Teach an old dog new tricks!

April 6th, 2008

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? The answer is yes. Just like people, dogs are never too old to learn. Carrol Baker reports.

Training an older dog has enormous benefits. A dog that is physically and mentally active will age more gracefully than one that has led a sedentary life. If you train your lovable old pooch, you’ll also help to keep age-related conditions such as canine cognitive dysfunction, or doggie Alzheimer’s, at bay.

Training as brain food

Just one new trick a month will benefit your aging dog. It can be something very simple, such as doing a little twist, says Dr Jacqueline Perkins, veterinarian and pet psychiatrist. “Training is brain food for dogs. If the neurones in a dogs brain are kept limbered up, they will learn new tricks more easily. The more you teach them, the easier it is for them to grasp a new concept,” she says.

Tips on training your older dog

When training dogs of any age, the idea is to focus on good behaviour, says Dr Perkins. If the dog displays unwanted behaviour, don’t punish him. Ignore the behaviour, teach him an alternative good behaviour and offer praise and a reward.

Your geriatric dog probably wont be able to master a new command as quickly as a young dog. “It’s widely agreed that youth correlates with speed of training,” says Perkins. To help your pet, break the training into smaller steps. “If the dog doesn’t grasp the concept right away, chances are your dog isnt deliberately being difficult, you just need to be patient,” she says. Remember too, your older dogs senses may not be as finely tuned as a younger dog. Make allowances for diminished eyesight and hearing.

Retraining a dog to overcome established unwanted behaviours such as digging or excessive barking can be more difficult than teaching a dog new things, says veterinary behaviourist Dr Debbie Calnon. “The pathways to the brain have established a well-worn track, so modifying entrenched behaviours can be more challenging,” she says.

They key is to reduce the opportunities to perform the unwanted behaviour and to be persistent, patient and continue to offer praise when they get it right, she adds.

When training your older dog, its best to include gentler forms of training exercises. “Physical capabilities do diminish with age. Your senior dog may not be as flexible or agile as a younger dog,” says Calnon.

Doggie treats as rewards for training may also need to be modified. Older dogs can have brittle teeth so offer brisket bones or raw chicken frames instead of hard chew material, suggests Dr Perkins.

When training your dog, pick a time that suits your dogs body clock. “In the early morning canine internal hormones are at their peak. Your dog is wide awake and ready to learn,” says Dr Perkins. In warmer climates early morning or early evening are best.

As a dog ages, it may also need to relearn some behaviour it had already mastered in life. “Loss of house training is a cardinal sign of age-related dementia,” explains Dr Perkins. If your dog is having problems remembering his toileting routine, be patient and offer him rewards for going to the toilet in the right places.

Benefits of water-based training in aging dogs

Water-based activities are ideal forms of exercise for older dogs. “Swimming gives your dog a good cardiovascular workout while providing support for weaker muscles and arthritic joints.” If your dog is reluctant, begin training on dry land. “Some dogs take to retrieving like a duck to water; others may not be so enthusiastic,” advises Dr Calnon.

First, its important to show interest in the item. It can also help if you paint the toy with vegemite or butter. If your dog takes the toy and runs off, put the dog on a lead. Offer him a tasty treat in return for the toy. The dog learns that by relinquishing the item, he not only receives a tasty treat, hell also get it back later when you continue to play.

If the dog still isn’t motivated to give up the toy, offer a more appealing treat in return. Then throw the item in the air for the dog to take and return. Eventually short retrieves can be started. Once your dog has mastered this, take the toy to the waters edge and throw it in.

Shelter rehabilitating an older dog

Cindy Christensen, coordinator of Animal Rehabilitation Training, Victorian Animal Aid in Coldstream, runs a program designed to rehabilitate dogs. When dogs arrive at the shelter they are temperament tested and given health checks.

Training methods used are positive, motivational methods, coupled with food rewards. Behaviour modification needs vary from dog to dog, with the most common problem being over-stimulation and the dog becoming too boisterous around people.

“If a dog jumps up, its looking for attention. To solve the problem I fold my arms across my chest and don’t touch, talk to, or make eye contact with the dog. When it has four paws on the ground, I give it lots of praise and a food reward. Another strategy to help calm an over-excited dog is gentle massage.

“Other problem areas can include pulling on leads. I train the dog to walk on a head collar; this is a little like a bridle on a horse. Its not a muzzle. It fits over the bridge of the nose and if the dog pulls, it pulls against the dogs nose. I start with the lead in the right hand and the dog on my left. When the dog remains on the left and isnt pulling, its given a food reward, eye contact and praise. I place my hand with the lead in it on my tummy, so I know when the dog is pulling slightly. Every time the dog pulls, I turn around and walk back the other way.

“It’s important that dogs learn to be calm around people. If a dog has good social manners and doesn’t jump up, its more likely to be invited inside and integrated into family life. We try to create a positive canine human bond so dogs are less likely to be returned to shelters.”

Training tricks

Some things to teach your old boy or old girl, suggested by Dr Debbie Calnon

  1. Roll over and lie on the side If your senior dog has stiff and sore joints, this is an ideal time to give him a gentle soothing massage.
  2. When walking your dog, teach it to automatically sit when you stop walking. Older dogs can experience deterioration in their hearing and this will prevent them walking out in front of a car.
  3. Place some planks on your back stairs Encourage your dog to practise his agility by walking the plank instead of taking the stairs. This is particularly useful if your older dog is having trouble negotiating the stairs.


Case Study #1: Jonka a 15-year-old Border Collie cross Cocker Spaniel

Jonka was surrendered to the kennel for escaping and harassing the neighbour’s chickens. She also suffered a skin allergy. Cindy discovered Jonka was allergic to beef. Jonka has been Cindys faithful companion for five years. She is a lovable, calm, well-adjusted dog, but it wasnt always that way.

When Cindy first took Jonka home from the shelter, Jonka suffered extreme separation anxiety. If Cindy was in the shower and Jonka couldn’t see her, she would become agitated and run her nose along the bottom of the bathroom door until it was bloody. Cindy says this is a common scenario when dogs are rescued from shelters. They become so excited at having someone to care for them they suffer anxiety when left alone. To solve the problem, Cindy ignored Jonka’s over-anxious behaviour and rewarded her calm behaviour.

Case Study #2: Maggie a 10-year-old Border Collie cross Kelpie

Maggie’s owner moved overseas, leaving Maggie with an elderly mother who couldnt cope with such a boisterous dog. Maggie was surrendered to the shelter. Maggie was very excitable; she jumped up constantly and would pull on her lead. Every time someone came through the shelter to pick a dog, Maggie would jump up and down and begin to bark frantically. Cindy helped Maggie learn to be calm and make soft eye contact with potential new families. The training strategy paid off. Maggie was adopted three weeks ago. As part of the post-adoption program, dogs receive ongoing behavioural training and new owners are given some training strategies. Cindy is happy to report Maggie is learning to walk nicely on her lead without pulling, and is a much-loved addition to her new family.

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