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Behaviourist's Corner

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?


However well trained your dog, the aging process can make good behaviours, learned several years ago, feel like a distant memory. We speak to APBC clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar to find out how to get them back


Dog behaviour problems can occur at any time, but as your dog ages, his brain function tends to slow down a little, sometimes making it trickier for him to remember that initial training. As an owner, you may also have become less consistent and relaxed over the years in what you expect from your dog. This all makes it easy for you both to slip into bad habits. You may want to find a dog training refresher course if you need a bit of extra help, but these steps should help establish the good behaviour learnt during initial training and get you both back on track.

Always learning

Although older dogs may not be as alert as they were in their youth, your dog is always learning, so you can teach an old dog new tricks. You'll need kindness and consistency from everyone in the household as positive reinforcement is essential. Bear in mind that an older dog may take longer to learn, and find it a little harder to readjust to any new routines. Work gradually, using plenty of patience and repetition. Too much change too quickly to their routines or behaviours can be stressful for older dogs.


Running off

Coming back to you must always be a positive experience for your dog, or why would he bound back when he's having fun? If his recall is rusty, start periodically putting him on his lead, letting him off for a brief run before recalling him. Repeat this little and often, making sure you praise and reward him when he comes with a treat, stroke or his favourite toy. Introducing a dog whistle can sometimes help with dogs whose hearing is deteriorating, as can obvious and easily seen hand signals. A very old dog may be unable to hear or see properly, or be suffering from dementia, so keep him on a long lead so he feels secure knowing you are there.


Chewing things up

Young dogs chew because they're teething. An older dog who starts chewing items around the house, or being destructive towards things like furniture, carpets or doors, may be finding life boring, or have separation problems, feeling lonely and stressed when you're not there. Try not to tell your dog off for chewing as this could make him more anxious. Try to instead, see if you can work out why he's acting this way by keeping a diary of what he's chewing and when. Is he doing it to get your attention when you're at home? If so, make sure he's having enough exercise and playtime, and has a quality chew toy to enjoy. If you can't pin down what's causing this problem, it's best to speak to an animal behaviourist.


Sleeping on the sofa

You may have trained your dog never to sit on the sofa or jump on the bed but may have allowed him up for a cuddle sometimes as he's got older. Naturally, he'll think these are the new house rules, and he'll be confused if he's welcomed onto the sofa for a cuddle one day and told off for attempting it another. If you want to stop this behaviour, everyone in the household must stick to the same rules. Gently take his paws off the chair as soon as he attempts to jump up and reward him when his feet are firmly back on the floor. Make sure he has a cosy bed of his own by the sofa, ideally where you can lean over to reach him, and praise and reward him when he goes there and stays put. If his own bed is really comfy and he gets lots of rewards and strokes for using it, he should quickly learn that it's a great place to be.


Jumping up on people

The more you make a fuss of your dog when he jumps up to greet you, the more he'll do it — probably to everyone who comes to the house. Help him to revert to a much calmer ‘hello', by only greeting him once he has all four feet on the ground. Avoid eye contact and wait for him to calm and stop jumping. As long as he doesn't suffer from arthritis, as this could aggravate his joints, if he knows the command, say ‘sit' and reward him by greeting him when he obeys. Try not to reprimand him or shout, or you'll alarm and confuse him. Remember, everyone in the house, including visitors, must implement the same behaviour for new habits to stick. A dog gate across an inner doorway can be a useful tool to stop him from jumping at you when you get home. Only greet him once he is calm behind the gate.


Loo accidents

Indoor loo accidents may be caused by medical problems or, in very old dogs, linked to forgetfulness or dementia. See your vet first to check that there are no physical reasons for puddles or poos. If all's clear, your dog probably needs more frequent loo breaks and possibly reminding where you want him to relieve himself outside. Try not to rush him or tell him off for any accidents. Praise him when he gets it right. Some dogs can learn to relieve themselves on command. As he's having a wee, introduce a word or phrase and he should eventually link that with going to the loo.


Excessive barking

Barking is your dog's natural way to communicate, but if he starts barking excessively, try not to respond by shouting back. Ask yourself, why, when and where does he do it, and whether it could be linked to stress, boredom, fear or over-excitement? Try to alleviate whatever's triggering so much barking, such as by restricting his view outside if that's the problem or using a different daily routine. Maybe he starts barking when you're using a noisy appliance; if so, put him in another room or outside with a chew. Try to distract him with something, like squeaking a toy, and the second he stops barking, say ‘quiet' and give him a reward.

We'd love to hear your tips and see how your dog gets on with trying these recommendations. Simply share this on social media, using #PethoodStories


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