You can indeed train old dogs, and there are good reasons to make obedience training a lifelong endeavor. After adopting a senior dog, for example, you may discover her previous owners weren’t particular about leash training only after she drags you around the neighborhood on walks. Or, your older dog simply needs a refresher course in Obedience 101. Plus, training old dogs is good for them. It offers critical mental stimulation that can delay cognitive decline in senior dogs, and helps prevent obesity by keeping them physically active.
Let’s look at some of the best practices for training older dogs and keeping them on their pads.
Train Frequently, but Keep It Brief
When you train any dog, daily sessions are a must to ensure lessons are retained. For senior dogs, multiple lessons a day are most effective. Get in the habit of giving your dog a lesson in the morning and one following an afternoon nap. If you can fit in another lesson before bedtime, all the better. Just be sure to keep training sessions short. Senior dogs need a lot of sleep and they get tuckered faster than young pups—pushing them to train beyond five or ten minutes will only frustrate them. Older dogs may even refuse to participate when training sessions run too long and become boring.
Stick to One Lesson
When training adult dogs and older dogs, focusing on one subject at a time yields the best results. Older dogs bring years of prior experiences they must unlearn to training sessions, or they may resist because of negative training experiences from previous owners. Some dog breeds have a natural stubborn streak that becomes only more entrenched with age. You’re less likely to overwhelm your dog or elicit resistance if you train her in one new command or trick until she masters it.
Stay Positive and Patient
Older dogs can take longer to learn new commands and tricks than younger dogs. They are strong-willed and often think they know best; after all, they’ve been around the block a time or two. It’s also possible your senior dog has some degree of cognitive decline, which slows the training process.
But with positive reinforcement and patience, you can train your older dog over time. To help sustain your patience, it’s helpful to think of dog training as a lifelong pursuit. Viewing it as a one-off activity fosters frustration if your dog’s progress is slow.
And though your older dog doesn’t respond to praise and treats with the same tail-wagging exuberance as puppies or adolescent dogs, she is equally dependent on love, attention, praise, and treats to learn and put forth her best efforts.
Keep the Treats Coming
Dog treats go a long way when training dogs from puppyhood through their senior years. Keep your pockets filled with treats during training sessions to use as positive reinforcement when your dog responds quickly to a command.
House Training an Old Dog
When you adopt an adult or senior dog, you may find yourself tasked with house training. It’s possible she lived her entire life outdoors and was never house trained, or she regressed because of time spent in the shelter. If your adult dog has regular accidents, take her to the veterinarian to find out if there’s a medical cause. Barring health issues, house training an adult dog is sometimes easier than training a young dog because an adult dog has more bladder control.
House training an older dog hinges on routines. Establish consistent meal times—one in the morning and one in the evening. Additionally, take your dog out to the yard, or for a walk, at the same times throughout the day, every day. During the house training period, avoid distracting play sessions until she associates the yard with eliminating. Every time your dog ‘goes’ outside, reward her with abundant praise and a dog treat.
Other helpful housetraining strategies include creating a consistent spot outside that she’ll associate with relieving herself. You should also watch your dog for trips to her water bowl so you can take her outside a few minutes after and thus assure you get opportunities to treat her and shower her with praise. Finally, consider crate training your older dog if she isn’t already so you can leave her at home in the early days of training without worrying about messes. Dogs won’t eliminate in their ‘dens’ if it’s at all possible to avoid.
When your dog has an accident inside the house, don’t punish her, scold her, or even acknowledge it beyond calmly cleaning up the mess. Dogs never have accidents to upset you—they simply can’t control themselves yet.
Leash Training an Old Dog
You don’t have to accept poor leash manners from your old dog—she can learn that dragging you around the block is not allowed. To start, focus your time and energy on teaching your dog to walk calmly without pulling rather than attempting the more demanding “heel” command.
Leash training old dogs depends on repeated actions and rewards—load your pockets with dog treats before every walk. When you are ready to go for a walk, repeat the same phrase each time, whether it’s “Walk time!” or “Wanna go out?” Once your dog’s ready with leash and collar, she’ll probably try to pull you through the door. Calmly stop and stand still, holding the leash firmly without yanking, which could hurt her neck. When she stops pulling and comes near you, start walking again. Each time she pulls during the walk, calmly stop until she settles down and stops pulling. When she walks for a stretch without pulling, praise her and give her a treat. You won’t get very far on your first few training walks, but soon enough you’ll be taking peaceful, enjoyable walks.
Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
Even well trained and well behaved old dogs should learn new tricks regularly. These daily training sessions with your old dog foster deeper bonds, while also providing mental exercise. Here are some fun new tricks to teach your senior dog:
- Roll over
- High five
- Learn object names (leash, slippers, ball, stick)
- Go to bed
- Pull up a blanket
- Close the door
- Put dog toys away
Your adult or senior dog may have a strong personality, but she isn’t set in her ways and incapable of change. Teaching her new tricks can make life easier for you, healthier for her, and much more fun for you both.