When my Ryker (gone almost nine years now) was a senior we had to stop one of his favorite sports: Agility. Physically he was in the shape of a much younger dog – except the old ticker.
Ryker was in congestive heart failure. He missed working. I could see it. Therefore, I changed what we were doing. At almost 13, Ryker completed his Rally Novice Title and was working towards Rally Advanced when he passed. (Rally: New Life for Old Dogs). I love the times I get to work with a senior dog. Some of my favorite clients are the adopted senior dogs given a second chance. However, there are things the owner must consider before bringing an old dog out of retirement.
Before embarking on a new training project with your senior dog, get a complete senior vet exam done. Aches, pains, deafness, vision loss, etc., can affect a trainer’s and your ability to work with your dog. Even with younger dogs, medical issues can affect behavior and training. If your dog is a senior, it is imperative that you address physical health before starting a program.
No dog needs to learn with pain, nagging, intimidation, shocks, ear tweaks, pushing, alpha rolling, etc. Use positive motivation only. Additionally, senior dogs may have physical issues that could be worsened by old-school training methods. Be kind, gentle and slower.
When you are addressing manners work, remember: the longer an undesired habit has gone on, the longer it takes to work out. Think how long it can take for you to get over a bad habit and replace it with a new, better one. Have patience.
Be respectful of you senior dog. Have others respect him too. As things change with age, he may startle faster, reaction times may be slower and he may not be as willing to tolerate a young dog in class bouncing on him. He may need more breaks during a class. A good trainer who works with senior dogs will understand this.
Lastly, adapt things as needed. If your dog is arthritic and your trainer states “Sit for greetings” I would opt for just four feet on the floor and no jumping. That fast pace for an exercise may not be so fast. Who cares? So Boomer cannot hunt anymore, you can still take him out to tree a few squirrels. What about Nosework (scent games)? There are many activities senior dogs can enjoy.
About nine years ago, my son started showing Foster in UKC (United Kennel Club) Conformation and Junior handling. Connor was in elementary school and Foster a pup. Connor is Autism Spectrum and his work with Foster landed him on Animal Planet (you may see the video here – this is my son’s personal project page he did in his Sophomore year of High School. Go to the animals page. My Autism Project).
Not that long ago, little sister Sarah dusted Foster off and starting showing him in UKC and a AKC Junior handling to get her started. She stopped showing him as she moved onto other dogs for AKC Juniors. The little guy missed showing.
However, about a year ago, Sarah dusted Foster off and started doing UKC Juniors showmanship. Foster, now a younger senior dog, is back at it. UKC is more laid back in some respects and perfect for the old guy. Now, with him, Sarah is in the top three for her age group in UKC as of April 2016. As long as he can move in the ring, Sarah will show him. There is always something for the old timers to do if you stop and look and think.
Get your old dog, dust off the cobwebs and get working with him. He may enjoy it! Because you can teach old dogs new tricks.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.