I'm often approached by clients who want to further their dog's skill set, manners or obedience. Frequently, these clients have dogs who are no longer puppies, and may even be seasoned adults.
It's no secret that dogs age faster than humans; it's thought that for our every one year, seven 'dog years' pass by in what may seem like the blink of an eye. For this reason, dogs also zip through developmental phases a lot faster than humans (this may come as a relief to you who are stuck in trenches of puppy-hood!)
From birth up until 12 days of age, puppies are called "neonates," which translates into the "infant stage" for human babies. This stage of life is pretty boring; puppies are either eating or sleeping, remaining 100% dependant on their mother for survival.
From 12 days until 3 weeks of age, puppies are in their 'transitional' phase of life; or, their "toddler years." During this time, a puppy's eyes and ears will open, they will start to walk (or stumble, as they generally aren't very graceful right off the hop), cut teeth, and develop the ability to eliminate without stimulation from their mother.
From 3 weeks until 12 weeks (<16 weeks) of age, a puppy is in their 'socialization' period, or, they're now "Preschooler." This is the most critical period of development, where a puppy learns to communicate with other dogs and humans, as well as with their environment.
From ~12weeks until sexual maturity (which is anywhere between 5-7 months of age) your dog is considered a Juvenile and often goes through a 'juvenile delinquent' period (raise your hand if you know what I'm talking about!) This would be comparable to a child in Elementary school.
Sexual maturity until Social maturity (anywhere between 2-3 years of age) is considered the Adolescent Stage, or....the dreaded Teenage years. And yes, dogs also mimic what we might refer to as "typical teenager," testing all the boundaries and pushing all the limits. This can be the most frustrating stage of life for many dog owners!
From social maturity up until ~7 years of age, your dog is considered an Adult. At this stage, your dog may seem to finally 'figure it out' and really seem to come into his own - my dog learned to finally 'chill out' when he turned two (and it was as beautiful as it sounds!)
From seven years of age and onward, our dogs are considered senior citizens. It may seem crazy to think of a 7-year-old dog as a senior, but remember, 7 human years is equal to 49 dog years!
So, what happens if you miss the boat on early training (perhaps life just got in the way), or you add an adult or senior dog to your family. Can this dog be trained?
The answer? YES!
Any dog is capable of learning at any age in their life. If anything, a senior dog may be easier to train, as they likely have some degree of 'life experience' already (shaping their choices and actions), plus, they have a better attention span than a young puppy who is distracted by every sound, smell, or motion!
I adopted my first dog when he was three-and-a-half years old. While he came 'pre-installed' with basic manners and obedience, he didn't know it all, by any stretch. I enrolled in my first training program with the Karen Pryor Academy when my dog Buster was roughly 8-years-old; very much a senior citizen!
Buster was not only capable of learning the skills required, he excelled at them. His laser sharp focus, and passion to work with me was contagious, and made him a delight to teach new things to.
As our dogs walk further into their senior years, training can help to keep their mind 'sharp,' potentially preventing some symptoms of dementia. You can also use strategic training, to aid your dog with any mobility issues they may be having, or by changing your verbal cues to visual ones, for dogs whose ability to hear may be altered.
So to answer the question I often am asked, "can an old dog learn new tricks?" my answer is whole-heartedly, yes! They can, they will, and they probably will love doing so!
For more senior dog training tips, check out the article "5 Training Tips for Old Dogs."
"Blessed is the person who has earned the love of an old dog."
Sydney Jeanne Seward