Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Old dogs are still capable of learning.
Old dogs are still capable of learning. Photo: Getty Images

We've all heard the saying that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. But is there any truth to it? Do older dogs lose the capacity to learn?

For Wodonga-based dog trainer Brydie Charlesworth it's an emphatic no.

"That is just an old wives' tale," Brydie says. "Dogs can and do learn right up into old age. I had an old dog that learned how to heel backwards four days before he died at the age of 13. Not only did he learn it, he demanded to be trained that day because he enjoyed it that much."

How to get started

Before you start with all the training fun, it's important to carefully assess your dog's physical condition. As dogs get older they become more susceptible to conditions such as osteoarthritis, which can make moving difficult and painful for them. Age can also bring on hearing, vision and cognitive impairments. Be aware of limitations that can make certain skills (e.g. jumping or running) difficult, and work around them.

Brydie says all dogs should have skills such as sit, stay and loose-lead walking, but not every dog learns them. "These are the very basics that every dog should know," she says. "If it's a rescue dog, the new owner should focus on building a bond with the dog. So lots of activities together while also setting boundaries."

It takes time

Any dog can be trained; success comes down to patience and consistency. The amount of time needed to perfect a skill is different for each dog, so be prepared to do it over and over again. "Dogs are just like people. They learn in different ways and speeds," Brydie says.

Not sure where to get started? Here are three easy skills that are lots of fun.

Sit

Every dog needs to know this command. And if your dog is a little rusty, a refresher course in the sit command will get her primed for learning.

1. Place your dog in a standing position. Hold the reward food in front of her, just above her eyes. Give her ample time to recognise and sniff it.

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2. Say 'Sit' and raise your hand slightly above her head. As your dog follows your hand, she should naturally sit. Ensure you keep your hand positioned just above her head. If it's too high she may try jumping up to reach the treat.

3.  When she sits, reward her with food and praise.

4. Continue practising this command as often as you can. Once you're happy with your dog's progress, try the command without the food reward.

Speak

This is a fun exercise to get your dog to speak (bark) on command.

1. Move into a room with plenty of space, or head outside.

2. Show your dog you have some tasty treats (or her toy reward) with you. Let her smell the treat, and give her one or two. Give her plenty of praise and pats (assuming she's displaying good behaviour).

3. Now for the fun part. Hold a treat in your hand and make sure your dog knows it's there. Let her smell it but don't give it to her. After a while (it may take a few minutes) your dog will bark because she's confused and doesn't understand why you're not giving her the treat. As soon as she barks, say 'good', give her the treat, and let her know she did a great job.

4. After three or four successful barks it's time to introduce the word 'speak'. As soon as your dog barks say 'speak' and give her a treat. By repeating this process, she will learn to bark on command.

Find it

This trick is perfect for dogs with sight or hearing impairments.

1. Grab a chew, bone or toy that your dog loves (you'll be hiding it).

2. With your dog sitting, show her the treats you have and let her smell them.

3. Walk across the room and put the treats on a flat surface that's easily accessible. Point to it, and tell your dog to 'find it'. When she does, give her plenty of praise. Do this a few more times, putting the reward in a different place but still one that's easily accessible.

4.  Put your dog a little further from the hiding area but make sure she can still see you. Hide the treat in spots that are a little harder to get to. Once again get her to 'find it' and give her lots of praise.

5. Finally, put your dog in a different room and hide the treat somewhere in your play space where it isn't visible. Call her into the room and ask her to 'find it'. The sneakier the hiding spot, the longer it will take her to find the treat—and she'll love every minute of it.

Brydie says dogs love learning, and it's usually the owners who hold them back. "Dogs are capable of learning many new things, and once owners teach them the basics there is a false understanding that that's all they need," she says. "Many dogs need lots of mental stimulation right up until their old age."

The four rules for training success

If you're keen to teach your old dog a few new tricks, keep these four rules in mind.

1. Know your dog. Carefully assess their physical shape before getting started.

2. Don't train on a full stomach. Food-motivated dogs love food rewards, and they'll be super focussed if it's been a few hours since their last meal.

3. Reward good behaviour quickly. When your dog acts on a command, reward and praise her immediately.

4. Training takes time. Be consistent and put time aside to practice. When you've aced one skill, move onto the next.

If you've got an older dog at home, why not spend some time teaching her something new? Have you taught your senior dog something new? Tell us more in the comments.

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