I am often asked, “Is my dog too old to train?” This is probably because of the old saw, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” which often gets shortened in people’s minds to “You can’t teach an old dog.” Fortunately, this is not true. While it may take a bit longer to teach an older dog, they are quite capable of learning so long as their hearing, eyesight and cognitive abilities are still there. I have worked successfully with dogs as old as 13 years. There are limits however. I once had someone with a fourteen-year-old dog who was mostly blind and becoming incontinent try to convince me that they had a housebreaking problem!
Not too old to train!
That saying about old dogs and new tricks has become such a part of our collective “wisdom” that people often ask me if it’s too late to do anything training-wise for their two year old dog. As if that were somehow “over the hill”. My experience is that an untrained two-year-old dog often learns quickly and can be fun to work with. Some dog trainers, either because they believe strongly in early training, or in their effort to snag a client first, start dogs very early. This probably contributes to the widespread notion that there is a very short window of opportunity for dog training.
My view is that there are particular stages of a dog’s life that are most appropriate for accomplishing certain things. For example, the primary concern with an eight week old puppy is housebreaking. As the pup grows, around the house manners like chewing, mouthing and jumping usually need to be addressed. At age five or six months a dog comes into adolescence, which is prime time to begin working on reliability since they are now old enough to be held responsible for what they learn. More advanced training like retrieving and scent work requires solid off-leash obedience, so it’s usually begun sometime after age one.
Certainly there is a lot to be said for starting out on the right paw, but if you have a new rescue or just haven’t gotten around to the dog training thing by the time your dog officially departs puppyhood at age one, take heart, all is not lost. Yes, your dog has probably developed a few unhelpful expectations, but if you’re willing to change the way you do things and be consistent about it, you can change those expectations reasonably quickly. I’ve started from scratch with two adult Airedales, one age five and the other age four, trained them to be reliable off the leash, and had fun doing it. With a little help from Teacher’s Pet, so can you!