It’s no surprise that most people believe that dog training is only reserved for puppies and young dogs. The obvious thinking is the old saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, the reality is that dogs can learn at any age and, in some cases, older dogs learn faster than puppies because they already have a good sense of self-control, focus, and attention.
To train an older dog, you need to choose a training method and set realistic goals. You may have to undo bad habits that the dog has developed, which will possibly require some patience and take a bit more time. But there’s no reason an older dog can’t learn anything that a puppy can learn, as long as it is within the dog’s physical limitations.
Whether you recently adopted an older dog who lacks training, or you feel like your training during the puppy stage fell by the wayside and your adult dog isn’t as obedient as you would like, all is not lost. Read on to get helpful tips on how to train your older canine companion to your preferred standards.
Factors to Consider Before Training an Older Dog
Like humans, older dogs can be prone to medical conditions that limit the extent of physical training they can engage in. Therefore, before you start training your dog, it is advisable to have your veterinarian check them out to rule out any medical conditions that limit physical training.
Some of the common age-related health conditions among older dogs are impaired cerebral functions, arthritic conditions, kidney problems, and general body weakness.
Once you and your vet have ruled out any underlying health conditions in your dog, you can proceed with your planned training. This applies not only to newly adopted adult dogs, but also to dogs that have been with you over the years since puppyhood.
You should also be aware of any limitations imposed by cognitive or psychological issues before embarking on a training program. Dementia can affect senior dogs, and conditions like separation anxiety and canine autism can also determine your training strategy and expectations.
Training should be fun for both you and your dog, and unrecognized physical limitations can cause discomfort and interfere with the process. Knowing what your dog can and cannot do physically will help make your sessions more productive and enjoyable for both of you.
If your dog is new to you, make sure they have settled in and become comfortable before beginning training. In most cases, dogs experience some degree of anxiety when placed in a new environment. You may sense them acting cold towards you, having housebreaking accidents, or even refusing to eat.
These behaviors should change once the dog gets accustomed to their new home and schedule. Be patient, remain calm, and give them time to adjust.
This doesn’t mean that you should tolerate inappropriate behaviors by the recently arrived dog. You should begin establishing the “new rules” immediately. The sooner your dog learns what is and isn’t allowed, the easier it will be for the dog to comply and succeed.
And when your dog does behave in ways your desire, don’t be shy with rewards — hand out praise and treats liberally for good behaviors! Rewarding helps create a stronger bond between you and your dog in addition to reinforcing good behavior.
Different dogs take different periods to adjust. It may take longer with your dog, but it will eventually happen. Don’t be too hard on your older dog.
What the Dog Already Knows
If you’ve been with your adult dog since puppyhood, then you have a good idea of what they already know and don’t know. However, if you have recently adopted an older dog, you will need to assess its current level of training.
In many cases, your dog might already have learned a behavior, but knows it by a different command or a in a different context. While you might use “down” to command a dog to lie down, your new dog might know “down” to mean to stop jumping on someone.
Take some time with your new dog to learn what it already knows. And remember, your dog is in a completely new situation that likely does not resemble their past. It can be a huge adjustment.
You will also need to take stock of their unwanted behaviors. They may have been allowed to get on the couch or sleep in their owner’s bed, and if you don’t allow these things, you will have to train them to change their habits.
If a dog has never learned how to learn, the challenge of training is greater. Imagine if you had never gone to school in your life and then suddenly as an adult, you were placed in high school and expected to learn. The scenario of an adult dog in a new home is not that different.
When training an older dog, always set reasonable age-related expectations. Remember, an older dog may not be as able to perform tasks that require excessive stamina or strength as as a younger dog might.
Puppies start out with a clean slate and can be easily shaped without having to “unlearn” bad habits. Older dogs have to process new training in the context of all that they have learned in their life.
Therefore, you should manage your expectations and focus on success by teaching simple behaviors.
Choose a Training Method
Different dog owners use different approaches when it comes to dog training. The two most popular methods are reward-based and correction-based. See our detailed explanation of the differences between positive reinforcement training and negative reinforcement training. If you are new to training a dog, we recommend you use the positive only (reward-based) method.
However, one effective way to train your dog is using a positive training approach such as the popular reward-based training and clicker training.
Positive only training is centered on the principle of rewarding your dog’s good behavior. Here, you use rewards, treats, or praise for good behavior while ignoring bad behavior. Your dog starts repeating the good behavior to get rewards while at the same time, he’ll eventually stop the bad behavior for which there are no rewards.
Additionally, clicker training follows the same approach as reward-based training, but here, you use a clicker or other sound instead of treats. A clicker is a sort of a small metal device adapted from a child’s toy that produces sounds to mark the desired behavior.
