Bingo, the beloved family Labrador is comatose on the matt in the hall. The once-favoured Kong is left abandoned in the garden and even the string of squeaky sausages is gathering dust under the stairs. Once a thrill for praise, even requests of paw or high-five are met with a lack-lustre response from Bingo and, at the age of 9, he is relying on barking at the Pekingese down the road for a bit of a kick.
It is widely assumed that dogs absorb most of their training when they are puppies, but this does not mean that older dogs do not have the capacity to learn new skills. Just like a Grandparent with a new mobile phone, it may take a little longer and need more motivation, but older dogs are just as capable of learning new tricks as puppies.
Whether a family pet, or an adopted older dog, the brain-juice is still flowing and it has been noted that many adult dogs are easier to train as they have the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. Furthermore, house-training is not a battle to contend with so the freedom to interact with your pooch one-on-one and spark their enthusiasm won’t be interrupted by accidents on the new carpet.
The myth that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks needs to be abolished as, at whatever age, canine companions need mental stimulation as well as physical. With most dogs having the fundamentals of sit and come mastered, there are a variety of other commands to keep pooches of the world invigorated.
“A lot of old dogs get what I call the ‘shrinking world’ syndrome,” says certified veterinary behaviourist Doctor Lore Haug. “Their owners get in a rut with them; they start walking the dog less and they don’t train the dog or teach him tricks. The dog doesn’t get as much stimulation and enrichment—maybe they stop taking the dog to the dog park—and there’s a significant decline in mental and physical challenges.”
The issue dog owners sometimes have is that they expect their pooch to stay the same forever. As a dog grows older, their senses of smell and sight grow less acute, joints stiffen, and some develop the canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s; cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Some other dogs develop anxiety disorders in old age, from separation anxiety to storm phobias. But whether your older dog is in fine fettle or feeling the strain of old age, games and tricks that work with your dog’s limits can rejuvenate energy and even help improve underlying problems.
It’s important to start by modifying the home to accommodate your dog’s physical ailments, perhaps the reason Bingo isn’t joining you on the sofa on command for a tummy rub is because he simply cannot anymore? Adapting the home with ramps, memory-foam beds and carpet runners is an excellent way to start getting depressed doggies back in a happier mind frame. Fortunately, dogs are so firmly rooted as family members that manufacturers of pooch products have responded with a variety of merchandise that improve seniors’ quality of life. There are thermoregulation cooling pads for dogs who don’t handle heat well and heated beds for dogs with arthritis which, with continued use, can help revive older dogs lust for life.
Food is often another area that can affect a senior dog’s vitality and subsequently affect levels of engagement and play. The development of geriatric diets for dogs is often considered an unnecessary complication put in place by marketers of pet food brands. Older dogs can happily eat food promoted towards adult dogs; there tends to be an old wives’ tale that lowering protein consumption in older dogs can help with kidney problems, but research indicates that older dogs actually need more protein. The only food foe of the older generation is calories, and these are to be controlled, as they tend to be less active – particularly in the winter months.
Comfort and diet are key to helping older dogs remain healthy and happy and this results in pooches with increased functionality and yearning for learning and play. Aside from the age-old favourites of sit, roll-over and paw, the tricks outlined below would be a great addition to and older dog’s repertoire and will help keep their minds active.
Respond to the clicker
Responding to a clicker is a great foundation to build other tricks upon. Clicker training is a method for animals that reinforces behaviour by teaching the dog to associate the click sound as a positive.
To begin, ensure you have your dog’s attention and click the device. Follow this with praise and a treat. Repeating this around thirty times will begin the association process and it is important to remember that, to maintain this connection, you must never click without rewarding pooch with a treat.
Teaching your dog the names of household items can be a great way to engage their minds with something other than toys or food and the use of a clicker can aid this.
Encourage your dog to touch your hand and, when contact is achieved, reward with a click. Then progress to holding an object in your hand, such as a newspaper. Again, motivate your dog to touch the object and, again, reward with a click. Keep repeating this method using the name of the object as this will teach your dog to recognise the object and retrieve it on command.
Put your toys away
Dogs of any age have a variety of toys and gardens and homes can often be cluttered after playtime. Training your dog to put all their toys in a basket can make the tidying process a little quicker.
Gather all your dog’s toys and place them in a pile away from the box or basket. Point to each toy and state ‘take it,’ followed by ‘bring it’ and ‘drop it’. When achieved, reward with a treat or a click. After your dog has tidied away all his toys, reward with another click or a treat and reinforce the activity with the phrase ‘put your toys away’. Your dog will then associate this phrase and action with positivity.
Instead of barking or launching themselves at the garden door, teaching your canine companion to jingle a bell when they wish to go outside can be useful. Attaching a bell to a specific door handle and guiding your dog with a training stick is an ideal first step. Once your dog has made contact with the bell, click and treat. When your dog touches the bell of his own accord, click and reinforce with positive verbal praise and strokes.
Whenever you take your dog outside, make sure he touches the bell first, to your dog the opening of the door will be his reward and they will soon make this connection.
For older dogs it must be remembered that Bingo definitely hasn’t had his day. As long as our canine cohorts are comfortable and happy, the benefits of teaching them new tricks will have a great positive effect on physical and mental wellbeing. Age aside, there is one thing that cannot be affected and that is the owner-dog bond. With puppies, bond building is a process that develops overtime, whereas with an older dog the history has already been created. Drawing upon this experience and revelling in it will help old dogs learn new tricks.