How to Train Senior Dogs

You have probably heard the saying 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks.' Well, I am delighted to tell you that so many older dogs have come through my training classes where this is not the case! As we get older, it can be harder for us to take in new information. We also know that taking on the challenge of learning new skills can lead to enhanced memory function and brain health. There is no reason to think that would be any different for our dogs. Training can provide some great benefits to our senior dog's mental well being.

Training also provides a fantastic way of enriching your senior dog's life. It can also help to maintain the bond you have developed over the years. If you have recently homed an older dog, then it is a great way to have fun and build trust with the new addition to your family.

There are a few things that we need to think about to make sure that the training is enjoyable for both you and your dog.

Scheduled Training

Senior dogs will sleep much more compared to a younger dog and generally, their energy levels are going to be lower. When your dog has had a walk or has been playing outside, they probably just want a nap rather than joining in a training session. Think about when your dog is most lively during the day and schedule in your training sessions for those times.

We should also consider the length of the training session. Learning new things can be tiring for any dog and for our seniors even more so. You are going to get much better results training for five minutes at a time than trying to train for longer periods and your dog becoming tired.

Training Methods

Reward based training is an excellent way of teaching our dogs new behaviors. After all, learning should be enjoyable for your senior dog.

With this type of training, you are aiming to set your dog up for success as often as possible. You can do this by breaking each behavior down into small steps and then slowly building them up into the final complete version. The more success your dog gets, the more motivated and enthusiastic they will become to want to train with you. If you are not getting the results you are looking for, have a break and think about what you can do to make it easier for your senior dog to understand what is needed.

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Training With Treats

Some older dogs can be prone to upset stomachs, so we do not want to overload them with anything that might cause digestive problems. Cooked chicken is a great choice and most dogs find it irresistible. Older dogs can also have a slower metabolism and can be prone to putting on weight. Aim for a treat to be around the size of the fingernail on your little finger. We just want your dog to have a taste of something they want more of, rather than a whole meal! You can also reduce the size of your dog’s daily food allowance to compensate for the treats you have used in training.

Which Behaviors to Train

If your dog has been pulling on their leash for years, it will be more challenging to train loose leash walking compared to teaching a brand new behavior. It will require patience and dedication from you as their trainer. Teaching a behavior with no previous history is going to be much simpler, especially if you pick tricks which your dog is going to enjoy. So, if you have a retriever, then look for behaviors which involve picking things up. If you have a hound, then behaviors which require them to use their nose are likely to be popular. Ideas for fun tricks for all dogs include touching items with nose or paw, finding hidden treats and learning the names of different toys.

Do remember to aim for fun in your training session rather than perfection.

Physical and Mental Well Being

Just like us, our dogs can develop aches and pains in their joints as they age. Because of this we should think about the behaviors we are going to train and whether they are going to cause any physical stress. A young dog can practice going from down to a sit many times without experiencing any discomfort, but this might not be the case for an older dog. Tricks such as sitting up and begging are unlikely to be suitable, but giving you a high five could be a great alternative.

As dogs get older, they can also experience the equivalent of an Alzheimer's type condition called canine cognitive disorder. The symptoms can include memory loss and forgetting behaviors that they have learned when younger. We recommend that your senior dog has regular check ups with their veterinarian to help keep them comfortable and active in their later years of life.