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Training an Older Dog

By Langley Cornwell

Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks! You can also teach them new behaviors. While the approach is different than training a puppy, an adult dog is entirely capable of learning.

If you’re wondering why you would need to train an adult dog, consider these scenarios:

• You’ve recently adopted an older dog from an animal shelter or rescue facility and – while sweet – the dog doesn’t know basic commands.

• You want to teach your longtime companion new activities to keep him active; activities like agility, hunting, or obedience trials.

• Your dog has developed a few bad habits or is getting petulant and snippy.

• You recently retired and plan to start traveling with your dog.

There is a solution to all of these situations as long as you stay patient and approach the task knowledgeably.

Whatever your reason is for training an older dog, a good first step is to take your pet to the veterinarian to assess any concerns that might affect training. Ask the vet to examine the dog’s hearing and vision. Additionally, have the dog checked for signs of hip dysplasia and/or arthritis. You’ll want to tailor your training techniques to suit your adult dog’s individual circumstances. For instance, hand signals and gestures are the best choice for a pet with hearing problems, a dog with hip dysplasia isn’t a good candidate for agility training or tricks that involve jumping, and you shouldn’t teach a dog with arthritis the ‘sit’ and ‘down’ commands on cement or other hard surfaces. 

When you’re ready to start the training process, have a good supply of CANIDAE TidNips or Snap-Bits dog treats on hand. Regardless of where your older dog is on the training spectrum, it’s helpful to start with (or review) basic commands. Settle on one-word cues like sit, down and come, and employ traditional training tactics. When the dog performs the task correctly, give him a treat. Be consistent with your words, treats and praise, and keep the training sessions brief, no more than 15 minutes at each interval and no more than two or three times per day.

If your dog has developed behavioral problems during the aging process, make a list in order of importance. Some older dogs revert back to pulling on their leash during walks. In fact, this is one I need to revisit with my dog. She used to walk right beside me with plenty of slack in the leash. Lately, she’s been stopping and sniffing everything. I’ve halfheartedly attempted to instill the ‘walk’ command when I want to keep a regular pace, but we need to seriously work on this. I digress, back to other common matters that may need attention: Do your dog’s social skills need a tune-up? Is the housetraining 100%? What else do you need to work on?

Pick the most important issue and concentrate on that one exclusively. When your dog has overcome the first issue, then move on to the next. According to Animal Planet, the training process may take longer than with a puppy because older dogs must first unlearn problem behavior before learning the desired behavior. Develop realistic goals. Expect the dog to learn slower, and please don’t expect to change his overall temperament.

During training sessions, sprinkle in fun activities that your dog can easily accomplish. Work on a simple trick such as fetch or shake hands. Alternate training sessions between the problem areas and the tricks to help keep sessions interesting and positive for the dog. Work on tricks for roughly five minutes twice per day. To achieve positive results, ignore unwanted behavior and give the dog a treat when he does well.

Life evolves. Changes present challenges to a dog's sense of obedience. The more he's trained to understand life’s changes and your new expectations, the happier you will both be. Moreover, training your adult dog provides additional benefits. Training time together gives you a chance to build a better relationship with your dog. It also keeps the dog happier and more active. Well-trained pets are easier to care for, love, and live with!

Photo by Susan McKeon

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