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Myth Busted: You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Myth Busted: You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

You know the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Well, we’re busting that myth. It’s actually possible, and we’ll prove it in this article. 

Keep reading to learn about training older dogs and why you might want to. If your dog has behavioral problems or things to learn after its puppy years, there’s still hope. 

Let’s get into it.

Where Did the Idiom “You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks” Come From?

The idiom “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” means you can’t make others change their habits. In other words, it’s difficult to make someone learn something new when they aren’t interested in it or have formed certain habits their whole life. 

The idiom is one of the oldest in the English language and originated from John Fitzherbert’s The Boke of Husbandry in 1534

Fitzherbert wrote, “…and he [a shepherd] muste teche his dogge to barke whan he wolde haue hym, to ronne whan he wold haue hym, and to leue ronning whan he wolde haue hym; or els he is not a cunninge shepeherd. The dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or els it will not be: for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe.” 

Translation into new English, “…and he [a shepherd] must teach his dog to bark when he would have him, to run when he would have him, and to stop running when he would have him; or else he is not a cunning shepherd. The dog must learn it when he is a whelp (puppy) or else it will not be: for it is hard to make an old dog to comply.”

Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks? 

Unlike what the idiom suggests, when it comes to canines you can teach an old dog new tricks. Dogs don’t stop the ability to learn new things after their puppy years. However, they can fall into habits and routines that may make it more difficult to train them in their senior years. 

Think of it like a human who didn’t grow up with computers having to learn how to build a website. The person will likely have a longer training period than someone who grew up in a computerized world. 

It’s similar to dogs. For example, if you didn’t teach your puppy to do the “roll over” trick, it’s possible to train it to do so when it’s older. But it will take longer for it to learn, and they may not be as nimble as they were when they were a puppy. 

How Long Does It Take an Old Dog to Learn New Tricks? 

Studies show that it can take up to four weeks for an old dog to learn new things. And that’s with regular daily practice. It may not seem like a long time, but repeating the training multiple times be daunting. So, patience is key anytime you teach an old dog something. 

Of course, the length of time also depends on other factors, such as the difficulty of the trick, the training skills of the trainer, and the motivation level of your dog, to name a few. Keep reading to dive further into these considerations.

canine lying on floor
If you’ve adopted a senior dog, it may need to learn new behaviors or unlearn bad ones from its previous home.

What’s the Point of Teaching My Old Dog New Tricks?

Your dog may need some behavioral corrections, or you may simply want to teach it something new. Everyone has their own reason for teaching an old dog new tricks.

If you’ve adopted an older dog, it’s difficult to know what the original owner taught it. You might want to teach it new tricks, or the dog could need to unlearn some bad behaviors. Or if you rescue a street dog, it may require a lot of basic training. 

Sometimes people steer away from adopting senior dogs because they’re assumed to be set in their ways. But any age dog can be taught your routine and new tricks.

Are you interested in adopting an older dog? Check out our guide to pet adoption websites, where you’ll find many adult dogs needing a forever home.

What Can’t You Teach an Old Dog? 

The myth is busted. You can teach an old dog new tricks. But if your senior dog has health issues, such as arthritis, there may be some physical things it can no longer do. For example, if you adopt a senior dog that doesn’t know how to play fetch, you can technically teach the action. But if it suffers from arthritis, it could be really painful to run after a ball. 

dog jumping through persons arms
Consider a senior dog’s health and energy level before teaching new tricks.

What Should You Consider Before Training an Older Dog? 

Knowing your dog’s overall health and ability before teaching something new is crucial. There are four main considerations to take into account before training an old dog.

Your Dog’s Overall Health

Consider your dog’s overall health before teaching it a new trick. As we said, if it has arthritis or another ailment, it may have physical restrictions. Take things slow and observe how your pet is responding to the training.

If you’re unsure what exercise or stimulation is appropriate for your dog, consult your veterinarian.

Your Dog’s Energy Level

The energy level of senior dogs tends to decrease rapidly. Consider the new trick or behavior you’re trying to teach your fur baby. If you notice it getting extremely tired, it’s time to slow down, or your dog may not be up to the task at all.

Signs of exhaustion can be sniffing the ground, drooped ears, or excessive licking. The dog may also yawn a lot or want to lie down.

Pro Tip: Teaching your dog to canoe or kayak with you is an excellent activity that doesn’t require lots of exertion! Learn the basics here.

Trick Difficulty

If your dog has health issues or low energy, a difficult trick may be too physical for a senior canine. It could also be overly stimulating or too much to take in. To help, keep the training sessions short.

Time and Consistency

Patience with training any age dog is critical, especially senior dogs. Teaching an old dog new tricks will take time, consistency, and a lot of patience. But don’t let that discourage you, because the best part is you get to spend more time with your fur baby!

The Reward

Choosing a motivating reward is crucial to any training session. However, for older dogs, you may need to consider their health and taste buds to pick the best reward. Rewards high in calories may not be good for your older friend, but you’ll want to balance that with something that they will actually work for. Having tiers of rewards to differentiate incremental progress with fantastic performance can help your older dog catch on more quickly.

dog going after treat in person's hand
Use treats to reinforce your dog during training sessions positively.

How Do You Keep an Old Dog Mentally Stimulated? 

Keeping an old dog mentally stimulated is possible even for a pup whose set in its ways. Games are an excellent way to keep a dog busy and interested. 

For example, teach your dog to run through your legs is a simple trick but something that’s fun and requires movement. Use the treat method for training. Every time your dog runs through your legs on command, give it a snack and praise. 

Another fun game that increases mental stimulation is teaching your older dog to put away its toys. Have a toy basket in a particular location. At the end of the day, ask your fur baby to fill it up with any toys scattered around. After the mission is completed, it gets a prize. In the form of a treat, of course. Throughout the course of the training, hide toys to make the game more challenging. 

person shaking paw
Teaching an old dog new behaviors can help you bond with your pup well into its later years.

Try Teaching Your Old Dog New Tricks Today

Are you ready to teach your old dog new tricks? It’s possible and a good way to keep an older pup stimulated and happy. Our dogs love to please us and have fun. Tricks, games, and even behavior correction can help you bond with your pup well into its later years. 

What new tricks have you taught your senior dog? Leave a comment below. We’d love to hear about your experience.

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About Caitlin Morton, Petrics Co-Founder

Cait has had animals her whole life, from family cats and dogs as a child, to caring for the class reptiles over breaks, to getting her first horse at the age of 12. She swears she never would have gotten through her Business Management degree without the help of her late soul dog, Mocha. She's worked in animal shelters in roles from kennel staff, management, and as a board member for over a decade, and has a serious case of the animal welfare bug.
At house parties, she's that weird friend that makes friends with the host's dog or cat instead of with other people. Currently, Cait travels full-time by RV with her husband Tom and their rescue dog, Luna.
She started Petrics to share her passion for the wonderful world of pets with others.

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