By Grace Park
Published: 12/18/2020, edited: 04/01/2021
The old saying goes, "You can't teach old dogs new tricks." Is there any truth to this proverb? Let's do some digging to discover if it's possible to train a dog who's been around the block.
Absolutely not! Dogs learn throughout their lives.
Every dog learns at different speeds, and that includes senior dogs. Many older dogs — especially those without any obedience training — have shorter attention spans and will move at a slower pace. Meanwhile, others might even learn quicker than they did as puppies. Think about it: puppies are excitable and easily distracted. As they develop and grow into adults, mutts usually mellow out. This could make dog training easier later in life. (However, this is the exception, not the rule.)
Trick training is one thing, but obedience commands are a whole different ball game. Generally, senior dogs face significant challenges if they begin basic obedience and socialization training outside of the critical socialization window.
There's a reason why so many dog trainers and canine behaviorists encourage training from a young age. Cognitive development during the first 3 to 4 months of a puppy's life shapes how they will behave and interact with their environment as adults. This period is called the critical socialization window.
This window varies in length depending on the puppy's breed and individual personality. For some puppies, the window of socialization starts to close as early as 8 weeks. For others, it can last for up to 16 weeks.
Lack of socialization training during puppyhood leads to major behavioral issues like:
aggression toward other people and pets
fear of children or riding in a car
We won't lie to you — obedience training an older dog is a long, difficult journey. But there are a few things you can do to ensure your training sessions go as smoothly as "pawssible"!
This is the number one rule of training an older dog basic obedience commands. Trying to train an older dog to obey house rules can get frustrating. That goes double for pet parents attempting to train on their own and with limited knowledge of canine psychology. Never punish or hit your dog for not following commands or learning quickly enough.
You'll find tons of books, articles, and videos covering training fundamentals for dogs at every stage of life. If you're training solo, learn as much as you can.
Positive reinforcement training using treats and praise is a proven training method for dogs of all ages. Dogs are more likely to perform the desired action when they know they'll get a reward!
This professional dog training tip goes hand-in-paw with positive reinforcement. Dole out plenty of praise for every small win and keep things upbeat.
Attempting to train too many commands at once or moving too quickly will overwhelm your dog and hinder their progress. Keep training sessions short and focused on a single step of the command until your hound gets the hang of it.
Senior dogs often live with physical and mental conditions that affect their behavior and ability to perform certain commands. For example, dogs diagnosed with hypothyroidism are known to be more aggressive as a direct result of the condition.
For the average pet parent, dog training certainly isn't a walk in the dog park, even for puppies in their prime. Consult a professional dog trainer for a personalized training plan and advice. Of course, you'll have to review your dog's training outside of class often and consistently. But enlisting the help of a certified dog trainer who's well-versed in canine psychology can remove some friction and frustration from the process. Search for a trainer that specializes in working with older dogs.
Responsible pet parents enroll their puppies in a training program and expose them to as many new sights, sounds, and experiences as possible during the critical socialization window.
Tragically, not all pet parents take these responsibilities seriously. (Which is just one reason why animal shelters are so overcrowded with abandoned and neglected pets.) Good samaritans who rescue an older dog from a shelter face a double whammy. Not only do they need to help their fur-baby adjust to their new environment, but they also need to teach their dog the house rules.
This process takes time — a year or longer in many cases. But we're sure you'll agree the effort is well worth the reward of a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted rescue!
Check out our guide on teaching an older dog obedience commands. If you'd like more personalized advice, scroll to the bottom of the page and submit your question to our dog training professionals.
Need a helping paw with your training sessions? Book a professional dog trainer near you through the Wag! app. Dog trainers on our platform will bring the obedience classes right to your living room for a fraction of the price. It's the "pawfect" option for pet parents who can't commit to a class!
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