Can We Retrain an Old Dog?
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 RampTo 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.
Keep in mind that the ramp may not be the ideal way for Grizzly to get on and off furniture — instead, he may adjust more quickly and easily to assistance stairs. A mobility sling or lifting harness is another option for helping him navigate both stairs and furniture. Take the time to figure out what works best for him and for you.
If it is too much of a struggle for Grizzly to get on and off your bed, work on transitioning him to a sleeping area on the floor near you. Start by placing his blanket or bed on top of your own at night until he’s used to sleeping on this space. Then, move the bed onto the floor or to an elevated area, like a large ottoman, immediately next to your bed. During the day, move his bed around the house and work on training exercises that encourage him to rest near you but in his own space.
An elevated dog bed may be a good option if he doesn’t like being on the floor. You can also boost his resting space by placing a mat or blankets underneath it. To reduce any potential separation anxiety, put a shirt or towel with your scent on it in his sleeping space. A dog-safe heated, orthopedic bed may help comfort sore joints, and is another way to help him settle in for a restful sleep.
Put a Stop to Food StealingTraining Grizzly to rest in a specific space can also be a handy way to manage his food stealing. Reward him for lying on a mat area near where you’re prepping food or eating meals. Hand-deliver treats or, better yet, feed him his meals inside of a food puzzle to redirect his focus and provide a healthy brain challenge. Ensure all humans are managing their own behavior, too, by not feeding him when he begs and keeping unattended food cleaned up.
You are right in your assumption that verbal cues like “drop it” may not work as well anymore. Instead, teach Grizzly to respond to hand signals. For example, you can use your hand to direct his attention to his bed or mat when you need him to go to his space.
I wish you and your faithful gray muzzled companion the very best in your training endeavors! Thank you for doing your part in giving him the sweetest, most love-filled days possible!
More on Vetstreet: