It may be a cliché, but is it true? Once your dog is out of their learning ‘prime’ of middle puppyhood, can they indeed be taught new behaviours? If you’re still struggling with your dog’s behaviour, whether in one area or several, is that now beyond repair?
The great news is that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is another old wives tale which can be tossed out as nonsense. The reality is that, whilst training in puppyhood is ideal, you haven’t missed the boat.
In fact, it’s a ridiculously well-kept secret that when it comes to training older dogs, out of puppyhood, you have a real weapon in your arsenal. Simply put, they can concentrate better and for longer periods of time. Their focus can be more easily kept on the task in hand, and, generally, they have a greater sense of self-control. What’s more, their needs are less than that of a pup, so training won’t be interrupted by another need to eat, sleep, or go and do their business!
Your Training Approach
When it comes to trying to train your adult dog, we suggest you prioritise your needs. You don’t need to feel panicked that you’re missing a window of opportunity. Therefore, you can work out which behaviours are causing problems and need to change. You can then write these down in order of priority. We suggest you tackle one area at a time. Then you can build on the success to tackle the next problem area.
Take some time to think about what’s not working in your relationship with your dog. This may be that they need to be better at following certain commands, such as ‘sit’ or ‘heel’. You may feel anxious that their recall is not reliable or safe. You may be having ‘accidents’ inside. Or, you may have a dog with a troublesome chewing habit.
Praise and Treats!
For the vast majority of training needs, the best tools at your disposal are praise and treats. Ultimately, you want your dog doing the correct behaviour automatically, or simply for praise. Therefore, make sure that in this training stage, you heap the praise on just as much as the treat itself.
The Nature of Habits
Bear in mind that habits aren’t made over night. We know this from our own human examples. We need to repeat something many times before it is habitual and instinctive. The same applies for your dog.
Therefore you need to be consistent and persevere. We would say you need to stick with the full effort of training for a minimum of 4-6 weeks to lay down the new behaviour as an ingrained habit.
This also means that anyone else you have involved in your dog’s care needs to be on board. If you use a dog sitter, a dog walker, or doggy day care, you need to get them in your camp too.
Little and Often Works Best
Although an older dog has improved concentration compared to a puppy, training will still work best if done in short bursts repeated regularly and often. It’s probably a good idea to focus on multiple quick-fire training sessions, every day, for at least a month.
Keep an eye out for signs of tiredness or boredom which will hamper your training efforts. Lip licking, sniffing the ground, and of course yawning, are all signs you need to take a break.
You’re going to need a great deal of patience and determination. It’ll be worth it in the end.
Socialising is Beneficial
Dogs are, by their very nature, sociable creatures. If your dog is amenable to socialisation and new experiences then this can help your current training endeavours. This can be particularly true if your dog wasn’t adequately socialised as a puppy. Do bear in mind that socialisation in older dogs needs to be more controlled, not less.
Meeting new people and visiting new places is also particularly important as the new habit is formed. It reinforces its application to all situations and doesn’t limit it just to the training environment. What’s more, if they see other dogs behaving well, the bar is set for them to as well.
What Else Helps?
If you’re trying to train your dog to cease a bad habit, rather than take up a new one, we admit this can be harder. Bad habits such as chewing, inappropriate barking and digging are tough nuts to crack.
For these dogs it is about ensuring they are being adequately exercised and given due attention on a near constant basis, whilst the bad behaviour is reduced. These dogs benefit enormously from doggy day care where they are stimulated and supervised as they learn corrected behaviours. Chewers will also need easy access to chew toys and encouragement to use them.
If you’ve tried all of the above and you’re still struggling to teach an old dog new tricks, then it’s a good idea to ask your vet for advice. They may have particular suggestions for your unique scenario and rule out any underlying issues. They will also be able to refer your dog to a pet behavioural psychologist to give you more pointers.
Keep at it!
The single best thing you can do to ensure that the new behaviour sticks is to keep at it. Over time, you’ll be able to reduce the number of treats being offered, and instead focus on praise and more inherent reward. Hang in there and you certainly can teach an old dog new tricks.
We’re experienced with dogs and their behavioural quirks and very happy to support you in ongoing training efforts. Being able to provide the reinforcement, stimulation and reward on a continual basis in doggy day care may be just what your hound needs to become top of the behavioural class.