Am I going to be incredibly cliché and repeat the overused adult dog training adage? Of course I am! So, is it true old dogs can’t learn new tricks? Absolutely and without a doubt, it is not true in the slightest. Puppies and adult dogs learn in different ways and at different rates, but there is really only one main difference between training a puppy and training an adult dog.
While this isn’t the case with all dogs, in most situations pet parents who are looking for help training an adult dog are trying to fix a problem behavior that has already been established. In fact, this problem behavior is likely something the dog has been repeating for a long period of time.
Therein lies your main problem and the primary reason people think training an adult dog is difficult. The real issue isn’t because the dog is older or inflexible. It’s actually a problem of repetition and habit.
The reason adult dog training can be a bit more difficult is because you are playing catch-up and trying to reverse a behavior that has become ingrained in the dog’s brain and turned into habit.
When you are starting from scratch with a puppy, you are working on a basis of prevention. The dog isn’t already doing those unwanted behaviors, or has just started doing them. It’s much easier to alter behavior when it has not been repeated over and over again!
The Problem with Repetition
There are two main reasons that this constant repetition of behavior can really make training your adult dog harder than it would be with a puppy.
The first is simply that repetition itself. Even if your dog isn’t swayed one direction or the other when it comes to the actual behavior, repeating an action over and over again can turn it into habit.
If I get up every morning, take my dogs outside, feed the goats, and bring the dogs back inside for breakfast, when I come back in the house they are waiting by their bowls for their food.
They do this because they have repeated this series of actions over and over again. Sure, they are reinforced for this behavior by me feeding them, but they also go to the door when it’s time to go outside as well.
Repetition is a powerful way to set a behavior, for good or bad.
The Problem With Reinforcement
The other primary issue with that constant repetition is the reinforcement angle. When behavior has been happening for a longer period, which is almost always the case when training adult dogs, there’s also a chance that the behavior is being reinforced in some way as well.
When this has been happening over long period of time, combined with the simple aspect of the repetition itself, you can find yourself in a situation where behavior is extremely difficult to stop.
This reinforcement of an unwanted behavior comes from two primary places; accidental reinforcement and self-reinforcement. They’re both pretty self-explanatory in their names but are easier to understand once you have a few good examples.
Self-Reinforcing Behavior in Adult Dog Training
When your dog is performing a self-reinforcing behavior, something they are doing or some outcome of the behavior is making it more likely that they will repeat the behavior again in the future.
One really great example of this is a fearful dog barking on leash, because there are a few factors coming into play that self-reinforce that behavior.
A fearful dog sees another dog approaching them on leash. They get more and more distraught and worked up the closer the dog gets, and begin barking. On one paw, the barking intrinsically makes them feel good.
Dogs love barking, and some breeds love barking more than others. Barking at something can actually make a dog feel better.
On the other paw, if that other dog doesn’t approach the fearful dog, the fearful dog has been reinforced for that barking because they avoided an unwanted interaction and now the scary dog they saw is gone.
Even if the other dog barks at them as well, the adrenaline rush resulting from the interaction can have a reinforcing affect as well.
Leash reactivity can vary significantly from one dog to the next, so we strongly recommend utilizing our Ask The Trainer program when dealing with any reactive or aggressive dog.
Accidentally Reinforcing Unwanted Behavior
Now let’s talk about when you accidentally reinforce the behavior. You reaction to a behavior can absolutely cause the dog to repeat that behavior more often, even if you don’t realize it. The absolute easiest way to show an example of this is with attention-seeking barking.
Often, when a pet starts barking randomly at their owner, or seemingly at nothing, the owner yells at the dog, tells them to “hush,” or even gives them attention to shut them up.
I shouldn’t need to tell you this given that I already told you why the dog was barking, but when a dog is barking for attention any type of attention will reinforce that behavior.
Even if you think you are “punishing” a dog by scolding them, the dog is still gaining your attention by barking, and thus is more likely to try barking again next time they want your attention.
This isn’t nearly the only way you can accidentally reinforce behavior. The key is understanding that reinforcement doesn’t mean that you are rewarding a dog, it just means you are increasing the likelihood the dog will do the behavior again.
We delve much more deeply into how to stop attention-seeking barking, and other sources of barking, in our Ultimate Barking Solution course.
While adult dog training might entail a bit more time and energy to alter behavior, that certainly doesn’t mean that they cannot learn new things.
In fact, it doesn’t even mean they might learn slower than a younger dog. In most instances, you simply have to undo some other training in the process to have success!
With time and patience, you can absolutely train your adult dog.