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Pet Parenting Articles

You Can and SHOULD Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

By Michelle Mullins, Professional Trainer

I’m not a fan of most old adages. While “look before you leap” is pretty good advice, we also know “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Many adages promote negative ideals or overly cautious behavior disguised as wisdom. Most of you have heard, “you can’t teach an old dog, new tricks” which is completely false. This old adage is in direct conflict with “you are never too old to learn.” Some components of aging may slow learning, but continuing to learn new things can keep the mind sharp and greatly increase quality of life for any species.

These dogs range in age and physical capability yet are all eager for a training session! From left Sprocket -8 years old and blind, Brisbane 11 years old, Artemis – 10 years old, Jinks – 5 years old

Your loving pets enjoy a bond with you and there is no reason it should diminish as they age. We tend to do less with our pets as they get older – for example, fewer and shorter walks for our older dogs and less chase the wand play for our cats. Training new tricks can replace some of that and provide mental stimulation and appropriate physically activity. Teaching tricks is beneficial for pets of all ages. It doesn’t matter if you have never trained your pet before and they are a senior, you should start today! You will want to consider both physical and mental issues of your older dog or cat when choosing what behaviors to teach. Also check with your veterinarian as many of these issues, that are associated with just getting old, can be treated.

Physical limitations Arthritis and other joint and muscle disorders may make certain movements like lying down, jumping and even repetitive sitting uncomfortable for your pet. Choose behaviors that promote slower, less repetitive movement like speak, give a kiss, or heel. Some older pets have sight and hearing problems which necessitate an adjustment in your training but can certainly be overcome. For example you can change verbal cues to hand signals for a dog with hearing impairment.

Mental limitations Cognitive problems can develop with age and can lead to changes in behavior. Older pets may forget some learned behaviors, anxiety may develop, and sleep patterns may be disrupted. Patience and compassion will help you and your pet deal with these changes. Ask your veterinarian how training can help. Your older pets will enjoy the time you spend training with them. It is a tremendous amount of fun for both of you. Training tricks allows you to work on your training skills and your dog’s learning skills in a non-stressful situation.

You have nothing to lose if Spot doesn’t learn to “do the twist” for example but you will build a stronger bond working together. That bond promotes better behavior from your pet. Students in my manners class, train more often when one of the behaviors they are teaching is something cute or fun. More time training and keeping it fun leads to more reliable responses for basic behaviors like down and come when called. Tricks don’t need to be complicated. It’s the learning that is important. The following is by no means a complete trick list but just a few ideas to get you started. Remember, you can teach your dog anything that is physically possible and safe. Pick a fun new trick to teach your old dog and watch for that spark in their eye – I bet it is still there!  

Tricks to consider:

  1. Run through your legs
  2. Speak
  3. High five or wave
  4. Dance – great for dogs with wiggly butts
  5. Shake
  6. Walk backwards
  7. Put away your toys
  8. Bow
  9. Kiss
  10. Crawl
  11. Drop
  12. Hold a sign, flag, etc. –great for photo ops
  13. Cover up with a blanket
  14. Get your leash
  15. Push a ball
  16. Rollover
  17. Jump into your arms
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Great post! I have a 12 yr old lab mix with arthritis, so I tend to only work on new tricks with my younger dog. However, this post gave me some ideas for working with my old boy as well - thank you!

! am in the process of teaching my 4 year old boxapoint, and my 8 year chocolate lab to both pheasant and duck hint with great success..

My elderly 14 year old dog has trouble with hearing, even when I am calling her name from within a metre she will often get up an respond as if I was calling her from another direction. Can you do a post on how to teach your dog these hand signs you speak of? Cheers

I have a 9year old border collie with hip displysia and bad arthritis, I’m recently trying new tricks with her to keep her mind going. Both she and I are having a lot of fun. Just to say because your dog is getting old or in pain, don’t give up on them, work there mind if you can’t work there body anymore because of pain or old age.

I have been training a “hopeless old” miniature pinscher who was left with MANY behavioral problems.  He is amazing and has caught on quickly.  Because of his age I always use a hand signal with the command.  That way his deafness will not be a problem.  Make sure your dog is looking at you when you give a command.  Say his name until he sees you and your hands.  This really works…deafness will not be a problem unless his back is turned toward you.

My dog is almost 7 years old and is a pure breed dachshund. He loves people and will cuddle with them a lot. But he has problems with other dogs.

A Fabulous one! This post is found to be very informative. Every word in this article is so true.
And yes it is true you can also teach old dogs some teaching lessons.

According to me, Old dogs develop their old habits as they grow with time. They have stability on their routine and they don’t want to change or alter them. Special kind of training is required for such situations. With the help of massive training and harsh training, one can achieve it.

I have also written a post on American Golden Retriever.


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