New tricks for old dogs – is it possible?


Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.) Canine Behaviourist and Tellington Ttouch® practitioner

Let’s get over the idea that older dogs can’t learn new tricks. They can. We’re not talking about balancing a ball on the end of his nose (although that can be done) but about enriching both your lives through activities you enjoy together.

We know that it’s never too late to learn. If we have the belief that we can learn, we do it; if we believe we can’t, we don’t. Dogs are a little different. On the whole they are not limited by the cognitive beliefs that so often hold us back. They don’t do ‘I can’t’. They only know ‘I can’. That’s why, no matter what their age may be, they are able to learn.

We, ourselves, may be held back by our belief that our dogs can’t learn. This belief results in our accepting, even enduring, unwanted behaviour. People are often surprised at how well the older dog actually responds to new ‘tricks’. The only ‘stumbling block’ may be that older dogs sometimes have physical limitations, so don’t expect your couch potato to suddenly hop into active agility – it could harm them – so it’s a good idea to check with your vet before embarking on any highly active exercise. We have to be careful.

All dogs, no matter what their age, require physical and mental stimulation. 

Physical stimulation comes with walking on and off leash where appropriate. Walking should be fun for you and your dog; it deepens the bond between you. A happy walk has a dog that behaves, in our terms, well. The dog walks loosely on leash, interacts well with other people and dogs, and comes when called. You are both focused on the walk, despite the ever-present ringing of your cellphone and dog distractions such as squirrels. Some dogs love swimming, and, with older dogs, this is great because it takes the pressure off the joints, creating more freedom of movement. Playing catch and fetch also help to keep a dog active.

Mental stimulation comes with training. Using humane, positive reinforcement is proven to work well, based on the principle that rewarded behaviours are most likely to be repeated. Because food is a powerful motivator, the most frequently used reward for a dog is a yummy treat, but toys such as a ball can also be effective. An easy form of mental stimulation, therefore, revolves around food. Taking a portion of their daily diet and stuffing it into a Kong feeder is a wonderful way to get the dog working out how to get at the food. You can also devise any number of similar activities such as hiding treats and getting the dog to work out how to get them. Try an egg box, with the treat covered by a ball or lid. Treats hidden under yoghurt containers, sprinkled on the ground, or tumbling in an empty cool drink bottle are all good – just make sure any plastic is removed once the game is over.

Having a toy collection, from which you select one or two, can enrich the environment. Make time for play – it can be a ball, tug of war, or a squeaky toy.

Then there’s basic training – and you can start this at home. This lays the foundation for teaching basic cues such as ‘sit’, ‘come’ and ‘leave’. You may want to attend dog school if they offer appropriate classes for older dogs.

Other activities for older dogs include training to be therapy dogs. They are used for hospital or old age home visits, and for helping people with mental or physical issues. You and your dog need special training for this work.

Happy dogs and happy owners are those who work together and have fun together. The possibilities are endless, so why not see what works for you and your dog?

Because you can learn new tricks – and so can your dog.