The saying that states that you can't teach an old dog new tricks is only applicable if you haven't worked with the dog in basic obedience training when they were younger. Even dogs that have had very little training can continue to learn new commands well into their senior years, it just takes a bit more training, patience and practice on the part of both the dog and the owner.
As with any type of dog or puppy training, working with a senior dog to learn new tricks and commands means understanding the natural behaviors or mannerisms of the dog and then working them into tricks. This will be much more successful than trying to get the dog to do something that is completely out of their natural behavior repertoire. Often owners become frustrated when they can't get a dog to do a specific command or trick when in fact this behavior is simply the direct opposite of what the dog has been previously trained to do.For example, if you have consistently taught your dog not to bark, teaching him or her to speak is going to be much more difficult. Likewise if the dog has been taught to not to mouth or chew on his or her leash, teaching him or her to retrieve the leash is going to be more challenging since it is going against previous training; at least until the dog understands the difference.
If you have a senior dog that you have adopted and are not sure of what he or she has been trained to do or not to do, start by actually testing the dog out through the basics. Watch and see when the dog does something and then looks to you, this is likely to be a trained or learned behavior. For example if the dog goes to the door and barks once then sits and looks towards you, he or she has probably been trained to ask to go outside in this fashion. You can then simply pair your command with this behavior and over time the dog will learn your new command, regardless of what the previous word or phrase may have been.
Things to consider
When training an older dog it is important to keep a few basic factors in mind. By carefully monitoring your dog's energy level, focus and interest level you can adjust your training requirements to ensure maximum learning during your sessions.
Older dogs are just as capable of learning as younger dogs, however they may have many more habitual behaviors. When this is the case the dog will actually have to re-learn the goal behavior by first "un-learning" the behavior that is in existence. In essence the older dog actually has to double all the learning through the re-training process. It may be more practical to teach a completely different command to prevent this double learning. For example, if an older dog has been taught to sit and then immediately sits up to beg, you may just want to keep this as the "sit" command rather than trying to extinguish or eliminate the front paws off the ground portion of the existing behavior. You could then simply teach another command such as "rest" for when you want the dog to assume the sitting position without the front feet on the ground.
Working with your senior dog through a private dog trainer or an obedience class for mature dogs is a great option. Be sure to let the trainer know that your senior dog is going to need a few seconds more to complete activities if he or she has any muscle stiffness or movement problems.
Competing with Senior dogs
Some dogs love to compete in events such as hunting, tracking, field events, earthdog competitions, agility, obedience and sporting events such as Flyball, Frisbee dog events and herding trials. When competing with a senior dog it is essential to carefully monitor your dogs overall health and to be very careful not to overwork your dog either leading up to or during the competition.
Most events have different categories of completion that indicate different ability levels. Senior dogs need to compete against other dogs of similar age, especially if you are working towards points totals or if winning is your goal. If, however, you are just entering fun events your senior dog may be very capable of competing against much younger canines. Avoid having a senior dog compete head on against younger dogs as he or she may really overexert his or her physical abilities. In many events the senior dog courses are shorter and less strenuous for the dog than the courses or obstacles that younger dogs will have to deal with.
When competing in outdoor events it is essential to ensure the senior dog is protected from direct sunlight and heat whenever possible. Heatstroke can be more problematic in senior dogs, especially in the short muzzled breeds such as Boxers, Mastiffs, Boston Terriers and Bulldogs. Even some of the toy and small breeds such as Pekingese, Maltese and Shih Tzu may have heatstroke problems. Ensure the dog is well hydrated and has access to lots of clean, cool water before, during and after the event. Keep them in the shade or indoors in a cool environment before and between classes and competitions.
If you notice any stress, labored breathing, excessive panting, drooling or anxiety in your senior dog during a competition or event it is highly recommended to remove your dog from the competition and have him or her checked by a vet immediately. Since a senior dog is more likely to have respiratory, circulatory or metabolic problems, early diagnosis and treatment is essential in catching these issues before they develop any further.
Competing with a senior dog is a wonderful way to continue to bond with your dog and maintain physical fitness and weight management for the dog. Many older dogs in good health compete well into their mid teens and win championships and events. Keep routine workouts and practice sessions short and positive for the dog and you will be amazed at how well your senior dog can do.