Can it be done? Can you really a train an old dog new tricks?
My answer is an emphatic yes.
The degree of work involved in doing this varies, however, depending on the amount of positive-reward training the dog has gone through in the past.
A dog that has a lot of experience with positive-reward training will be super-adept at learning new things regardless of his age. It is, effectively, because the dog has a set of expectations when that cookie jar or fannie pack full of treats comes out; he expects that will be asked either 1) to do something he already knows how to do, or 2) will be asked to figure out what new behavior you want from him.
Positive-reward training is, from your dog’s perspective, a game of trial and error. He tries to figure out what you want from him and when you reward him, he is closer to understanding what it is that you want.
A dog with a long history of positive-reward training will instantly click into trial-and-error mode when all the signs add up that you’re playing this game — signs being things like treats in hand, or in pouch, and vocalizations coming out of your mouth that perhaps he doesn’t understand.
I’ve never met a dog who, with a history of positive-reward training, didn’t fall in love with what the dog perceives as a very fun game that brings him lots of goodies. And so, the dog — young or old — is usually thrilled and fully engaged to be playing this “game” where he learns new things.
Take my dog, for instance. I don’t know if a week has ever gone by in his life where he didn’t do some kind-of positive-reward training, be it for learning something altogether new, reinforcing old commands or for behavior modification.
He’s almost 8-years-old now — an old age for his size — and yet he can figure out what new behavior I’m asking of him within a matter of minutes after we start a training session. He’s been playing this “game” for so long that he knows how to read and follow my body language for hints of what I’m asking him to do. Training him new tricks is so easy that it’s hard not to do it.
Right now, Sensi is honing his tracking abilities through a simple game of hide and seek, learning to crawl on command and we’re perfecting the command that asks him to go get a toy from his basket and bring it to us.
I am constantly seeking out new ideas of things to train him specifically so I can keep that positive reward training going, and my reason — it is such a healthy outlet and stimulus for my old man, and likely his most favorite “game” of all.
So, if you practice positive-reward training with your dog — and remember, dogs do best with short training sessions of 5 to 15 minutes, so it’s low-impact on you too — you get a dog that learns to love learning and will become a pro at learning new tricks, even into old age.
If you haven’t done positive-reward training with your dog, now is a good time to start. It doesn’t matter the age. But the less experience the dog has with the “game,” the slower you need to move.
Start with something simple, like a sit-stay or, depending on his current repertoire of tricks, a paw shake or even just a sit, if it’s not something he’s already mastered.
I’ve seen older dogs that have no experience with positive-reward training be very slow starters to catch on to the game. The best thing to do is to keep the training sessions short and upbeat. Inexperienced dogs can get frustrated and bored easily, which is why it’s important to start with something they’ll have an easy time picking up on, keep the session short and end on a good note.
Lastly, this note is very important — don’t ask your dog to do more than he’s ready to. Move slowly, one small step at a time, and if your dog is really having a tough time, take a step back and make the game a bit easier and more enjoyable for him.