Chances are, when you first got your dog, you spent many hours training new behaviors and teaching him the rules of your household. Now that your dog is a senior, training might be the furthest thing from your mind. After all, isn’t good behavior one of the benefits of an older dog? Well, continuing or restarting a training program with your senior dog has many benefits, too.
According to trainer, breeder, and AKC GoodDog! Helpline program manager Penny Leigh, CPDT-KA, your dog will be healthier and happier if he stays physically and mentally active in his senior years. “Dogs that still feel useful and that they have a ‘job’ tend to keep a youthful outlook, much like humans who continue to stay engaged in activities after they retire.” Leigh also explains that maintaining a training program with your senior dog will help continue to strengthen the owner-dog bond.
Training is a chance for fun one-on-one time with your canine companion that provides him with the attention he craves. Particularly for dogs trained with positive methods, training sessions are enjoyable time spent with their beloved owner. There is no reason to stop offering the stimulation and attention that training provides, just because your dog has gotten older and mastered the basics. Participating in a patient and consistent training program can help keep your dog’s mind stimulated and keep him more engaged with you and your family.
Plus, there are always new things for your older dog to learn. Leigh says, “It is definitely not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Before starting any new training program, it is wise to have your vet give your dog the all clear. For some senior dogs, the physical demands of dog sports like agility or flyball might be too much. But other canine athletes compete as seniors, although the jumps may be set lower than for younger competitors. According to Leigh, trick training and rally are both great choices for older dogs. She also suggests scent work. “The sport puts their noses to work, but it does not require long hikes or physically strenuous work — and you can even practice in your living room,” she says.
However, you might need to make some adjustments to your training program once your dog enters his golden years. Senior dogs may show cognitive changes, such as sleeping more than they used to or having accidents in the house. Leigh mentions they might also respond more slowly to your training cues and interact less with their human family members.
There may be additional physical changes that affect what they can handle or how they respond. For example, they might move a little slower or take more time to lie down and stand up because of stiff joints. According to Leigh, a further consideration is that “Older dogs, just like older humans, may not see or hear as well as they did in their younger years.”
If that is the case, you may need to adjust how you communicate with your dog. If you find the subtle hand signals you were using to cue him to lie down or sit aren’t as effective anymore, it could simply be because he can’t see them as well. Switch to a verbal cue or make your hand signals more obvious. Similarly, if your dog’s hearing is compromised, you might find your verbal requests being ignored. Speak up or add in hand signals to help him understand what you’re saying.
Be sure to take your dog’s physical and mental abilities into consideration when choosing what to train. If he is suffering from arthritis, for example, teaching him to beg or jump the high bar may not be the best choice. Be realistic about what his mind and body can handle. Leigh suggests keeping your training sessions short and positive. “Teach everything in very short steps and work up to the ‘finished product.’ If you see any signs of your dog getting physically or mentally tired, stop for the day or a few hours until he has rested.”
Leigh also encourages owners to discover what really motivates their senior dog and use that as a reward when training a new skill. “If your dog is food-motivated, make sure you use a very enticing special treat.” When choosing treats, consider nutritious items with age-related benefits, such as antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids. Take the same consideration with your senior dog’s food, and choose one appropriate for his stage of life.
Leigh encourages dog owners never to think of their senior dogs as retired, but to keep working with them as they age because there are so many advantages. Training older dogs will help “keep them in good physical shape and at a good healthy weight, and will also keep them mentally and socially engaged through training and outings.” And don’t forget, a positive training program is enriching and fun. Best of all, says Leigh, “Your dog will thank you!”