The main principle in clicker training is to teach the dog to associate the clicking sound of the clicker with a treat or reward. You can use a distinctive sound instead, e.g., a whistle, a snap of the fingers, a click of the tongue, or even a verbal cue such as a word to mark the desired behavior.
Once your dog learns that a click or other sound means a reward is imminent, you can then quickly and specifically “mark” desired behaviors with the click. Simply put, it allows you to reward your dog much more frequently and efficiently, which makes the dog learn much more quickly. It is a method used not just by dog trainers but by animal trainers of many species, including dolphins.
If you are new to training a dog, finding a local group obedience class is a great way for both of you to learn together.
Most rescue dogs will have been introduced to a crate. If not, you should do so immediately. There are many benefits to crate training any dog, but it can be particularly helpful for an older dog that is new to a household.
The best way to avoid housebreaking accidents and chewing on inappropriate objects (shoes, rugs, etc.) is to not give a dog the opportunity to do so. Keeping a dog in a crate when not supervised is the best way to do this.
It is also a great way to help an older dog transition to a new environment with the least possibility of failures. It’s much easier for everyone involved to see a dog start chewing on the corner of an area rug and redirect them to a more appropriate chew toy than to leave them alone in the house and find the entire rug destroyed when you get home.
And because new dogs to a household may be a bit confused as to the rules in their new environment, crate training makes house training accidents much less likely. Just take your dog directly from the crate to the spot when you want them to eliminate, let them go, and then bring them back into the house for supervised play or hang time. This way, there’s no confusion where you want them to pee and poop.
Prepare to Train Your Older Dog
Get Good Training Treats
The best treats for training dogs are ones that are desirable and quickly consumed. You don’t want to have to wait for a dog to chew a biscuit while training. Rather, you want a small, tasty treat that the dog consumes quickly. And you’ll need a lot as you will be dispensing lots of rewards in any given training session. Breaking up larger treats into very small pieces can work well.
For some larger dogs who are food crazy, small pieces of their kibble work fine. Other dogs may need a higher value reward — meaning a “treat” and not just part of their normal meal. Dogs are very good at letting you know which treats make them happiest!
Choose a Specific Training Location
When choosing a training location, look for a place with few distractions, such as your backyard . You want to avoid distractions from other dogs, kids playing, passers-by, and dog toys. This is necessary during your initial training stages since you will need to have your dog’s total focus and attention.
Besides the distraction aspect, your training location should also be safe and comfortable for your dog. By having a specific location for teaching, your dog will know that it’s time to work and that it isn’t just playtime. Knowing this helps them focus, which makes learning easier.
Once your dog has learned some basic commands, you can start “proofing” (testing) them in locations with more distractions.
Training Your Older Dog
Keep the Training Sessions Short
Just as humans have different personalities, so do dogs. This means that different dog breeds have different concentration or attention spans.
As a result, it’s advisable to keep your training sessions short, at no more than 10-20 minutes per session. You can always do more of them throughout the day, depending on your schedule, but no single session should last too long.
Additionally, ensure you remain consistent with your training. Remember to keep it simple as you start and you can adjust later based on the progress. Consistency is a major tenet of dog training.
Be Calm and Patient
Always remember that dogs are very good at reading human emotions. A dog can tell when you are happy or angry with him. Therefore, always try to remain calm. Never scold, shout, or threaten your dog during training (or at any time, actually). Scolding doesn’t have a place in dog training! It instills fear in your dog and can make them cold towards you. This eventually makes the training less successful.
Additionally, always be patient with your dog. Different dogs take different timeframes to master various commands. Don’t have any preconceived expectations as to how quickly your older dog should learn.
Dog training is a lifelong process that may take weeks or even months for a dog to master certain behaviors. Just always keep trying to make some progress and you’ll both remain encouraged.
Teach the Basic Commands
Even if you’re not trying to win an obedience competition, it’s generally a good idea to start out with the basic commands when learning how to train an older dog.
Outlined below are simplified explanations of how to train some of the basics.
Teaching your dog the ‘sit’ command is easy to teach and is incredibly useful through a dog’s life. To teach this command:
- Show your dog the treat in your hand. Place the treat close to the dog’s nose level, then arc the treat up above its nose. The dog should lean back naturally into a sitting position.
- Once the dog’s butt hits the ground, reward with the treat or a click (if you are clicker training)
- As the dog gets the hang of it, you can introduce the command by saying “sit” first, and then proceeding as above. The dog will soon learn that “sit” means perform the behavior.
- Once your dog learns to obey the ‘sit’ command, you can slowly reduce the frequency of rewards, providing them only every few commands.
- Once learned you can begin to ask your dog to sit when you are out walking or in other more distracting situations to gauge their reaction in different environments. Of course, if the dog doesn’t comply, you don’t reward.
