Of course, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is a myth. Like humans, or many other species, dogs learn new things every day throughout life. My ten-year old Golden is still mentally alert and eager to ‘play’ in new ways.
But, also like humans, learning new behavior is often as much a matter of unlearning old ways. Dogs do have a strong tendency toward habits, and modifying or extending those habits after years of repetition takes extra patience and focused guidance.
Physical limitations should always be taken into account. The three-year-old dog has a huge capacity for running, jumping, retrieval, obstacle course maneuvers and so forth. The older dog may still want to do all those things, even learning new configurations, but tires more easily and loses interest more rapidly.
Take training sessions in shorter time chunks and expect to carry out many more repetitions. Make obstacles lower and runs shorter. Throw the ball two or three times, rather than twenty. Hearing loss occurs in dogs, too. Don’t assume they’re ignoring you when far away and facing away.
Allow for longer recovery periods between sessions. An active game of fetch is still a possible source of enjoyment, but keep in mind the dog will often want to go longer than is safe or healthy. Ligaments get stretched more readily and injuries more likely if you over do it.
Restrain food rewards for older dogs. The desire to reward an older dog for a new behavior is even more pronounced than for younger dogs, of whom we expect more. But older dogs can also more easily be ‘over treated’. They gain weight more readily and shed pounds slower.
As with younger dogs, consistency is still essential. Specific play periods that begin and end around the same time of day help cue the dog. Similar areas for specific activities help provide a sense of familiarity as background for new lessons.
When working with my Goldens the backyard is for tennis ball fetch, the forest never. But that fetch behavior in the yard can be extended to the forest to retrieve fallen deer antlers.
Conversely, digging – a natural behavior in many breeds, almost impossible to eradicate entirely – can be channeled into harmless areas even in older dogs.
For those not lucky enough to have a forest in the backyard, a ten-by-twelve foot area of the pen or yard where the dog is allowed to indulge can help release the urge. The boundary can be marked by variation in scent or ground composition. Even older dogs can learn what is theirs to play with and what isn’t and their sense of smell remains keen.
Focus more on building on the dog’s existing strengths, since older dogs are less malleable. One individual will be excellent at fetch and release, the other more inclined to hang onto the ball. One does well with a Frisbee, the other never gets the hang of it. Rather than force desired behavior, work with each one’s unique nature.
The dog more inclined to hang onto a ball is a good candidate for learning to pull a wagon by a rope. The better ‘fetch and release’ dog can more easily be taught to get a plastic food container. Handy things, since trainers get older too.