Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

However well-trained your dog, the ageing process can make all those good behaviours he learned feel like a distant memory. So can you train an older dog and get him back into better habits? Absolutely, says APBC clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar.


Dog behaviour problems can occur at any time of life. But as your dog ages, his brain function tends to slow down a little – which can make it trickier for him to remember his early training. After all, it’s only natural to notice some behaviour changes in a senior dog.

As an owner, you may also have become less consistent and more relaxed over the years about what you expect from your dog. This makes it easy for you both to slip into bad habits. You might like to find a dog training refresher course if you need a bit of extra help. But these tips should help re-establish the good behaviours from his early training and get you both back on track.

How to train a senior dog

Although older dogs may not be quite as alert as they used to be, 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 new routines. Work gradually, using plenty of patience and repetition. Too much change, too quickly, can be stressful for older dogs, so use age-appropriate training techniques.

Recall training for older dogs

Coming back to you must always be a positive experience for your dog. Why else would he bound back when he’s having fun? If his recall is rusty, start putting him on his lead, letting him off for a brief run, then recalling him. Repeat this regularly, making sure you praise and reward him with a treat, stroke or toy when he returns.

Introducing a dog whistle, or easily seen hand signals, can help with senior dogs whose hearing is deteriorating. A very old dog may be unable to hear or see properly, or be suffering from dementia – keep him on a long lead, so he feels secure knowing you are there.

Is your older dog chewing things?

Chewing is a natural behaviour in dogs, but it can get out of hand. An older dog who suddenly starts chewing household items or being destructive towards things like furniture, carpets or doors, may be finding life boring – or experiencing separation anxiety when you’re not around.

Try not to tell your dog off for chewing, as this could make him more anxious. Instead, see if you can work out why he’s acting this way, by keeping a diary of his chewing behaviour. 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 quality chew toys to enjoy. If you can’t pin down the cause and help him reduce chewing it’s best to speak to an animal behaviourist.

How to stop your dog jumping onto the sofa

You may once have trained your dog never to sit on the sofa or bed – but allowed him up for a snuggle sometimes as he’s got older. Naturally, he’ll think these are the new house rules! He’ll be confused if he’s welcomed for a cuddle on the couch one day, but told off for attempting it another time.

If you want to stop sofa-jumping 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. Praise and treat him when he goes there and stays put. If his own bed is comfy and he gets lots of rewards and strokes for using it, he should quickly learn that it’s a great place to be.

Encouraging your dog not to jump up on people

The more you make a fuss of your older dog when he jumps up to greet you, the more he’ll do it to everyone. 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 down and stop jumping. If he knows the command ‘sit’, use it (as long as he doesn’t suffer from arthritis, so hunkering down will aggravate his joints). Reward him by greeting him when he obeys.

Try not to reprimand your dog, or shout, as you’ll only 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.

Toilet problems in an old dog

Indoor loo accidents may be caused by medical problems or, in very old dogs, be 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 might need reminding of 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 be trained to relieve themselves on command. As he’s having a wee, introduce a word or phrase – he should eventually link that with going to the loo.

Addressing barking in older dogs

Barking is your dog’s natural way to communicate. If your older dog keeps barking, 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 the barking, such as 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 a squeaky toy – and the second he stops barking, say ‘quiet’, and give him a reward.

In addition to tackling any specific bad habits that may have arisen, you can keep your older dog mentally stimulated by using appropriate brain games and activities. You can also ease the ageing process by making sure he has comfortable bedding to sleep in and stepping up health checks so that you keep on top of any changes in his physical condition.

We’d love to hear how your dog is getting on with his training. Share your stories on social media using the tag #PethoodStories


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