We’ve all heard the old adage: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Seldom has something recited so often been so untrue. The truth is that you can train older dogs and cats to learn new things. In fact, some people find training older pets to be easier than training younger ones—older pets are often calmer and less prone to distraction than their younger counterparts. Generally, when customers consider training older pets, it’s because they are having some type of behavioral challenge with them. Typical behavior challenges with older dogs include house soiling and excessive barking or whining. Cat owners report litter box problems as the most common issue they have with older felines.
In addressing any of these issues, the first thing a retailer or animal trainer should tell a pet owner to do is take their pet to the veterinarian and rule out any physical problem. As pets age, medical conditions including but not limited to bladder infections, urinary tract infections, arthritis and hearing loss (a cause of excessive barking) can be at the root of some problems. The important take away here is for owners to understand that all is not lost just because they are having challenges with an older pet. Veterinarians can assist in some cases, and trainers in others.
For training, it is often about going back to basics and reinforcing old lessons. It’s also about coming to grips with new physical limitations, a fact that some pet owners initially resist or don’t consider.
I remember a case I worked on a number of years ago. The owner had contacted me about his dog, a sweet 10-year-old Boxer female who had started urinating in the house at night. The dog had a clean bill of health and nothing seemed to have changed in her environment, yet four or five times a week for several months, the dog was leaving puddles. I suggested several things. First, no water 90 minutes before bed time. Second, physically take the dog out to the bathroom and praise (reinforce) the proper outside bathroom behavior. Third, make it a point to get the dog out as late as possible before going to bed. The first week the owners tried this, they reported accidents had been cut by 50 percent, and by the third week, they had stopped altogether.
Litter box challenges with older cats is another common complaint. I have seen numerous cases in which older cats suffering from arthritis stopped or decreased going in their litter boxes. Aside from pain management, problems like this can be addressed by using a low-sided litter box which allows cats to step into the box with less discomfort. Another thing to make cat owners aware of is litter box placement. If an owner has a multi-level home, placing the litter box on a lower floor can make it easier for the cat to access the box and less likely to have accidents in the house.
Recently, I experienced a challenge with one of my senior dogs firsthand. Sam, our gorgeous 14-year-old chocolate Labrador, had always been a quiet, friendly dog. At about age 12, he started a new behavior: whining when he was lying down. Intially he trained quite well, and we found ourselves getting up more often to assist him in going outside, walking to his food bowl, etc. However, as time went on, we saw he seemed to be whining for no discernable reasons we could determine. This prompted us to take him for a checkup which confirmed arthritis. Mild pain medications were prescribed, which cut the whining down significantly. So did putting him on a new schedule of reasonable exercise. Did his whining stop completely? No, but our expectations became far more realistic after we understood some of his physical limitations.
Other things to consider: not only can older pets benefit from physical exercise, but they can also use mental simulation. Suggest interactive toys and puzzles so your customers can keep their dogs and cats mentally sharp. You will find it will benefit the dog’s well-being and your relationship with your customer.