If she's good at this, she might be good at activities that revolve around scent retrieval.
Keep Age in Mind
Although older dogs can indeed learn new tricks, their age shouldn't be ignored. While your older dog may be eager to please you, sometimes what you're asking of him may be too painful or tiring to do. Your dog is not a puppy anymore. He may not be able to catch a ball on command over and over. Getting up and down to sit might hurt his hips, and crawling on the ground might hurt too. If you notice your dog obeys at first, then stops, it might just be that he's tired or hurting. Consider teaching some less physically demanding tricks like "speaking," "shaking," or giving a "high five."6
Older dogs might have other physical limitations that interfere with obedience, like vision issues or trouble hearing. Talk with your veterinarian if this seems to be a possibility and adjust your training accordingly. A dog with vision issues might need to respond to verbal cues rather than gestures, and a dog with hearing problems might need to be trained with gestures rather than commands.
Try an Obedience Class
Not only is training fun, but teaching obedience to an older dog is also good for her health.7 Training stimulates her mentally and physically and helps her feel useful. But there's no shame in needing a little help. If you're not getting very far, it might just be that you're using the wrong techniques. Try enrolling in an obedience class for older dogs. This can be a fun adventure for you and your dog, and you might pick up some great tips that will help you along the way.
Be Patient and Positive
The keys to training an older dog are patience and positivity. Your dog may be a little slower to learn, but he really wants to learn. Give him the time he needs to catch on and keep the training positive. If you adopted him when he was older, you don't know if he had any bad experiences with training in the past. He might also have some "older dog" issues that distract him. Focus on making your training a positive, fun adventure that he looks forward to.
Remember to Include Snuggle Time Too
You may be in a training mindset, but not everything you do with your dog should be a lesson. Put aside some time to snuggle together. It's important to have bonding time where there aren't a lot of expectations. Sit together on the couch and watch TV. Get your dog a Cuddle Cube and lie on the floor next to her while you look out a window together. If she's not able to get comfortable, try a Self-Warming Lounge Sleeper for extra comfort.
Just because your dog's not a puppy anymore doesn't mean you can't teach your dog new tricks and commands. Training can be a great chance to bond and have a lot of fun together while you work toward a common goal. If he's physically able, you might even enroll your dog in agility competitions and scent-work classes once he has the basics down.
- Buzhardt, Lynn. "Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?" VCA, https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/can-old-dogs-learn-new-tricks.
- Paws. "Re-Housetraining Your Dog." Paws.org, https://www.paws.org/resources/re-housetraining-your-adult-dog/.
- Bender, Amy. "How to Train an Older Dog to Do New Tricks." The Spruce Pets, 4 November 2019, https://www.thesprucepets.com/training-tips-for-adult-dogs-1118253.
- Nicholas, Jason. "How to Help a Dog That's Missed Early Socialization." Preventive Vet, 26 February 2019, https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/how-to-help-adult-dog-with-socialization.
- Bender, Amy. "How to Train Your Dog to Shake Paws." The Spruce Pets, 3 March 2020, https://www.thesprucepets.com/train-dog-to-shake-paws-1117295.
- Buzhardt, Lynn, https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/can-old-dogs-learn-new-tricks.
- Gibeault, Stephanie. "The Importance of Training Your Senior Dog." AKC, 21 April 2017, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/training-your-senior-dog/.