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:
- Run through your legs
- High five or wave
- Dance – great for dogs with wiggly butts
- Walk backwards
- Put away your toys
- Hold a sign, flag, etc. –great for photo ops
- Cover up with a blanket
- Get your leash
- Push a ball
- Jump into your arms