“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is an adage we have all been subjected to many, many times. While it does hold true for most part, to many of us, in terms of dog training, it is just an untrue cliché. It is true that it is far simpler to train a young dog; However, it is by no means anywhere close to impossible to achieve high rates of success with behaviour reinforcement. Nevertheless, it takes a determined and scientific approach to successfully train your older dog.
Behaviours that have served your dog well so far, that have had years of positive reinforcement, will be hard to change. Forming new behaviour patterns that are conditioned with reinforcement is much easier. It will be significantly harder (although, still not impossible) to incorporate new behaviour in your dog it it’s not had any history with progressively learning or being used to training.
But, that depends, for most part, on how old your dog is. A 4-5 year old dog having never had training, is still relatively easy to train than say a 9 year old one of similar breed. Deep, unconditioned, involuntary behaviours are very hard to change and need patience on your part to be unlearned. But, if the particular behaviour isn’t tangibly troublesome to you, you shouldn’t attempt to change it. Research shows that untrained dogs respond much better to positive reinforcements than negative ones. Although it seems easier to get quick results initially with negative reinforcements, constant threats or punishments, it might demoralise an older dog to give up on learning new behaviour, or elicit a response where the dog shuts off from you and refuses to co-operate beyond a certain point. Rewarding good behaviour/new skills generously and showering praise is very effective.
Make sure you commit yourself to a daily training time and stick by it. It takes discipline to drill new behaviours in. Discipline with regard to the training plan correlates very positively with how much you’ll succeed. Some amount of mild negative reinforcement is important to ensure your dog knows you won’t tolerate negative behaviour, harsh punishments will only serve to alienate your dog from you.
On the flip side, there are certain conditions, both physical and mental that can limit your dog’s ability to learn new tricks. Damaged joints or other types of physical immobility can render your dog incapable of performing certain activities. Also, extreme senility, disorientation or neurodegenerative disorders can leave a dog cognitively diminished. It pays to be realistic at the very start about how confident you are with your dog’s ability to learn and execute commands.
Food is always a nice to way to reward your dog for consistent good behaviour or mastering a new skill. Like I’d mentioned before, positive reinforcement like his/her favourite treat will encourage a dog to participate actively in training and enjoy repeatedly doing it. Physical signs of affection like petting or hugging also have a similar effect and can be a way for your dog to bond with you, thereby hastening the learning process.
Training is something that shouldn’t be seen as a means to an end. To a dog, especially an older one, training can be an enriching daily ritual. It offers a lot to them mentally and physically and is also a great way for you to spend quality time with your canine.