Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks


Almost every day in my veterinary clinic I hear the immortal words (or some version, there of) - “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Wrong, wrong, wrong! A dog’s ability to learn does not shut off like a light switch at some point in his or her life.

The first rule we need to understand is that dogs do not all learn at the same rate. Learning ability and intelligence are not necessarily synonymous. Some dogs that we would consider dumb, because they can’t follow orders, are actually very smart but see no reason to please their indulgent owners (Anybody out there have a cat?). This is where a qualified obedience trainer can help.

Introverts and Extroverts

Most obedience classes consist of six sessions for puppies and ten classes for novice level or higher. Some dogs will have commands learned in half that time; others may seem to take forever and need to repeat the class. Dogs, like children, also have attention spans that vary in length.

Personalities affect learning. A frightened timid dog needs to be re-assured and led slowly through classes, with strict attention to confidence building. A young dog with barbarian tendencies needs to learn to slow down and pay attention. If we were talking about children, we would call them introverts and extroverts. To mold a basic personality to facilitate the ability to learn, it is critical to start as early as six to seven weeks of age.

A person’s introduction to learning and their attitudes when exposed to new things affect them throughout their lives. This is where that old dog cliché originated. My eleven-year old obedience champion Labrador began to learn early. Now, when I wanted to teach him a new trick or command, you can literally see him trying to puzzle out what I want. As he progresses through the act with praise for correct behaviour or gentle corrections for incorrect behaviour, he moves forward towards the completed trick with confidence. An older dog that was not exposed to obedience at a young age will likely progress more slowly. But that doesn’t mean he can’t learn! He would lose confidence when a correction is given and having difficulty associating the praise with the correct action to repeat it. Any old dog can learn new tricks.

If you want to teach your dog (of any age) and reap the benefits of having a well-trained animal, there are many excellent obedience trainers offering classes. Contact your local dog associations, animal control, humane society, or your own veterinarian for a list of names. There are many different types of trainers and methods; sit in on some classes and look around until you find a trainer that suits you and your dog.

Article submitted by: © Terri Perrin (Biography & Additional Information)