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You visited the shelter looking for a young dog, but fell in love with an older German shepherd. You can see the intelligence shining out of the dog's eyes, and yet he is by all accounts badly behaved. He is oblivious to any commands and just stands there wagging his tail. The vet has checked him out and there are no physical impairments so it seems his lack of co-operation is purely down to lack of training. You like a challenge, and so despite him being an older dog, you decide to take him on.
There are many reasons why an older dog might be lacking in training, from lack of interest on the part of a previous owner to having been taught using inappropriate methods that led to bad habits. Training (or retraining ) may be necessary, especially if you have taken on an older dog from a rescue. However, older dogs are just as capable of learning as younger ones, it just takes them more time to cotton on.
Always used reward-based training methods. This technique motivates the dog to learn in return for rewards such as a small tidbit or a game with a toy. Never try to dominate or bully an older dog. Not only is this inappropriate, but with an unknown history it could be they associate harsh treatment with fear and it could make them more likely to become aggressive out of self-defense.
To teach an older dog you'll need a distraction-free place in which to work. It can also help if the lighting is good, especially when teaching a deaf dog that relies on hand signals. Make sure the floor is non-slip so that those older bones are comfortable when the dog moves or sits.
You'll also need:
- Bite-sized treats with which to reward the dog
- A pouch or bag in which to keep the rewards handy
- Toys that the dog likes to play with
- Other equipment such as a collar and leash
- A clicker
The Understanding Oldies Method
Old dogs and new tricks
Know that old dogs can be taught new tricks, but it takes longer. One advantage puppies have is that they are geared to learn quickly so as to survive. Once over the age of 18 weeks, the ability to learn slows up but doesn't disappear altogether. This means you must be patient and repeat exercises until the older dog has grasped what you're trying to do.
Shorter concentration spans
Older dogs can't concentrate for as long as their young counterparts. Get around this by training for short periods of time but more frequently. For example, you could train the dog in two minute bursts during the ad breaks on TV... little but often.
Motivate the dog
An older dog knows his own mind. He's going to learn more quickly if he's motivated to earn a reward in return for his actions. Work out what presses your older dog's buttons, for example, a really tasty treat or a game of tug with a favorite toy.
Use hand signals
Older dogs may have difficulty hearing, which can make voice commands a hit and miss affair. Get around this by giving both spoken cues and visual ones. For example, say "Sit" while holding your hand palm side up and raising it sharply to your shoulder.
Take physical limitations into account
Know what your older dog can and can't do comfortably. It's no good persisting at teaching 'sit' if the dog's hips are so stiff and arthritic that this is really difficult for him. Instead, it's reasonable to teach 'stand' and work on 'stay' in the standing position instead.
The Use Rewards Method
Understand the idea
Reward-based training is an ethical and positive way to train dogs. The idea is that when the dog responds correctly he is rewarded. This creates a train of thought in the dog's mind whereby he thinks through what it was he did that got a reward and then tries to repeat it. Once the dog has grasped what's required, you can start putting the action on cue.
Decide on a sound to reward
First you need to decide on a sound (of your choice) that will tell the dog he's earned a treat. Some people use clickers, because they generate a unique and clear noise. However you can just as easily make a clicking noise with your tongue or use a verbal encouragement such as "Yes!", said in an upbeat way.
Link the sound to a reward
Let's say you decided to say "Yes!" when the dog responds correctly. He needs to understand the significance of the word. To teach him the link, say "Yes" excitedly to get the dog to look at you, and give him a treat when he does. Repeat this. Do it enough times and the dog will start to anticipate what "Yes" means and lick his lips as he waits for the tidbit. Once he makes this mental jump you can move on to the next step.
Marking a desired response
Let's say you're teaching an older dog to sit. You lure him into the sitting position. As soon as his butt hits the ground you say "Yes" and reward him. Repeat. With practice, the dog will learn that your hand moving in a certain way means he if he sits he'll get a treat. What's not to like about that?
Put the action on cue
Now the dog knows how to sit and that it's a good thing to do when asked, but he doesn't know this is what's called sitting. Simply say "Sit" while luring him to sit and pretty soon he'll catch on.
The Do's and Dont's Method
Do: Be patient
Older dogs have less nimble minds, which means you must be patient with them. Take things at the dog's pace so that he doesn't become confused or frustrated.
Do: Take one step at a time
An older dog may get confused more easily, so keep tasks simple and straightforward. Make sure he's mastered each step in the learning process before moving onto the next step.
Do: Build his self-confidence
Older dogs, especially rescue dogs, may have had a checkered past and have been punished for doing wrong. This can make them hesitant to learn. The way around this is to build his self-confidence with lavish praise when he does even the simplest action correctly.
Do: Make things fun
Training is a great way to bond and to provide an older dog with mental stimulation. However, be sure to make it fun by giving plenty of praise, keeping your tone upbeat, rewarding him with a game or treat, and ending each session on a positive note.
Don't: Expect too much too soon
Take things at the dog's pace. Remember, train little and often and give plenty of praise and encouragement and your older dog will learn.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 01/31/2018, edited: 01/08/2021