The benefits of training your elderly dog
We’ve all heard the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but nothing could be further from the truth. We may need to modify some of our tricks and stop asking a dog with bad hips to sit, but any dog at any age is ready (and happy!) to learn. Training your senior dog will enrich their life, provide much-needed mental exercise, and help keep them mentally sharp.
Transferring verbal cues (that your senior may no longer be able to hear) to hand or touch signals is a great way to get started. Even though your dog may have stopped being able to hear the verbal cues you are using, they still know how to do them, and it will only take a few short training sessions to teach them to respond to a new cue.
Transfer a cue
To transfer an old cue to a new cue, practice the cues in pairs. Count out about 10 small (pea-sized), soft training treats. Show your dog your new cue (a hand signal or touch to their body) then give the old cue (if your dog can still hear a little). Praise and treat when they get it right, then repeat nine more times. If your dog can’t hear at all you will need to help them with luring.
My favorite cue to teach senior dogs is to target and follow my hand with their nose. Hand targeting can be useful for teaching your senior to come, move when you need them to move, stand, and a lot of other fun and useful tricks!
When my senior Kyla started losing her hearing I transferred her verbal cue “Come” to a hand target. Now when I need her to come close I hold my hand out with my palm facing her and she “runs” over to touch her nose to my hand. To teach this cue, count out 10 soft pea-sized treats, put your empty hand with your palm facing your dog about 2 inches away from your dog’s nose, then, when they touch your palm with his or her nose, praise and give a treat.
While working on new cues, keep in mind your dogs’ physical limitations. I stopped asking Kyla to sit several years ago as she is arthritic and has hip problems. We now work on stand (which is pretty easy because she stands all the time), come, and nose targeting.
Teaching your old dog new tricks is good for him or her and you in many ways. For one, continuing to learn help keeps the mind healthy. It also provides you and your companion a “language” you can both use and understand, keeping you connected and making life easier for you both. And of course, as always, training/learning activities never stop nurturing the bond between you and your best friend.
Jennifer Biglan, owner of Training Spot in Eugene, OR, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in Eugene, OR. She knew she wanted to work with animals at a young age. After graduating from the U of O and volunteering at a dog shelter, she found her calling. Jennifer is well known through the community, and by many area veterinarians for her work in solving behavior problems, and she has extensive knowledge and background training dogs. Learn more about Training Spot at trainingspot.us or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.