Many people believe that it’s next to impossible to train an older pet to do…well, pretty much anything. Is there any truth to the old adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Positive-reinforcement trainer Laurie Luck, owner of Smart Dog University, took a few moments to share some insights on working with more mature pets.
“It’s not harder at all to teach an older dog, as long as you’re training a new behavior,” Laurie says. “If you’re trying to un-train a bad habit and then train a new one, it will definitely take longer. But dogs are capable of learning at any age.”
While working with older dogs, keep in mind they may have some physical limitations (such as hearing or vision loss, or arthritis) that make training more of a challenge. It’s best to train the word along with a hand signal, and to train on a non-slip surface like a mat or carpet. Shorter sessions are best, because more senior dogs may not have the physical endurance that a young dog does. If the dog doesn’t have any previous training, he or she needs to “learn how to learn” before training can progress. The easiest way to do this is to start with a simple command like “focus” or “touch.” Finally, cut back on Rover’s regular rations if using food to train; less active
pets can pack on the pounds quickly if too many extra calories become part of their diets.
On the flip side, there are a lot of great advantages to training an older dog! Their attention spans are much longer than that of puppies, and they are less distractable. Going into training with a senior dog also means knowing their likes, dislikes, and triggers. For example, is this a food-motivated dog? Or does a favorite toy work better as a reward? The best benefit of all, though, is that “training an older dog is really a kindness,” Laurie shared. “Physically, maybe they can’t go for walks anymore, but they can definitely use their brains!”
Cat lovers, take note—it’s absolutely possible to train cats, too! Cats are just as smart as dogs are, but they tend to not be as motivated to please or to respond to commands as are their canine counterparts. A favorite treat or even catnip can be a reward. For some cats, pieces of dry cat food work well too. Cats can be taught to sit, speak, come when called, and even fetch! The Humane Society of the US has some great beginner’s advice on training cats here.