Training puppies is an easy endeavor but training an old dog is really hard. Or so you’ve heard. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Wrong on both counts. First off, training any dog, regardless of age, is relatively easy if you use the two most important tools: treats and patience. Declining health might mean your senior dog can’t perform certain tasks, but within his physical limitations, older dogs can learn new things. Puppies may train faster, but older dogs outperform the pups in logic and reasoning tasks. Like humans, they learn from life experiences. They are also able to focus longer than a young dog.
So what to teach your dog to do? Here is a list of tricks to teach any dog of any age. Using the techniques of consistency, repetition, and positive reward, any dog can learn these. Using a clicker to signal correct responses speeds this training up many times over. The most important thing about clicker training is timing. You absolutely must time the click to coincide with the correct behavior. A moment too late and he won’t understand what you are rewarding him for.
- Touch. This is the basic command—targeting— that will be foundational in teaching other tricks. Simply hold out two fingers in front of your dog. When your dog reaches out and touches your fingers, immediately click and then give him his tiny pieces of his favorite treat. After he gets the idea, move your hand away so that the dog must come to your hand in order to touch it. When he is reliably touching your fingers every time you hold them out, add the verbal word, “touch.” (If he’s hearing impaired, just skip the word. The visual gesture will be all he needs.)
- Come. If you have taught touch, give the touch command and hold out your fingers. When he touches your fingers, toss his treat a little ways away from him so he has to go get it. Then command “touch” again and repeat the sequence of command, touch (click), toss, repeat. As soon as he starts eagerly coming to you when he sees your hand outstretched, change the command from “touch” to “come.”
- Lie down. Start with your dog in front of you and hold two fingers out as before. When he touches your fingers, click and treat. Next time, put your fingers on the ground and say “touch.” You’ll be amazed how quickly he will lie down to touch your fingers. Remember to click the moment the behavior is correct. When he’s reliably lying down to touch your fingers, change the command to “lie down.” Repeat it until he will lie down on command.
- Sit. This time, use the touch command to teach your dog to sit. Start out the same way with the dog touching your extended fingers. Then lift the fingers up and slightly over his head. He will lift his head to touch your fingers and will probably lower his hindquarters at the same time. When he is sitting each time you lift your fingers above his head, add the “sit” command.
- Follow. Teaching your dog to follow your moving fingers at this point should be very easy. Keep the fingers just slightly ahead of him and out of his reach. When you finally allow him to touch your fingers, click and reward. This one will be a lot of fun for him, so teaching “follow” will seem more like a game.
- Ring the bell to go outside. One secret of clicker training is to capture behavior you want to reinforce. Instead of extending your fingers, hold a string of bells and command your dog to touch. At first, he may look at you confused. Just wait. Repeat the command “touch” and wiggle the string of bells a little to encourage his attention. As soon as he touches the bells, click and reward. Next, hold the bells a little higher than his nose so he reaches for the bells. When he touches them, click and reward. Next time, move the bells to a door or gate and when he touches them, open the gate and reward him after he passes through the door. You no longer have to verbally cue him, but every time he goes through the gate, take him to his potty spot. Slowly wait to treat him until he is closer to his spot, and eventually stop rewarding him for going outside and reward him for doing his business.
Building on targeting, you can teach your dog to go get things, to pick up his toys, to open doors, and so much more. Any dog of any age can learn this way. So head to your nearest Petland, grab some Lil Gimmes training treats and start mastering some new tricks with your dog! To see videos of how to use this technique with your dog, watch this Treehugger video.