You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks - For a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life

Old Dog - New Tricks

It’s not uncommon for us to have dogs in our group classes or private lessons who are well into their senior years. We gush with joy to see a graying muzzle walk into class. They bring with them that sage wisdom only years of life experience can impart, and instill in us immediate respect and admiration. The people attached to the other end of the leash win our hearts too for their desire to enrich their dog’s life with mental stimulation and the bonding time that training brings. We know many adopters who insist on bringing only older dogs into their home to enjoy their later years smothered in love. We “downward dog” bow to these beautiful people.

Defining the Senior Dog

Knowing when your beloved dog has moved into their senior phase of life depends primarily on their breed and size, and per the AAHA Canine Life Stage Guidelines, “senior” is defined as “the last 25% of estimated lifespan through end of life.”

OK, so when does that start? To further break this down, we turn to the guidelines created by Veterinarian, Maria M. Glowaski, of Ohio State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, who provides this reference: “Veterinarians generally consider small dogs to be senior citizens at about 12 years of age, while large dogs reach the senior stage at 6 to 8 years of age.” 

With this in mind, for how to approach training our older dog friends, I turned to one of our trusted training mentors; trainer, prolific author of  training books and Whole Dog Journal Training Editor, Pat Miller, for her always reliable wisdom. In her article, “Training An Older Dog,” she recommends the following:

  1. Make a commitment to continue providing your aging dog with learning and training opportunities as long as he can enjoy them.
  2. Be realistic in your expectations about what your senior dog can learn. Don’t ask him to perform beyond his physical capabilities.
  3. Consult with your veterinarian if you see signs of canine cognitive disorder (mental aging) in your dog.

Sound advice. The more science learns about the dog brain and body, the more we realize how similar their needs and desires are to our own. Sure, dogs need physical exercise, but can burn energy via mental stimulation, which is equally satisfying. Training is a fantastic way to accomplish this. For aging dogs, this is super important when physical activity may become more limited. Also, as an added benefit, training creates what we refer to as “the halo effect,” positively encouraging better behavior and contentment for our dogs in other areas of their lives.

Consider these recommendations and take advantage of all the possibilities. Training can take place effortlessly in your daily interactions with your dog or can simply be brief, joyful moments of discovery together. Try training a new trick your dog is physically able to do (remember soft, padded surfaces are preferred by aging bones and joints). Have a super sniffer dog? Hide treats around the room and teach them the, “Find It,” cue to go sniff out tasty morsels of goodness.  Allowing and encouraging your dog to use their brain to problem solve builds their confidence and keeps them thriving, just as it does for us.

“Research has shown that providing both mental and physical activity is the best way to maintain a healthy brain and body. Therefore, if your pet begins to slow down, or develops medical problems that reduce its physical activity, find new games, new toys and new ways to play, to stimulate the brain and keep the body active.” BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine

Discover Your Dog’s Inner Einstein

Here’s a starting place that will help you discover your dog’s personal learning style and have some serious fun in the process. Dr. Brian Hare, Associate Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, and his fellow behavior geeks created the Dognission Assessment, which determines an individual dog’s cognition, personality and perspective on the world as they perceive it. Wha-what?! It’s a science-based assessment using simple, fun games to learn how your dog’s brain works - your dog, not just any dog. Intelligence types vary from dog to dog just as… yep, you guessed it, just like they do with humans.

Prepare to have your mind blown when you have the chance to pull the curtain back and discover that your dog’s (even aging) brain packs a mountain of intelligence just waiting to be tapped. That, once puppy, now gray muzzled couch potato is longing to have some fun with you, using their brain more often every day. 

Take our beloved Peanut, for example, this magazine’s icon and cover model. It ends up that this girl was a little rock star in training classes. Her proud papa, Brian, tells us, “When I first adopted Peanut I did a group training class with her and the trainer always pulled Peanut to show the class how it's done, which she loved, except that Peanut learned something the first time and mastered it right away.” Can you imagine if Brian had never taken Peanut to class and discovered her ability? We just never know what’s beneath that furry noggin’ until we venture forth and find out how brilliant our dog friends are.

Even as a seasoned professional trainer, I sat back and wished I’d completed the Dognission games ages ago with my best friend, Jasper. Yes. He’s an elder dog. Now I understand why, when he has not had enough mental stimulation daily, he gets a bit feisty. His results showed he’s an “Ace” profile. Per the profile description, “the only downside to having a dog as gifted as an Ace is that sometimes they may be too smart for their own good.” Have a peak and get started at

Have Fun!

Keep in mind your dog’s personal history when it comes to learning and discovery. Be encouraging and light hearted in your approach.

I recall an experience I had with a beloved Rough Coat Collie I inherited years ago, Valentino. A former show dog, he was well mannered, but had only experienced old fashioned training prior to our lives together. Valentino had been taught he was only allowed to do what he was told to do. He wouldn’t interact with toys or, well, life very much, unless he was told to do something. I wanted to open him up a bit to be more of a dog. After reading an article about allowing dogs to have choices and how it helps them build confidence and calm, we ventured out on a walk where I planned to try the advice given in the article. We started on our usual route and came upon a cross street. Instead of choosing for us which direction we would go, I stopped, kept my body neutral, looked forward and waited. I was amazed. Valentino did not know what to do. He stood very still and kept looking at me to decide our path. I waited. After a solid minute, he slightly leaned his head in one direction. I praised him and immediately moved in that direction. His body jolted with conflicted joy that he had done a good thing and excitedly hopped forward. My eyes teared up to see how difficult that had been for him, making a choice - being allowed to make a choice without fear of negative consequences, and then even receiving praise for having been so bold. Over time, we tried more choice games and with every step, I kept in mind his history and took patience and encouragement along with us for the ride.

Understanding your dog is an individual who has lived a full life of experiences that have shaped them into who they are today will serve you both well. Serve them well. They are your friend and rely upon you for their quality of life. Let’s give them our very best.

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