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5 Training Tips for Old Dogs

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How did that happen?

One day I woke up and my Labrador, Zam, was old. It happened that quickly. Suddenly his eyesight and hearing weren’t that great anymore. Overnight, the old man developed a repertoire of newfound naughtiness: barking, begging for food, and demanding attention whenever he wanted it, thank you very much. He couldn’t see or hear very well, and nuisance behaviors that never existed before suddenly cropped up; now was hardly the time to cut back on his training. Quite the opposite. But, I had to make some adjustments to the way I trained. There are strategies I have used, and continue to use, to help Zam age gracefully and to keep his mind engaged.

1.    Put behaviors on visual and verbal/auditory cues 

One of the things I’m glad I did a long time ago was to train visual and verbal cues for Zam’s most frequent behaviors: sit, down, and recall. Adding a new cue to a known behavior is simple to do and has come in very handy for us.

For example, until recently I had been calling Zam in from the backyard and reinforcing his coming back to me. When he started to “ignore” me calling him, I realized eventually that what I’d fluffed off initially as “old-man selective hearing” was actual hearing loss. Oops.

I started using his visual recall cue instead. I’d trained this cue 12 years ago and really hadn’t used it since. But, a clicker-trained cue is a lasting cue, and the visual cue was no problem for Zam. He started coming right away, and with much greater speed than before. It was almost as if he were saying, “Why didn’t you show me that’s what you wanted in the first place?”

Zam reacted the same way to the visual cues for his “sit” and “down” behaviors. I use his visual cues now and he has no trouble responding. If you take the time to add visual and verbal cues to your pet’s most important behaviors, that effort could be well worth it someday.

2.    Practice carrying your dog, or desensitize him to a harness 

When Zam’s sister Scout (no longer with us) became physically unable to climb stairs quite suddenly, I was very grateful that I had conditioned the dogs to being picked up and carried long ago. Scout had to travel up and down stairs, and there was no time to desensitize her to being carried. I was thankful I had already done that work.

With Zam, I practice picking him up and putting him into and out of the car frequently, even though it’s not necessary yet. I practice carrying him short distances so he won’t panic if I ever have to carry him.

If you have a large dog, it’s not always possible to carry him or her. There are assistance harnesses with handles that allow you to lift a dog’s hind legs. This tool is a good thing to condition the dog to accept long before you ever actually need it!

3.    “Un-minimize” your cues

At Karen Pryor Academy we stress the importance of minimizing cues—that is making them as “clean” and subtle as possible while still being salient to the animal. Until recently, Zam’s cue for spin had been faded to just a subtle flick of my right or left index finger (depending on which way I wanted him to spin). One day when I gave him his cue for spin and got a blank stare in return, it occurred to me that maybe Zam couldn’t see the cue. When I made the cue “bigger” and more perceptible to him, he got it right away. I now use my whole hand and forearm in a circling motion as a cue for spin.

Here is another example: I had faded Zam’s nose-to-hand target to just one finger. I’m now going back to using the whole hand as a target since I noticed Zam poking his nose at my finger but “missing” it (which, by the way, is adorable).

If a dog’s eyesight is starting to fail, you may notice him not responding to visual cues as well as before. Try more exaggerated movements and see if that helps.

4.    Condition a tactile bridge

What if your dog’s eyesight AND hearing are going (like Zam’s)? You still want to be able to mark and reinforce the dog for certain behavior. Now what?

Enter the tactile bridge (or marker signal). If your dog can’t hear the clicker well and can’t see well, you can condition a specific type of touch as your new “clicker.”

Acknowledging that Zam may not be able to hear at all someday soon, and knowing that his vision is definitely compromised, I wanted another way to “click” him. I hate to reinvent the wheel if someone has already come up with a useful idea, so I did what any good trainer would do: I walked down the hall to Ken Ramirez’s office and asked, “Ken, what do you use for a tactile bridge?” Ken uses a quick double-tap on the dog’s shoulder. There we go! A new marker signal.

Tap-tap. Feed. Tap-tap. Feed. Repeat.

5.    Remember, targeting is your friend

Zam isn't ready to get out of bed!
Another thing about old dogs is that they balk sometimes. “I don’t want to go in the house right now.” “I don’t want to get out of my bed right now.” “I don’t want to move from my favorite spot right now.”

The reasons behind balking can be varied. Maybe the dog is tired, sore, cranky, or all of the above. While you should be sensitive to these possible causes and give your old dog more time to do what you’re asking, there are some times when you need to move your dog and don’t have all day to do it.

A well-trained and handsomely reinforced hand target can get you out of almost any situation in a hurry. This is true for dogs of all ages, but I certainly find myself calling on the trusty hand target a lot more often these days with my senior dog. It’s such a simple behavior, and one that’s been reinforced so frequently throughout Zam’s life, that he’s more than happy to do it.

Old dog, new approach

These are just some simple, training-related ways to make your old dog’s life a little easier. Do you have any other tips you’d like to share? Leave them in the Comments section!

About the author
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Lori Chamberland is a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP). She also provides limited in-home dog training in the Hudson, MA, area. A canine sports enthusiast, Lori and her dogs have competed in agility, K9 Nose Work, and Treibball.