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How to train an older dog

29/04/2019 - Latest News

It’s never too late to brush up on your dog training skills. Sean Pickering, a qualified dog trainer from Essex shares his tips on how to train an older dog.

  • No dog is too old to learn new behaviours
  • Bad habits CAN be broken
  • Understand why your dog is showing unwanted behaviours
  • Be patient and consistent. Don’t give up
  • Use force-free training techniques to teach the dog to make better choices
  • Work with a dog trainer for best results
No dog is too old to learn new behaviours
Just because your pooch has passed the first flush of youth, it doesn’t mean that you have to put up with unwanted behaviours. Perhaps you’ve adopted an older dog or maybe your lifestyle has changed and the dog needs to adapt. With the right training, older dogs can change their ways. It’s simply a matter of teaching them how to behave differently in any given situation.

Your dog’s bad habits can be broken
Typically, when a person decides to give up a certain behaviour, they find something to replace that behaviour. Eg swapping cigarettes for sweeties.  But the “new” behaviour has to produce a better reward than the original. That’s why giving up chocolate and eating low calorie crackers is rarely successful in the long term.

Exactly the same thing happens with dogs. If you want your older dog to stop chasing squirrels and come to you called you’ve got to offer a great reward.  It’s a step by step process.
  • Start somewhere with no distractions (at home or at the dog trainers)
  • Practice calling your dog and every time he responds to the recall cue, reward him with something awesome. Go for a high value treat like pieces of chicken or sausage slices.
  • When the recall is really reliable with no disruptions, introduce a small distraction – perhaps start working in the back garden where there are more noises and smells.
  • Keep building up the level of distraction but maintain, or even increase, the value of the treats (value to the dog, not you!)
  • When you are ready to go into squirrel territory, have your dog on a long lead for your own peace of mind, let him sniff about and enjoy his walk as normal. If you see the squirrel, deploy the recall BEFORE he tries to chase it.
  • Remember, you will need to keep practicing, keep reinforcing good behaviour and stay vigilant so that doggo doesn’t get led astray by those cheeky squirrels.
  • It will take time, but you can do it.

Your dog’s bad habits can be changed – if you use the right techniques.

Understand why your dog is showing unwanted behaviours
Many unwanted behaviours in our pets are actually fear based. Reacting badly to dogs, people, bicycles etc are often the result of either a bad experience, or inadequate socialisation earlier in the dog’s life. In the dog’s mind, if you bark or growl at a scary thing it will go away.

Destructive behaviour is sometimes a way for a dog to cope with anxiety. Read my blog on destructive dogs.

Some unwanted behaviour is the opposite of fear – the dog is so excited that it can’t help jumping up, barking, spinning around etc. Here’s my blog about calming an excited dog.

It’s important to match the training technique to the REASON for the behaviour.

Be patient and consistent
Dogs learn by association. So if “good” behaviour earns a piece of chicken every time but unwanted behaviours are ignored, which do you think the dog will choose most often?

The dog will need to test the association lots of times before his brain confirms that “doing x earns me y”.  That’s why you must be consistent and patient….trust me, it’s worth it.

I’ve trained hundreds of dogs but that lightbulb moment when the dog finally “gets it”, still gives me a buzz.  

Force Free Training Techniques
Dogs are very much like humans in some respects.  When deciding how to react to a situation they’ll ask themselves “what’s in it for me?”.  We all do it – sometimes without realising. The aim of dog training is to get your dog to react in the right way without taking time to think.

A good analogy is traffic lights. People will stop at a red light without making a conscious decision. We just do. There’s nothing to physically stop us from running a red light but in a split second the human brain weighs up the pros and cons and decides to stop. The brain knows that for the sake of adding 2 minutes to the journey time, it’s not worth risking an accident or a fine.

If in the past, your dog has been punished harshly he will have associated that with what happened immediately before the telling off. Dog chases squirrel, ignores owner until the squirrel has disappeared, goes back to owner, gets told off.  The next time dog chases squirrel and hears its name being called his brain says “What’s in it for me? –Punishment – I think I’ll stay here”. The dog associates returning to the owner with punishment.  If on the other hand, a speedy recall earned a reward – well what would you do?

Force free or reward based dog training involves understanding doggy minds and building positive associations so that the dog makes the right choice every time.

Working with a dog trainer
 A second set of eyes absolutely invaluable when you are training any dog, but particularly an older dog who may have well established behavioural patterns.  Working with a qualified dog trainer will help you to understand what is going on in your dog’s head and how best to approach a problem.

Understanding dogs at all of their different life stages requires quite a lot of study and experience. Cashing in on someone else’s knowledge is by far the best way to learn (it’s why we send our children to school!).

Get help with training your adult dog

Join a dog training class

Meet Sean for a 1-2-1 dog training session

Residential training for older dogs