Why can’t an old dog learn new tricks?

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

This is a phrase I heard a lot as a kid. Usually it implied that a person can’t learn something new because they are too set in their ways. Of course we know that isn’t always the case. It really depends on the person’s mentality, how hard they are willing to work at it, with some limitations sometimes of course. Mainly, the person has to MAKE the decision to change and then change is a possibility. But what does that mean for dogs?

The saying comes from the idea that dogs don’t generalize very well or rationalize, so they really get attached to routine and it becomes difficult to change anything with them. Add on years of the same routine and behavior, changes in habit seem impossible and often feel impossible for the owners. Sometimes dog owners will read about a training tool or new approach to try with food to work on a bad behavior and it feels as though it just isn’t going to work. That’s because it’s not enough.

The good news is old dogs CAN change and even change dramatically. The bad news is in order for the old dog to change, the human has to change. That’s why it’s so hard for an old dog to learn new tricks, because in order to do that, the owner has to change as well. Now I’m not talking about roll over, beg or bark on command, although with the right food or toy conditioning, that can be done if there are no physical issues. I’m referring to old habits with old dogs.

Dogs adapt dramatically to their environment.

If you don’t want a dog that alert barks or becomes territorial, then you can’t leave them in the yard all day while you are gone. If you don’t want a dog on the couch, then you can’t sometimes give in and let your dog on the couch with you. If you want them to wait for permission, you can’t sometimes let that slide…but we all let things slide don’t we? It’s human nature, I definitely do it too. It’s only a problem if you are having behavioral problems that you want to change with your dog (which is most of us, haha). You must first figure out how you want to change what you are doing. Any change is hard for any dog of any age and the history you have with your dog, the habits the dog has, does make it harder, but doable. We change elderly dog habits all the time. Just by having them in a different environment and we act differently towards them with different rules, some genetic exceptions aside, they end up making huge changes. When they go back home to their family, if the family doesn’t make the same changes we made, the dog won’t have a chance at sticking to their new and improved behaviors. Yes, with rescue dogs we work with, it’s easier for the dogs to change. They come in with all this baggage to a new place, get trained up, then go to another new family making a fresh start with the same routine we did for the dog…still not always easy, but yes, it’s easier then going back into the original home where the problems formulated or increased, because the HARDEST thing about it is…the humans have to change.

Here is an example.

A mom has a strict bedtime for her little boy. She never waivers and has no time for nonsense late at night when there are things she still needs to get done. The little boy rarely argues with his mom and when he does, it’s usually short lived. Now let’s say mom gets a new job and works nights a few times a week. Dad is easily coerced into adding 5, 10, even 15 minutes extra! After all, what’s the big deal? This causes the boy to push the mom harder sometimes, test her more, but she never waivers, so the boy stops trying again…BUT if dad is still occasionally letting him, he down right starts throwing tantrums demanding extra time around dad. Then when they are out in public and the little boy wants something, it becomes hard for the boy to listen to anyone and he will revert to those tantrums. This is a lack of consistency and in young children can cause confusion and anxiety. In dogs it ALWAYS causes confusion and that leads to serious pushiness, and/or anxiety. Let’s say there is a dog who isn’t allowed to get on the couch without permission. You let it go a few nights when you are tired and then it becomes a habit half the time. Fast forward 6 months later and your dog starts guarding his space when he is on the couch. Now you have to change. You will get MORE pushback because your dog isn’t used to this from you. That means you CAN’T waiver anymore. The one time you do, your dog will KNOW you didn’t mean it and it will cause more pushiness, confusion, etc. If you want your dog to change, you have to change how you are interacting, handling and setting up your dog in the home. That is how they learn new things that STICK. I’m not saying you could never be flexible on some rules, but trying to get an old dog to learn new behaviors, you really can’t too much, because they would MUCH rather revert to how they were for YEARS before the changes and consistency were implemented! So in this case that would mean no couch at all for awhile, then no couch without permission first ever again and no access to the couch when you aren’t home. That consistent change will make the lasting change in the dog. It’s the person changing first. Of course it’s not always that simple, but it is a good example. There are always certain genetic limitations. For instance, if you have a protection breed that is having serious territorial issues, taking away their access to territory doesn’t just make that instinct go away, but it is the first and most crucial step, etc. Without that step, much of your attempts at training will feel exhausting and likely won’t work.

A perfect example here is this sweet old dog Chubs pictured.

Chubs came to us from a woman who was homeless for just a short while and needed a little help. Chubs slept where he wanted, told you when he needed to go out and would get amped up at small dogs in close proximity. After years of that lifestyle, I was a little worried how much work it would take to change his old habits to fit in with us. Teaching him some basic obedience, how to be crated, be in a playpen and not to get amped up by our small dog took a few weeks, but he settled into the new norm well and we stayed strict with the routine to help him feel it was familiar and to not create inconsistency where he’d push us more and more to get what he was used to. After a few months he went to his new home with his own family and settled right back in like nothing happened and like he never learned anything new! haha! But that was okay because the way he was fit into their lifestyle just fine, it just didn’t suit ours. My point is he was able to act very differently with me vs with his family he had been with over a decade and as soon as he went back to them, it was like nothing had changed. It was about the people and how they set up expectations for him that changed him.

It’s the people and the environment.

Change is HARD! Harder than you think…just ask someone who has a history of alcoholism currently in AA. Well, we are often now addicted to our dogs attention and addicted to our own routine/habits. When it comes to environment, you can only do so much with, but you…YOU can be the change your dog needs and if you are struggling with something with your dog, just remember, they can learn how to behave differently, but can you put in the work and change required to get them to be their best self with you?

-Bethany Wilson

Bethany Wilson
Author: Bethany Wilson

Bethany Wilson, founder of Ruff Beginnings Rehab, has been helping dogs and owners achieve a better quality of life for well over a decade, by teaching dog training as a lifestyle. With years of experience teaching at rescues, on television, coaching online and at facilities; Bethany’s goal is to give owners the knowledge they need to better connect with their dogs and give them the confidence they need to achieve real world obedience. Bethany's YouTube videos have over 5 million views and have helped dog owners all over the world. She currently is the owner of Ruff Beginnings Rehab that works with dogs from all over, but mainly the west coast and master trainer at The Puppy Academy in Hermosa Beach.