Can We Retrain an Old Dog?

Senior dog doing shake command
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Who says old dogs can't learn new tricks? Most aging canines are perfectly capable of picking up new commands.

Our dog, Grizzly, is 14 years old. He is well trained and healthy, but has some hearing loss and pain in his back legs, and it’s beginning to affect his behavior. He has always slept in our bed, but now he has trouble climbing our stairs and struggles to get up on the bed. He’s also started stealing food. We’re worried about him getting hurt or eating something he shouldn’t, but we don’t know what to do. He won’t go near the ramp we bought him, and we’re not sure if it helps to use commands like “no” or “leave it” if he can’t hear us. Is it possible to retrain him — or is it too late for him to learn anything new?

Your old dog certainly can learn some new tricks! Training can benefit a senior dog in a number of ways: It creates an opportunity to bond with you, it challenges his mind and it can even help him cope with some age-related physical changes.

Keep in mind, though, that for older dogs, unlearning an established habit and relearning a new behavior in its place can come with certain challenges. In your case, Grizzly’s ability to learn new behaviors will be tempered by his health issues. For example, his hearing loss may mean you need to use hand signals rather than verbal commands. Be sure to consider this when you are setting goals for training.

Before you start working with Grizzly on changing his behavior, there are a few simple adjustments you can make to help ensure his safety. A gate at the top of the stairs can help prevent him from taking a tumble if he gets up and wanders during the night. Carpet runners can help him keep his balance on wood or tile floors, reducing the possibility of a fall. Another option is to teach him to wear nonslip disposable or reusable booties around the house.

Managing the Ramp

To teach Grizzly to use his ramp, start by giving him an opportunity to investigate it at his own pace. Offer rewards for any interest he shows, even if that’s just turning his head in the direction of the ramp. Some dogs may be willing to approach the ramp without a problem, while others will stay several feet away. Whatever your dog’s comfort zone is, reward him while he’s in this area, either by serving his meal there or by offering lots of delicious treats.

As Grizzly gets more relaxed around the ramp, start to lure him closer to it with treats and praise. Once he’s close enough, work on getting him to place his front paws on the ramp. When he’s comfortable with that, work on getting him to step up on the ramp with all four paws. Continue to offer lots of treats and lots of praise.

Encourage him to walk across the ramp by placing it flat on the floor. For some dogs, starting with a flat surface is easier than starting with a raised surface. After he masters walking across the flat ramp, transition to a slightly higher surface, like a low couch or chair. Once he is confidently walking across the ramp, transition it to your bed.

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