The old saying goes that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but we know a lot of old sayings are wrong — this one included. Of course we can teach old dogs new tricks! In fact, it's a great way to keep your dog mentally stimulated and having fun throughout his life.
One important thing to keep in mind about teaching senior dogs new tricks and behaviors is the dog's level of physical ability. Many senior dogs are perfectly able, but if your dog is getting achy in the joints or has other limitations that come with age, keep these in mind. Older dogs may have joint pain or arthritis and have a harder time jumping or even sitting for long periods. They may also have dental issues which may limit the tricks they can do using their mouths. And they may also have hearing or vision problems which alter not only what kinds of tricks you want to teach them but also the way in which you teach them. So it's important to know what your dog's physical limitations are when you're thinking up new tricks, and not push him to the point of possible injury.
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While your dog may be past the days of learning to jump through hoops or leap over walls, there is a huge range of tricks that keep mobility issues in mind, and which senior dogs will have a lot of fun learning. Some of the tricks listed here build on each other and gain complexity, so you can keep things interesting for your dog for weeks at a time while training.
This is such a great trick to use as a foundation for other tricks, from flipping light switches on or off to coming back to your side. And it's incredibly easy for your dog to learn and do. This is great for older dogs because you can make it really simple at first and build complexity into it after your dog has it down. To start out, you train your dog to do hand targeting. Here's a video that shows not only how to train your dog to touch your hand, but many of the uses of the behavior:
Teaching your dog to yawn is all about "capturing behavior" with clicker training. It's much like training your dog "touch" but this time, you have to wait for your dog to offer the behavior and capture it when it happens. Click — or say a key word like "Yes" — whenever you catch your dog yawning, and then reward him with treats or a game with a toy. After awhile, your dog begins to associate the yawn as being a trick that earns a reward. Here's a video that demonstrates capturing different behaviors that you can turn into cute tricks, including yawning on command:
Put toys away
Even when you're a grown-up, you have to pick up your toys when you're done playing. Teaching your dog this tidy behavior will keep him or her a little more active in a low-key way, and thus help loosen up those stiff joints and muscles without putting a strain on their body. Plus, it's a fun game that you can play over and over, not just on clean-up duty.
Names of objects
Stretch your dog's mental abilities by teaching him the name of different objects or toys. This is a great way to teach your dog to fetch certain items from the toy box or even various objects from around house. You can start off with a few items from the toy box or simply get rolling with items you may want him to fetch for you, including hats, keys, shoes, blankets and so on.
Though it may take a while for your dog to truly grasp the name for each item at first, soon he will catch on to what the name game is all about and will likely grasp names faster when introduced to new objects.
Here's a video that shows how to begin teaching a dog the name of an item, and how to add more items into the mix:
Ring a bell to go out
Your senior dog may be house-trained, but is he also trained to tell you precisely when he wants or needs to go out? You can give your older dog a great tool to tell you what he needs by teaching him to ring a bell as a cue to go outside. This video shows the progression of teaching a dog to touch the bell, and then eventually transition to learning that ringing the bell means their human opens the door for them.
Open a door
Your dog can cue to you open the door by ringing a bell, but how about taking it to the next level and teaching your dog to open the door by himself? In fact, there's a handy trick built into this that we will introduce later on! This video walks you through all the steps to opening doors and drawers:
Hold an object
If your dog likes to play fetch or tug, it may be a great idea to teach him how to hold and carry an object. It's a new way for a dog to think about holding a toy, since once the dog has a grip on it, he needs to wait for you to give the cue to release it. This trick is also included in a more complicated trick, which is next on our list. But first, here's a video that shows you how to master this trick:
Fetch something from the fridge or cupboard
When you have the training down for touch, opening the door, knowing the names of objects, and holding an object, it's just a matter of putting the steps together to teach your dog to fetch an item from somewhere in the house. A popular version of this trick is of course to fetch a beer from the fridge! But maybe start out with a less fizzy drink option, just in case.
An interesting trick to teach your senior dog is how to walk backwards. It's a great one to help with getting him to think about using his body a little differently. Most dogs aren't really aware of where their hind end is — it's just the part that follows their front end. By teaching your dog to walk backward, you're teaching him to be aware of where his back legs are going. It's great for both mental and physical agility.
Keep life interesting for your dog by creating a game around using his nose to find a reward. This is a great trick especially for dogs whose hearing or sight has diminished with age. The trick teaches them to use their noses even more purposefully, using scent work to find the hidden treat or toy. Once you teach your dog how to find it, you can have the "it" be something different every time you play to keep your dog at the top of his game. This video shows an older Labrador learning the steps to the "find it" game and having fun playing:
Tuck himself in bed
It's surprising how much fun you can have with a trick that only requires your dog to grab a blanket and roll over. This adorable trick is great for dogs of any age, and is an easy (and cozy) trick for your senior dog to learn. You simply teach your dog to lie down on a blanket, grab and hold the corner of it, and roll over so he tucks himself into bed. For senior dogs who like to snooze in extra warm blankets, this is a dream trick. Here's how it works: