November 3, 2016

One of the most common questions I am asked as a dog trainer is whether it is possible to train an older dog.

The answer is yes, an older dog can be taught. That said, the more relevant question should be how old is the behavior a client wants to modify.

Provided a dog is healthy enough, training is an option at most any age. This is important information for those of you with customers who are having behavior issues with their adult or senior dogs. Remember that products designed to help modify behavior aren’t just for puppies, and training tips that are relevant for puppies are often just as useful for older dogs.

I worked with the owners of an 8-year-old female Samoyed named Roxy who started urinating in their house mostly at night. Roxy was housetrained at 7 months old. She had full run of the house at night but no access to the yard at that time. Roxy was eliminating in their home four or five nights a week. Upon finding a puddle in the morning, the owners would scold their dog and clean up the mess with soap and water. This had been occurring for about 8 months.

Roxy’s recent history included a teeth cleaning 8 months ago, followed by a 10-day course of antibiotics. The owners noted a slight increase in water consumption and connected it to when accidents first started. They were confused as to why Roxy was still having accidents.

Sometimes, a repeated behavior will become a habit. In this case, Roxy learned that if she had the urge to urinate at night, the living room was a better choice for her than waiting until morning to be let out. The classic question was raised regarding 8-year-old Roxy: “Can you teach an old dog new tricks?”

Although Roxy was 8 years old, her house soiling behavior was only 8 months old. The longer a behavior goes unchecked, the more ingrained it becomes and the harder it is to modify. If Roxy had been going to the bathroom in the house for 8 years instead of 8 months, this would be much tougher to treat. Not impossible, but much more difficult.

The first step in solving this behavior was to send the owners to their local pet store for a quality odor neutralizer to thoroughly clean the areas where Roxy had eliminated. Second, the owners needed to stop giving Roxy water one to two hours before bedtime. In addition, it was imperative that they take her outside one hour before bedtime and then again right before they went to bed. In addition, any outdoor urination needed to be lavishly praised. Finally, Roxy should not have access at night to the areas where she previously had urinated for 45 to 60 days.

The owners were cautioned that Roxy might wake them up the first few nights and if she were genuinely stressed, scratching at the door or whining excessively to be let out, they would need to take her outside. If this behavior continued they should consider a dog door to allow the dog access to the yard at night. However, other than responding to clear signs of distress, the best thing they could do was ignore any minor restless behavior and then take her outside first thing in the morning to urinate—and praise her for doing so.

Did it work? In short, yes. Roxy was restless in the owners’ bedroom for the first three days but settled down and never had to be taken out after the owners went to bed. After 60 days, her owners started leaving their bedroom door open a crack at bedtime; Roxy never left the bedroom. By the end of the third month, the owners were leaving the bedroom door open, yet Roxy continued to sleep in the bedroom all night. No accidents were reported, and the problem was considered solved.

As retailers, knowing that older dogs can be trained and sharing that knowledge, not only strengthens customer loyalty, it also helps you sell more products. As always, have your customers check with their veterinarian before they start any training program with their dog.

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