The “recall” or “come when called” is perhaps the most important behavior to teach a dog. It’s also one of the hardest for a dog to master to a degree of 100% reliability. Here’s how to get started:
- Make sure you are in a secure, quiet area to train.
- Start by crouching down next to your dog and excitedly offer a treat. Be as excited as possible — the dog must believe that coming to you is the greatest thing ever! Reward with a treat and TONS of praise.
- Then, introduce the “come” command. Every time your pal responds, give them a treat. Rewarding makes your dog know that coming to you when called is a good thing. It also helps capture his attention easily.
- Next, start gradually stepping further away from your dog. Begin by getting a few steps away and then issuing the ‘come’ command; if they responds, reward accordingly.
- Continue by running further away from the dog and issuing the command in more distracting environments. Continue rewarding them and gradually reduce the treats as they gets accustomed to responding to the instructions.
- NEVER scold or punish a dog when they comes to you, regardless of what they may have done wrong. Coming to you should be treated as the greatest behavior they could possibly accomplish. It could save their life some day.
Teaching your older dog the ‘stay’ command is an extension of the ‘sit’ command.
- Begin by telling your dog to sit.
- Now, say “stay” (it’s also smart to incorporate a hand signal such as a flat palm extended towards them) and then take a step away from them. Pause for a second and then return and reward and praise (if they don’t move)
- DON’T repeat the command! If you say “stay, stay, stay, stay”, the dog will learn to stay on the fourth “stay”!
- Gradually increase the distance and time (but not both at once). If you are consistent, your dog will quickly pick up on this fun task and work hard for their reward.
- As your dog gets better and better, you can start introducing distractions to build up their ability. Eventually, you will be able to leave the room and come back without the dog leaving the stay position. As you can imagine, this is a very useful behavior to learn.
These basic commands will help your dog relate and bond with you as well as learn. Remember, be patient with your dog and remain consistent in your training. It’s as much fun for you to see your dog learn as it is for your dog.
Address Behavioral Issues
In addition to basic obedience, various behavioral issues may present themselves with an older dog.
Some adopted dogs come fully house trained, others not at all, and some are uncertain about how their previous owner’s rules translate to their new environment.
For those with issues, it’s easiest to just start at square one with housebreaking and move forward as the dog succeeds. Avoiding accidents is the quickest way to success; the more accidents your dog has, the slower the process.
As mentioned above, crate training is your friend in this endeavor. A dog normally won’t soil their crate, so they will likely be accident-free inside. If you take them directly outside and let them go, their chances for failure are greatly minimized. Always reward a dog in house training with a treat and lots of praise when they go in the correct area.
If your older dog does have an accident in the house, NEVER scold or punish the dog in any way. If you see it happening, a quick “no” to get their attention and hopefully interrupt their business, and then get them outside as quickly as possible. If you don’t see the accident happen, it is way too late to do anything other than clean it up and strive to not allow the dog that opportunity again. Trying to shame the dog will never, ever work, regardless what others might tell you.
While all dogs like digging, it’s not pleasant to see your beautiful yard get torn up. Older dogs that have been allowed to dig in the past can be challenging to retrain.
The best strategy is to limit the opportunities for them to dog (notice a pattern here?). Supervision at all times should be mandatory.
A bored or under-exercised dog is more likely to dig as well, so taking your dog on adequate walks and providing them with toys and play to engage their mind will also go a long ways towards solving this issue.
If a dog has started digging a hole in your yard, you can cover it with a plant pot or lawn furniture so it doesn’t continue to tempt them. See our guide to cultivating a dog-resistant lawn for more advice on this topic.
You already know that your dog shouldn’t be left unsupervised to chew on household items that don’t belong to them. But if you do see your dog start to chew on an item such a shoe, immediately offer the dog a chew toy or bone as an alternative, taking away the shoe and replacing it with the toy. If you are consistent with this strategy, your dog will soon learn what is and isn’t appropriate to chew.
While most people are charmed by the cute, little, furry puppy jumping up on them, it’s not the same with older dogs. No one wants the dirty paws of a full grown dog all over them, even if it’s not the dog’s fault they were never trained properly.
To stop this, instead of making eye contact and petting your dog whenever he jumps at you, you should immediately start acting cold towards him. Anytime your dog comes jumping at you, turn your back and ignore them (although it seems rude or harsh, this response pays). Now, wait until they are down on their four legs, and then offer a reward.
Do this often until your pup learns that rewards only come when they are sitting. Be calm, and don’t shout or knee them away! By doing so, your dog will eventually learn to stop jumping up on you. Have friends who visit your home perform the same procedure so your dog learns that the rule applies to everyone.
Training an older dog can be challenging, but mainly because they already have some pre-established behaviors. However, with the right method, practice, consistency, and patience, you can learn how to train an older dog so it behaves in a manner that makes life more enjoyable for both of you.