That old saying about an old dog not being able to learn new tricks is not at all correct. In many cases, an older dog that is calm, focussed, and less distracted is easier to teach, and they often require less repetition to learn a few new moves.
The key to teaching an older dog is to work with the dog’s natural behavior and his or her physical abilities. For example, if an old dog has difficulty in sitting and standing, avoid tricks that require this time of movement. Instead, focus on tricks that allow the dog to do activities and movements that are easy and do not cause any type of discomfort.
Building On Tricks
A simple and effective tip for working with older dogs is to build on tricks the dog already knows. If your dog already knows how to lie down, teaching her or him to play dead is both building on from the “down” command and tying into a natural behavior.
Start by having your dog lie down and wait patiently. When he or she rolls over on his or her side, give the play dead command and provide immediate treats and praise. Alternatively, if your dog is clicker trained, use the clicker followed by the command and treats.
Over time, start to provide the “play dead” command when the dog is resting. Soon he or she will be rolling over on his or her side, with the option to continue adding on to a more dramatic pose.
Learning to Fetch Different Toys
Older dogs that love to fetch can be taught a less physically demanding option. Start by choosing your dog’s favorite toy and naming it. Play fetch and use the toy’s name, providing an immediate reward when the dog brings it to you.
Then, introduce another toy. Be sure to use very different names to avoid any confusion. Put away the first toy and focus on the second using the same method. Once the dog has that mastered, try putting out both toys and asking the dog to retrieve one or the other. Over time, some dogs can learn several different names and identify the specific toys or objects given in the command.
Using three plastic cups and a treat, it is possible to teach your dog to play a version of the shell game. Hide the treat under one cup and move the cups around, then give the dog the “find” command. When he or she turns over the right cup, the treat becomes the reward.
Keep training times short, and be sure to provide lots of praise and healthy, small treats for a job well done. This is a terrific way to spend time and continue to bond with an older dog while keeping you both engaged in the training experience.