How to train an older dog

Written by Rosie BescobyRosie is a fully qualified Clinical Animal Behaviourist with a degree in Zoology & Psychology and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling. She is an ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist, a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (No. 1006), and registered as both a Clinical Animal Behaviourist & as an Animal Training Instructor with the Animal Behaviour & Training Council. Pure Pet FoodPure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. - Our editorial process

Many owners think that training begins and ends in puppyhood, but in actual fact, you and your dog should continue with training throughout their life. Not only does it keep their memory fresh so that they remember commands, but it also helps to build and strengthen your bond together and provides a lot of enrichment for your pooch.

Although you allegedly can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the saying couldn’t be further from the truth. Dogs continue learning their whole life, and as adults, they are usually more focused on training sessions and have developed a better understanding of what you’re asking them to do.

So whether you’ve recently adopted an older dog who needs some extra socialisation and training, or you just want to provide stimulation and new tricks for your current pooch, how can you train an older dog?

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How to train an older dog

There are many reasons you might need to train an older dog. Perhaps you’ve rehomed an older dog who has little basic training or needs to learn toilet training. Even a trained rescue dog needs refreshers to make sure they settle into their new furever home and learn the house rules. Equally, a dog you’ve had from puppyhood requires continued training just to keep them obedient and mentally stimulated.

Training an older dog isn’t a whole world away from training a puppy, and many of the same principles remain the same.

Keep it positive

The most important thing is that you should only ever use positive training methods. Rewarding desirable behaviour with verbal praise, pets, food, and toys will encourage that behaviour to be repeated. You might also want to look into methods such as clicker training.

Positivity is key because you want your dog to feel good about what they are learning and spending time with you. But ‘positive’ should not equal ‘permissive’. Teaching your dog to control themselves around anything they want in life is important and you can simply prevent them from gaining access until they show self-control.

Positive punishment should be avoided because your dog can become distrusting of you and become fearful of anything around them at the time the aversive stimulus was delivered. We know that we can train dogs effectively using kind methods, so we don’t need to resort to using anything your dog finds unpleasant or painful.

Whilst you should always try to set up your dog’s environment so that you can reinforce behaviour that you like (and then gradually increase the distractions and difficulty so that they learn to continue getting it right regardless of where they are or what is going on around them), inevitably there will be times when they exhibit behaviour that we don’t like. If we are unable to pre-empt the unwanted behaviour and set them up for success, we can distract them (without giving them any attention or startling/scaring them)and redirect them into more appropriate behaviour that you can reward.

For example, if your dog is barking at you whilst you are trying to work, get up and walk away from them- go to do something that makes your dog stop barking and naturally come to investigate. Then ask your dog to go to their bed and reward them for settling with a stuffed Kong.

Tips for training an older dog

As above, it’s important to keep all your training enjoyable for you and the dog and to use positive reinforcement like praise, treats, and toys. Never punish a dog during training because they either don’t know what you’re asking them to do, or need reminding, so it isn’t usually deliberate misbehaviour if they don’t do as you ask. Refresher training is just as important for building your bond and their obedience, and punishing could just damage their trust.

As hard as it can be sometimes, be patient with your pooch. An older dog (especially if they have lived elsewhere) will have habits to break and will need to learn that new behaviours are more reinforcing than previously learned behaviours.

Set your dog up for success by training them in a safe, distraction-free environment. Your dog is more likely to listen and not wander off to chase a squirrel or find a toy if there are none nearby. Once your dog knows a command, make sure to “proof” their training in other environments like other rooms of the house or outdoor spaces. New locations can sometimes throw a dog off-piste, so be realistic and patient. Keep persisting and training regularly until your pooch can respond reliably in all environments.

Speaking of setting them up for success, don’t push a dog too much. Keep your training sessions relatively short, such as two 15 minute sessions per day, to prevent your pooch from losing focus and energy. Training takes up a lot of mental concentration and some physical effort, but many dogs will continue to do as you say and try to please you and get overtired.

Depending on your dog’s breed, they might be able to have a slightly longer session. Some biddable breeds can hold their concentration for longer, and these tend to be working dogs like Border Collies, Springer Spaniels, Labradors, German Shepherds, etc.

Remember to keep training sessions regular. Because dogs thrive on structure and routine, keeping things regular means your pup is more likely to remember what you’re teaching them. If you attend obedience classes or dog sports with your pooch, remember to continue their training at home. Like any skill for a human or hound, practice makes perfect!

If you’re training a senior dog, be mindful of surfaces because slippery floors can splay their legs and hurt their joints and make them reluctant to move or perform certain actions.

Training doesn't just mean tricks

Good training is more than just teaching your pup basic obedience and a few tricks. It involves anything that tests your pup’s cognitive ability and requires them to learn.

Puzzle toys and activity feeders are a great supplement to training. These toys and puzzles still count as “training” because they require your pooch to use their problem-solving abilities to work out how to get their reward and memorise how they did it. They also provide plenty of enrichment and stimulation, which is one of the main reasons you should continue training.

You could also try learning a new skill or sport together such as agility or flyball. This is a great outlet for active dogs and is a fantastic way for you and your pooch to bond and do something together.

Scent games and scent training are another important training and enrichment activity for any dog, but it is especially good for nosy pups or less active dogs.

Scent training for older dogs

Sniffing around activates a big section of your pup’s brain to process and locate smells, and can help to tire out energetic pooches and prevent cognitive decline in senior doggos. Smelling takes a lot of concentration and can help to focus your dog while providing an alternative form of enrichment and exercise. A good scent game can be as tiring as a walk or training session!

Your pup has a nose 10,000-100,000x more powerful than you do and can sniff out a teaspoon of salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool, so you can use that super-powered nose to your advantage. Easy scent games and training include taking some of their dinner and hiding it in toys or around the house for them to find. You can also use scent games, such as hiding and retrieving a specific toy.

The benefits of training an older dog

Puppies and adult dogs can regress in their training or push the boundaries every now and again, so continued training is a must to prevent rebelliousness, bad habits, and bad behaviour. On the other hand, continued training helps to solidify everything your dog has learned and increase their obedience. Training also gives you and the pooch an opportunity to build your bond and gives you both some time together one-on-one without distractions.

Dogs love routine, and just like walkies and dinnertime, regular training sessions become another exciting thing to look forward to. Not least because it’s quality time with their human!

If you adopted a dog, they might have some bad habits, gaps in their training, or behaviours you want to change. Continued training helps to fill any gaps and teach your dog boundaries and house rules that you want to uphold.

Training also provides enrichment and mental stimulation for your dog at any age, helping to keep them happy and avoid behavioural issues stemming from boredom.

Continued training tests your dog’s cognitive ability and keeps their mind sharp. This is great for helping to tire out rambunctious pups but it is also important for older dogs who need alternative enrichment as they cannot walk as far or play as much, and it can prevent cognitive decline.

Last but not least, you might find you can teach an old dog new tricks after all! Teaching any dog a new trick always brings a great sense of enjoyment and accomplishment.