How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

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The adage "an old dog will learn no tricks." originated in the 1700s or even earlier, and over the centuries morphed into "you can't teach a dog new tricks." Dogs may have inspired the original saying back when all dogs had jobs like herding, hunting, and guarding, and a senior canine's declining senses would be considered a distinct disadvantage.

But when it comes to our companion dogs today, whoever said you can't teach an old dog new tricks never had a dog. The canine desire for challenge and fun exists way past puppyhood, albeit not as strong as it once was. But as long as they are in good physical health, good spirits, and of sound mind older dogs are enthusiastic to learn new tricks and commands, play games, and solve puzzles right into their golden years.

Why should older dogs learn new things?

Maybe you trained your dog years ago when he was a puppy and gave him a free pass as life happened. Now he's a senior, and a great way to improve and retain his mental acuity is by reinforcing things he was taught years before and teaching him something new. Consider obedience commands, perhaps a few dignified "tricks," a few new games, and rekindling old ones like fetch or a less-vigorous version of Frisbee. Like people, dogs need mental stimulation and physical exercise to stay focused, fulfilled, and fit as they age. Above all, it may help stave off boredom, keep canine cognitive dysfunction AKA dog dementia at bay, and prolong his quality of life well into his twilight years.

Learning new things is also an invaluable <ahref="https: wagwalking.com="" training="" play-fetch"=""> </ahref="https:>bonding experience for you and your dog. If you have an older dog, you'll soon find that as a result of working together during training or playing together, you inevitably grow closer.

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How to teach your older dog to stay

Let's face it, "stay" is a tough one for most dogs to master. Along with "down," it takes patience and several stages to teach a dog at any age. If you're working with an older dog who has never learned the command, it can take a little longer, but once she's got it down, it's an extremely useful command.

A dog who can reliably stay in place can learn "wait" even more quickly, which is handy for short, little bursts when you want her to wait until you put on your coat and boots, for instance, to take her out. Soon she'll learn to associate that being released from either the stay or the wait means she's going somewhere or getting something she likes, like a treat or a toy.

Follow these tips as you teach your older dog the "stay" command:

  • Start simple and gradually move forward at your dog's pace. Never rush or stress him, or speak or act harshly toward your dog as he learns the stay command. Set your dog up for success.
  • Don't give the "stay" command with a treat in your hands.
  • If you anticipate your dog is going to break the stay during training, or any time, repeat the "stay" command.
  • The focus of your stay-command training will be building skills with what's known in dog-training circles as the three D's: Duration as in two-to-three second intervals; Distance as in one-half-step at a time; and Distractions which come in the form of big and small ones. Start easy, for instance, in your own backyard, then work in different environments.
  • Older dogs are just as intelligent as young ones, but depending on his past training, or lack thereof, you will need to build in as much extra time as needed. Learning to stay is vital for your dog to know.
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Simple steps to teach the stay command recommended by the American Kennel Club and modifications for older dogs**:**

  1. Before you begin, decide which release word you'll use. Will it be OK, Free, Release, Well Done, or another?
  2. Start working on the stay by asking for a "sit" or "down," either or both of which are essential prerequisites to learning the stay command, of course.
  3. When your dog is in position, tell her to stay, then immediately use your release word and reward her with a treat.
  4. If your dog remains in the stay after you've given the release, simply clap your hands or otherwise entice her to break the stay and come to you. However, don't call her after a stay repetitively, otherwise, your dog will anticipate a recall each time. It's best to walk a short distance away after she's in the stay, then quickly return to her before giving the release.
  5. Duration and distance training: Practice walking a little further away each time in baby steps and incrementally build up to being able to walk around your dog without her breaking her stay, making the stay longer in increments of only a few seconds as you go. You can see how teaching the stay is time-consuming, but if you do it right, your dog will make you proud when one day you find you really need her to stay in place. For example, say she is off-leash on a camping trip and heading a little too close to the road and a car suddenly appears barreling down the road. You yell, "drop" or "down" and "stay." If your training was a charm, she's down, staying in place until you release her, and most importantly, she's safe.
  6. Distractions are, of course, one of the most difficult things to overcome in the stay training. And it's where the rubber meets the road. The whole point of the stay is to keep your dog not only where you want her in a certain situation, but ultimately keep her safe. You never know when you'll need to use "stay" or more precisely, "down-stay" or "drop-stay" in an emergency. Your older dog's stay must be bomb-proof, consequently, proofing is the final step in the stay-command training.

