For dogs, the learning process starts almost as soon as they open their eyes as puppies, and it continues, ideally, throughout their lives. When trained with positive behavioral reinforcement, dogs love to learn. In senior dogs, age-related health problems can sometimes interfere with compliance, but the desire to win their master's approval by doing what the master wants never goes away.
Instill Love of Learning Early in Life
It used to be thought that dogs couldn't benefit from training until they were at least 6 months old, but that idea is both outdated and untrue, according to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website. In puppies, the learning process starts as soon as they're capable of observing and interacting with their environment. In practical terms, that means the sooner you start teaching your puppy, the faster he'll learn. If you wait until a dog is older to begin his training, you might have to change undesirable behavior patterns that have already become ingrained. In some ways, though, it can be easier to train an adult dog than a puppy -- for instance, mature dogs are calmer and not as easily distracted.
Old Dogs and Training: Case Histories
In a 2007 issue of "The Whole Dog Journal," training editor Pat Miller shared her experiences with three of her own mature to elderly dogs. At the age of 7, Dubhy, a Scottish terrier, learned as quickly as he had in puppyhood. Australian shepherd Missy, 8, was already suffering from age-related health problems when Miller adopted her. Miller attributed the dog's "markedly slower" pace of learning to past abuse and a near-total absence of previous training. But matriarch Katie, 15, provided the strongest evidence that even geriatric dogs can remain trainable. Crippled from arthritis and almost deaf, Katie could no longer hear voices but soon learned that a shrill blast from a whistle meant food was ready.
Barriers to Learning in Older Dogs
Sometimes, training problems in older dogs are caused by age-related physical infirmities. For example, when a dog who knows the "sit" command fails to comply, the reason could be that the onset of arthritis or hip dysplasia makes sitting uncomfortable. Or if your senior dog no longer shows his characteristic enthusiasm for catching Frisbees in midair, heart problems or muscle pain could be slowing him down. Another condition, canine cognitive disorder or "doggie dementia," is much like Alzheimer's disease in humans, gradually eroding an older dog's ability to process new information. Symptoms include restlessness, confusion, sleep disruptions, housetraining accidents and inexplicable behavioral changes. After the vet rules out all other possible causes for such symptoms in older dogs, CCD will be the default diagnosis.
Managing an Elderly Dog's Mental Decline
About a third of dogs show symptoms of CCD by age 11, and most dogs who reach age 16 will be affected, says Dr. Joseph Mankin of the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Unfortunately, the disease is progressive, but medication, nutritional enhancements and increased mental and physical stimulation can all work together to slow the degeneration, manage symptoms and improve the dog's quality of life. Writing in the Seattle Times, Dr. Annie Chen-Allen, a neurologist and veterinarian, recommends that owners of dogs with CCD engage them in frequent training sessions. She also advocates toys that yield food rewards when the dog figures out the trick of getting at them. All activities that encourage the dog to focus his mind on a task, command or puzzle will have cognitive benefits, Chen-Allen says.