The popular idiom “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” really applies more to people than to actual dogs! People get stuck in their ways as they get older. Dogs on the other hand are incredibly adaptable and have a lifelong willingness to learn new things. With some dogs reaching “senior status” at age 7, I believe it is important to keep training for their entire lives, and I have seen dogs as vintage as age 11 in my classes.
With that in mind, it is always easier to install new behaviors than to get rid of old ones. A dog that has had ten years of lunging at other dogs, barking to get attention or relieving himself indoors is going to need a serious commitment from a new owner to change these habits as it may take a while. However, to teach a senior dog with little to no obedience training how to walk on leash, sit on cue, stay and come when called among other basic tricks is just as easy as teaching a young pup.
Training is essential for the mental and physical health of an older dog—you could almost say it keeps them young. If it’s been awhile since your dog has taken a class, it may take a little longer to get back in the groove, but ultimately learning new cues or refreshing old ones helps maintain mental alertness and cognitive abilities. Make sure you take into account any joint, back or hip problems and talk to your vet if you think a class or activity could be too physically challenging for your pet. Agility might be pushing it, but basic and advanced manners classes can be modified to accommodate dogs with movement challenges.
Besides classes, there are activities you can do at home with your senior dog that help keep him alert and well-behaved while you maintain or strengthen your bond with him. Practice stay and come when called with a game of Hide and Seek. Use cardboard boxes, plastic cups and towels to create nose work (scent hunting) games of Find the Treats. Turn meal times and walks into training games, rewarding your dog for Wait, Leave It, Watch, and anything else you can think of incorporating, with the things he loves.
Positive training methods are crucial for senior dogs in order for them to stick with the program. I have had clients think their older dogs came from seriously abusive backgrounds because they cringed at simple commands, when in fact they were just trained with harsh techniques. Once we introduced rewards, and the removal of rewards for mistakes, they blossomed into completely different, happy dogs. If you are adopting an older dog that was trained using force and physical punishment, you will have to turn things around for him and show him that learning is fun.