How Do I Train My Senior Dog?

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You've probably heard the old adage "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." Lucky for our senior furry friends, that couldn't be further from the truth! Dogs of all ages can benefit from training using positive reinforcement dog training methods.

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Training is a great way to keep your senior dog physically and mentally healthy and to add enrichment into the day even if those long hikes aren't an option any more. Just like humans, it is important for our senior dogs to stay active. Training can also help with the bonding process for a newly acquired senior friend as you get to know each other. To top it off, training should be a fun activity for the whole family. You might be surprised to see your old dog acting like a puppy again when the treats and toys come out for training time. Today we are going to share some of our favorite tips for working with senior dogs.

Senior dog training tips, or: is my dog being "stubborn"?

We know all of the benefits of training, but let's talk about some of the considerations we may need to make for our senior dogs. Many older dogs can't move quite as quickly or as well as they used to. If your dog suffers from ailments like arthritis, then strenuous or repetitive motion may not be possible. Even if your dog clearly understands the word "sit," it may be physically uncomfortable or even painful for them to do so! Keep their mobility in mind when selecting behaviors you'd like to work on with them, and always make sure to work on surfaces with plenty of traction like carpet.

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As your dog ages, you may also need to consider new ways to communicate with them. You may have taught your dog many lovely cue words to total fluency, but if Fido starts to go deaf, those unfortunately won't do you any good. This inverse may also be true with hand signals being lost on a dog who can no longer see them. It is generally a good practice to have working hand signals ​and​ verbal cues for some of the behaviors you ask for on a daily basis. If your pup is experiencing a loss of both sight and sound, fear not! You can use tactile cues like gently tapping on their shoulder, and your dog still has a powerful sense of smell.

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Your dog's response to food and toys may also change as they age. Those hard, crunchy dog biscuits will be much less of a motivator if your pup has had teeth removed and has a hard time eating them. You can try soft treats like bits of boiled chicken or string cheese, or even lickable treats like meat flavored baby food, pumpkin puree, or wet dog food. If your dog has any dietary restrictions, always check with your vet first!

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Lastly, consider your dog's learning history! If a senior dog has been rehearsing an unwanted behavior for 10 years, it is going to take some real time and commitment to combat that. If you have recently adopted an older dog, you may or may not know their full background. It is absolutely possible that the concept of training is brand new to them, or they may have unpleasant associations with the process. Be patient with your senior dogs!

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Senior dog friendly training games

Touch:​ This behavior is relatively simple, but it can be used to teach everything from recall to tricks.

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  1. Extend the flat palm of your hand to your dog.
  2. Mark the behavior by saying "yes" (or flashing a thumbs up for a deaf dog) the instant they reach forward to investigate your hand.
  3. Feed your dog a tasty treat.
  4. Repeat until your dog is eagerly booping your hand with their nose!

Chin Rest​: This is a great low-impact behavior that can be used for medical care, or as a cute trick.

  1. Make a platform with your flat palm near your dog's nose. With your dog in a sit or down, place a treat on your dog's nose and
  2. Mark with a "yes" or thumbs up when you feel the weight of your dog's chin on your hand.
  3. Feed your dog a tasty treat.
  4. Repeat, gradually increasing the time your dog's chin is resting.

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Nosework​: This dog sport is one of the most senior dog friendly options out there! Your dog's sense of smell is an important part of how they navigate the world. You can start off simply by hiding treats or bits of kibble around the living room and encouraging your dog to "find it!" If you and your senior pup take a liking, then why not enroll in a nosework class together?

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