When is it Too Late to Train a Dog?
One of the things I hear owners say a lot, or ask me about is whether it’s too late to train their dog. Sometimes this is said in an offhand way, sometimes it’s a direct question.
If I had to put a number to it I would say that about 50% of people with dogs who are a year old who get in contact with me, ask me this question or state it in some way during our chat.
To get it straight right away, it is not too late to train your dog. Even if they are 10 years old. We can always make change, we can always make things better and find strategies to improve things.
They are not a lost cause and you DO NOT have to spend your dog’s whole life putting up with unwanted behaviors.
Where Does This Thought Come From?
The saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is false. Now I’m not saying an older dog is as easy as a puppy to train (they are not) or that an old dog can reach the same level of training proficiency as if they had been trained sooner (most can’t).
However, they can absolutely be trained and taught new things. Many, many, many, behaviors can be modified into something better and I would say that there is no such thing as a dog who is too old for training, or one that is “too set in their ways”.
Personally I think that this idea comes from humans not willing to take responsibility for a dog’s behavior. “that’s just the way he’s always been” is an excuse that is kind of crap when you think about it, and the truth is closer to “the dog has never had a reason to change”. The reason to change is always supplied by the human, which is why I see it as a bit of a cop out. We all have responsibilities to help our dogs understand the world, avoiding these responsibilities doesn’t work out in the end.
Ultimately the idea of it being too late to train a dog is a mixture of blaming the dog, and also a lack of knowledge. I tend to believe that if people have the ability to do a thing that is good that they will do that thing, more so than one that is bad. I also know that there is a terrible void of information when it comes to how to train and raise a companion to be reliable and stable in the modern world. So it is understandable that a melting pot of ideas would produce a pervasive thought that it is too late to train a dog.
The saddest thing though is that this thought is applied to young dogs, especially in the teenage phases, who aren’t even done maturing yet. I see owners give up and live with problems that we can change, or make the hard decision to rehome. Both of those things are painful and they snuff out the potential for a great relationship.
How do Dogs Mature?
Dogs go through several distinct phases of development, and most dog breeds are not finished mentally developing until 2.5-3 years of age.
The absolute best time for training is when a dog is a young pup. This is the period of time when they learn the fastest, and we can get away with very few repetitions of behaviors because of how quickly the pups absorb the knowledge. Puppies trained young also tend to be more behaviorally stable as adults, so there truly is no reason to wait.
After a few different stages of puppy development, we hit the teenage phase. This is the first time some owners get a taste of the consequences of waiting to get training. During the teenage phase there is generally more independence and confidence in the youngster, and by this time they’ve learned the limitations of their owner and know which things they can “get away” with.
It is possible to see a pretty drastic magnification of unwanted behavior at this time, and unfortunately that can be the last straw for owners who have been struggling with their dogs. I don’t blame them. When you don’t have the right answers or support, have been doing the best you can, and potentially have life things making it all more difficult, it can be a very hard road, especially if one is underprepared.
With things like that working against you, it’s not too far a stretch to think that it’s too late to train a dog and give up, even when the dog is still a youngster.
After this period of time the dogs continue to mature, but at a slower pace. They are still learning about the world and about the habits of their owner and what life is about, but changes tend to be less rapid, although not always. There are behaviors that can blindside owners, and events that can be overwhelming for the dog which can of course influence behavior.
The dog’s foundation though is going to be fairly solid and there is less change that we can ultimately do. Training is literal rewiring of the dog’s brain, and a good way to think about it is as if it’s clay. A puppy brain is very soft, you can shape it very easily. As the dog ages the clay begins to dry, it becomes harder to shape, it might need to be re-saturated, so there is extra work and time involved.
Eventually the dog will reach an age where habits are very deeply etched in the brain. That said there is a lot more work for a dog that is 8 than for a dog who is 2. Especially if we are dealing with behaviors that have to do with whether the dog feels safe. The longer any habit goes on, the harder it is to change, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed or that it can’t be improved. It’s not too late to train them, but there may be limitations.
In my experience there is always something that we can make better regardless of the age of the dog.
Building Better Patterns
All behaviors, whether in a dog or a human, are driven by outcomes. If a behavior results in a favorable outcome, the behavior will be repeated. Our dogs live by this principle and it drives everything they ever do. As scavengers they have been built to survive and do it by adapting to the environments that they’ve been put it.
All we need to do as the humans to change behavior is to tweak that equation. When a behavior stops paying off there is no reason to do it any longer. Tada! Dog training and human behavior in a nutshell. There is always a push and a pull for all living things that display behaviors. We learn what patterns work and abandon those that do not. Evolution has designed us such that it’s not too late to train anyone ever, because that’s the key to good survival.
Training capitalizes on that. The lion that uses a hunting method that doesn’t catch prey doesn’t last long. Those that change tactics, survive. The same is true for our dogs, and we as the humans hold all the cards because we can control the rewards!
What to Expect When Training an Older Dog
Do not think it’s the same as training a puppy. If it hasn’t been clear enough, it’s not too late to train them and to get help! They are not a lost cause by any means just because they are older. You should prepare yourself though for an uphill slog. After all, you will be fighting against years of practice in unwanted habits!
The next thing to note is that with an older dog you absolutely have to have a good way to motivate them, and sometimes that has to be built from scratch. If they have gone a long time without knowing that their human can be highly rewarding, that will be another layer you will have to train! So be prepared for this bit of extra work.
There are some limitations with older dogs. Every layer of training that we have to do takes extra time and longer to solidify because of the prior habits in the dog. Depending on how old your dog is it may not be a good use of their remaining time to have very lofty goals with them or strive for fixing everything completely. Compromise is ok! The potential for an older dog and their training skills is not the same as with a young pup.
Lastly the effects of age itself cannot be ignored. Low level pain and body discomfort do change behavior. They can cause our dogs to not be physically able to do things. They can potentially cause dogs to feel less safe, and add to defensive behaviors, touchiness, grumpiness, etc. For those dogs we want to make sure they are comfortable first; without helping the underlying discomfort there is little training would do.
We can always make things better. It is never too late to train any dog. Creating change and building understanding can be done at any time, it just takes some steps in the right direction!