You will need to proof each of the three D's as follows:

  1. Proofing for duration is aided by what we've learned from the science of canine cognition, which has proven that dogs understand if and when we're paying attention to them. This means that as you build the duration of the stay, it's wise to engage in other activities, such as reading a book, sitting down at your computer, cooking, and even lying down. If your dog thinks for one minute that you're not paying attention to her, she may be tempted to break the stay. So you subtly let her know that you have eyes in the back of your head and are always aware of what she's up to by rewarding her at various intervals throughout the duration of her stay. Don't allow her to break the stay until you give the release.
  2. Proofing for distance is achieved by moving farther away from your dog in larger and larger increments, then eventually disappearing into another room. You can practice by moving away at various angles, such as from the side, the front, behind, or even diagonally. When you're working out of sight, use a hand mirror to see your dog around corners. Alternatively, set up a floor or wall mirror that reflects her actions, or hopefully, inaction.
  3. Proofing for distractions is undoubtedly the most difficult task in the stay training. Start slowly with things like bouncing a ball as your dog remains in the stay. Circling your dog at an ever-increasing pace and ever-widening circle, then coming in close again, and repeating. Once you feel she is ready, try placing her favorite treat or toy not far from where she's in the stay. In this exercise, you will incorporate the command, "leave it" to enforce the idea she is not to touch the treat. Upon your release word, allow her to retrieve the treat or toy as a reward.

Remember, at any juncture in this training, if your dog is disinterested or anxious, or decides to do the opposite, ignore the negative behaviors, and only reinforce positive ones. Stop if she seems stressed and is clearly not enjoying the process.

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Teaching an older dog to play fetch

The classic game of fetch is perfect for older dogs who do not have mobility issues or arthritis, and also for you because you need only have a few tools and your time. Fetch should be fun, so if your dog loses interest, simply move on to something else or go for a walk. Use positive reinforcement always and avoid negativity in any training.

Here's what you need to bring along to the backyard or park:

  • Treats work well for anything you choose to teach your dog. Small, dehydrated tidbits of liver or chicken are ideal. Positive reinforcement is the only game in town and treats are where it's at for dogs.
  • Ball or kong , or his favorite toy to throw. If your older dog is still athletic, consider a ball-thrower which flings a ball farther than you could throw it by hand — officially makes fetching a ball the easiest game around and great exercise — recommended for Australian cattle dogs and other feisty, tireless types who are often ball-obsessed and super-athletic for their age.
  • A clicker is optional, but the sharp crack of a clicker does quickly grab an older dog's attention, especially if his hearing is diminished and clicker training is an established, reputable, and successful method for dogs of any age.

How to play fetch with an older dog who shows low-level enthusiasm but knows his obedience commands:

  1. Have your dog sit a couple of feet away facing you.
  2. Place the ball on the ground between you.
  3. In the split second your dog looks at the ball or touches it with his nose, give praise, and reward him with a treat.
  4. Repeat a few times, encouraging interaction with the ball and reinforcing the message that interacting with the ball equals rewards.
  5. Tell your dog to "stay" in the "sit" and "wait," or "stay," then pick up the ball and toss it about six feet. For both wait and stay, you can use the flat of your hand as a blocking-type gesture that most dogs will understand.
  6. Release your dog to fetch the ball by saying something like, "get the ball" or "fetch."
  7. When he brings the ball back and drops it at your feet, give him lots of praise and a treat. Repeat with longer throws. If he does not release the ball and drop it, ask him to give you the ball as you gently take it from his mouth. Walk away and ignore him if he refuses to give you the ball.
  8. If he really gets into the frisky, play mode, drop the "wait" and just let him run back and forth at his own pace, always rewarding with praise and a treat only every second time, then stop giving the treats after a few throws because the play itself will become the reward. Always keep your older dog's health, activity level, and state of mind top of mind in any game you play.
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Putting it all together: teaching the combo to an older dog

Some dogs are natural show-offs. In fact, a lot of dogs love to show their stuff and now that your older dog has a bag of tricks, so to speak, you can teach her to put it all together into a grand performance.

Here's a fun, challenging routine you and your dog can do together that showcases the skills she's learned, the special bond you have, and that requires her to think on her feet as each step changes rapidly. Teach the combo slowly and gradually, but when it's perfectly choreographed, you'll both be amazed! The focus of the combo exercise is focus, obedience, paying careful attention, thinking fast, and mastering duration, distance, and distraction; all things that contribute to mental awareness and cognitive health.

  1. Ask her to do a sequence of sit, down, sit, then down again, and stay.
  2. Immediately and quickly walk around her three times, moving away from her then back in close to her.
  3. Say your release word.
  4. Call her to come and sit directly in front of you. Reward her with a treat.
  5. Now, ask her to down and stay.
  6. Then quickly turn your back to her and go into another room close by for a slow count of 10.
  7. Come back into the room talking, singing, anything but not saying the release word.
  8. Walk to her side, and release her from the stay. Reward with a treat, then repeat after a period of relaxation or try once a day, a couple of times a week, or use your best judgment on how it's working for her. Keep it fun, fast-paced but adjusted to her level of intelligence and mobility, and if she's not game, forget it.

You can also make the game of fetch or any exercise you do more interesting by interspersing with any obedience commands your dog knows in different variations. Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks?