People love to spout the old adage “An old dog can’t learn new tricks,” when training an older dog. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, most people use it as an excuse because they just can’t manage whatever behavior problem their dog has. While a Puppies and older dogs learn at different rates, there is actually only one primary reason you might have a hard time training an older dog.
Fighting Against the Tide
Though all situations are different, lots of people who are looking for help training an older dog are doing so because of a longstanding behavioral issue. A problem gets worse and worse to the point where the owner can’t tolerate it any longer and finally reaches out for help. In these types of cases, it isn’t unusual for the pet to have been repeating this behavior for months or even years.
This is the biggest problem with training an older dog, and the main reason why people think older dogs can’t learn new things. Older dogs are not inflexible or incapable of learning new things. Their only drawback is when they have been repeating a behavior so much that it has become a force of habit.
It’s more difficult to stop a behavior that has become heavily ingrained in a dog through repetition, and this is true the longer a dog is repeating a behavior.
Starting with a new puppy is easier not because a puppy is smarter or more flexible or better at learning. Puppies simply work via prevention or have not been repeating an undesired behavior for very long. When a younger dog has only been biting or jumping or barking for a few weeks, they haven’t strongly developed these bad habits just yet.
Repetition Cripples Progress
When you are training an older dog, that long history of repeating the unwanted behavior is your biggest hurdle. When your dog repeats any behavior over and over again, that behavior can eventually become habit. As we all know from one experience or another, habits can be very difficult to break!
Your dog’s mealtime can be a good example of this. If you feed your dog after you take them out every morning, even if you don’t do so at the exact same time your dog is anticipating their breakfast after they come in from their morning wee. When you go inside, your dog will be waiting by their bowl for their food before you’ve even touched their food scoop, and that’s the power of repetition.
Where Reinforcement Comes Into the Equation
The other primary concern with long-term repetition of an unwanted behavior is reinforcement. When you are training an older dog, and that dog has been doing a behavior for a long period of time, there is a high likelihood that the behavior is self-reinforcing. In other words, something about doing the behavior makes the dog feel good or feel better. Barking is a great example of a self-reinforcing behavior because dogs simply love barking.
When a dog has been barking as a response to something, such as guests coming into the house, and barking makes them feel good, their automatic response is simply to continue barking. The next time a person comes into the house, they’re primed and ready to bark!
But that’s not the only issue, some behaviors can also be accidentally reinforced by you or others’ response to your dog. We will cover accidental reinforcement in a bit, but self-reinforcing behavior deserves a deeper dive first!
The Self-Reinforcing Impact
The biggest impact to look at when discussing self-reinforcing behavior is the reinforcement part. Reinforcement doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog actually enjoyed something, just that they are more likely to repeat the behavior again because of the final consequence. Let’s look at leash barking as another example.
When a dog barks on leash, and never has to interact with the other dog, this can become a self-reinforcing situation if your dog is fearful or unsocialized. Your dog barked out of discomfort or fear, and not only did barking make them feel better, but they never interacted with the other dog that they wanted to keep away. The next time they see a dog, they are more likely to begin barking again.
This is a bit of a simplified version of events, and lots of different factors can go into leash walking and leash reactivity. If your dog barks on leash or is aggressive towards other dogs, you should seek the help of our Ask The Trainer program for personalized help tailored to your specific dog.
When You Are Accidentally Reinforcing Your Dog
Another problem is when you are accidentally reinforcing your older dog’s behavior while training to train them. In some instances, you can accidentally reinforce your dog’s behavior even when you aren’t working on your training as well. The way that you react to any given behavior can absolutely alter if your dog repeats that behavior or not.
The very best example of this is with attention-seeking barking, because pet owners accidentally reinforce this behavior quite frequently. It happens all the time, a dog is bored and their owner isn’t paying attention and they come up and start barking at them.
The person looks at the dog, yells at the dog, or even throws something at them to shut them up, and now the dog has gotten their attention. Even in instances where you think you are punishing a dog you can accidentally increase the likelihood your dog will do that behavior again.
This is all based in the reason for a dog’s behavior. If your response gives them what they wanted, such as attention, they are more likely to start barking next time they are bored and want you to pay attention to them. This can also occur when your dog is barking at your guests or other people as well.
So many different factors come into play when your dog is barking. We always recommend using our Ultimate Barking Solution course when your main concern is your dog’s barking. Barking can be a really difficult behavior to tackle, so it’s important to make sure that you are doing everything you need to do to stop that unwanted yapping.
People struggle with all types of behavioral problems when training an adult dog. As long as you remain consistent and use effective training methods, you can absolutely change a problem behavior for the better. And don’t forget, we’re always here to help!