The old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks simply isn’t true. A recent 3 year study, using 95 border collies varying in age from 5 months to 13 years, shows that although it may take more time and repetitions of a desired behaviour to train an older dog, once trained older dogs will retain what they learn as much as a young dog. In fact, the same study shows that older dogs show better capacity for reasoning behaviours than younger ones. So while in many ways training is easier to accomplish when your dog is a pup, it is doable at any age. The thing about older dogs is that they have a longer attention span than puppies and more control over their bodies. Whether you have just adopted him or have had your old guy since he was a pup, here are some things to consider when training an older dog.
Nutrition can play an important part in keeping your old dog’s brain sharper. Studies have shown that supplementation of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an important Omega 3 found in fish oil, as well as medium chain triglycerides found in coconut oil, may help with cognitive disorders in older dogs.
There are limitations to consider, both physical and mental, and a visit to the vet might be in order before training beyond the basics. For instance, arthritis may be affecting your dog’s ability to jump or chase a disc. It may cause him pain and you may end up frustrated when he can’t perform. If your old dog has problems with his teeth and gums, then playing fetch or tugging may not be his idea of fun. And of course, issues with hearing and sight may limit what you are able to teach as well. Mentally, dogs, like people, have diminished capacity for learning as they get older, and dogs can even suffer from a condition called Canine Cognitive Disorder Syndrome which is similar to Alzheimer’s in humans. So, it is a great idea to exercise his brain as well as his body to keep him fit both mentally and physically.
Low Impact Training
Keep your training ‘low impact’ to start until you see how he tolerates any new training task. Try starting with something easy and not physically taxing, like sit, down or shake. This will also give you an idea of your dog’s mental acuity. Keep a pocketful of treats and your patience close at hand. There are lots of things you can teach an older dog with positive reinforcement training.
Nosework is a great way to exercise the brain. You don’t need anything fancy for this, just a few boxes and some treats. Turn the boxes upside down and hide a treat under one of them and let your pup find the treat with his nose. You can train more scents and use more boxes as time goes by. This is even a competitive sport! You can also teach your oldie to put away his own toys or ring a bell when he wants to go out, get the newspaper or the mail for you, or even open a door or cupboard when a leash or rope is attached to it.
Stretch to Strengthen
Training can also involve some great gentle stretching and strengthening exercises. Teaching your dog to back up will strengthen his hind quarters, which often weaken with age. If he is pretty fit, you can even teach him to back up the stairs or do a paw stand against a wall. Teaching him to bow will stretch his spine, and teaching him to sit up and beg will strengthen his core.
There isn’t anything much cuter than a dog who knows how to ‘wave’ or crawl, roll over, or sneeze on command. Just use your imagination for more ideas, because virtually anything is possible as long as you are patient and positive and your dog is enjoying the activity and attention.
Sources: Lisa J. Wallis, Zsófia Virányi, Corsin A. Müller, Samuel Serisier, Ludwig Huber and Friederike Range (2016). Aging effects on discrimination learning, logical reasoning and memory in pet dogs. Age, 38:6 DOI 10.1007/s11357-015-9866-x
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