Have you ever heard the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? As it happens, this phrase has nothing to do with dogs, dog tricks or teaching senior dogs new things. It actually refers to the idea that it can be challenging to get humans to change well-established habits.
So, with that in mind, the question is – is my dog too old to learn? And the short is answer is: No.
Your dog, no matter her or his age, can always learn something new. Now, does this mean you can teach your 15-year-old arthritic dog to run an agility course? The answer to that is probably not. But, can you teach your 15-year-old arthritic dog to walk through an agility tunnel? Very likely the answer is YES, unless the dog has a mobility issue that makes it challenging or dangerous to walk through a tunnel.
It’s true that young puppies between 8 weeks and 6 months are often thought of as the “readiest” to learn. Just like human children, elementary students’ brains are still growing and developing. So this is a prime time to teach life-long habits and good social skills. But, just like middle-aged and senior humans, adult and even senior dogs can learn new skills. In fact, teaching adult and senior dogs is extremely beneficial to their overall brain health.
Another Saying: "Use It or Lose It"
The concept that if you want to keep a skill you need to practice it. This holds true for overall health as well. If you want to stay fit, you need to keep exercising. If you want to keep your brain functioning well, you need to keep it stimulated and active. Our dogs (and cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, birds, etc.) are the same. If we want to keep them mentally agile as they get older, we need to keep their brains engaged. There are two primary ways to do this: training and enrichment.
One way to keep your dog’s brain engaged is through skills training. This can include basic skills such as Sit, Down, Drop, and Leave It. We can focus on other manners skills such as Go to Place when a visitor knocks on the door or sitting for greetings. We can teach tricks – the difficulty of the trick will be determined by your dog’s physical ability. It may be as simple as Shake, or it could be getting a tissue when you sneeze. My 8-year-old dog is currently working on a fantastic two-part trick: Stick ‘em up! (he sits and raises his front paws above his head and holds his balance there) and Bang! (he collapses from his ‘hands up’ flat to the floor and rolls onto his back). We’ve been working on it for about 4 weeks now and he’s nearly perfected it.
My soul-dog learned to do the activity of Nose Work and to nose-touch a target stick when she was 14 years old. Even on her very last day with me she practiced targeting the stick and a few other skills she knew.
Not all training needs to be formal skills. Many activities can keep the brain active and involve learning, but are not standard training. Using treat-dispensing toys or puzzle toys can give the dog opportunities to problem-solve.
You can play hide-and-seek with your pup. This could be having the dog stay in one room while you hide food or favorite toys in another room and then encouraging him to go Find It. It could be having the dog stay in one room while YOU hide in another room and then call your dog so that he must search the house, follow your voice and scent and find you. Be sure to have a party with lots of love, praise, treats or favorite toys when your pup finds you!
Simple Nose Work games can be a great brain exercise for senior dogs. Get 4-6 carboard boxes and decide which ONE will be your designated food box. Then, while your dog is in another room, set out the boxes and put food in the food box. Invite your dog in and let him sniff the boxes and find the food. Once he is successful, take him out of the room, rearrange the boxes add more food to the food box and start again. You can do this at mealtimes to make feeding more interesting while also helping your dog use his brain in the most fundamental dog way possible – sniffing and scavenging for food.
To Sum Up...
Whether your pup is 8 weeks or 15 years, you can still teach them new and fun things. From skills and manners to fun tricks. Adding problem-solving enrichment activities and play all go a long way to keeping your dog’s brain active and his life fun and exciting.
Now get to it and teach your old dog some new tricks!
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.