Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

The answer from local pet experts is a resounding yes, but it takes more commitment on the part of the human than the canine

One common misconception about dogs is that once they reach adulthood, there’s no retraining them. Bad habits are here to stay, and you, the ever-loving owner, are stuck with them. If gleeful Rover urinates on the carpet when company arrives, you accept it with a sigh of frustration and handful of paper towels. If you find yourself embarrassed and pulling Spot out of doggy daycare because of nonstop yipping, you’re resigned to never showing your face there again. If you’re looking to adopt a charming Rosie but are hesitant to go for an adult dog, because, well, they’re just so unpredictable and you want a cute puppy to start over with…let us enlighten you.

Because whoever coined the idiom “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” most certainly chose the wrong animal for the example.

Nancy Fitzgerald of Wilmington-based Positive Results Dog Training LLC says there’s almost always hope for a dog, whatever its needs, but—you may have guessed—it’s the human who needs to give 110 percent.

“A lot of what I do is work with the owner and figure out mechanics of how they’re going to get the information across to the dog,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s not like you can open the dog’s brain and punch a few keys and reprogram it. The only thing we know for sure is how the owner is interacting with the dog. From there, we can manipulate the environment with the hope that it affects the animal’s behavior.”

So, no magic button. Makes sense. But how exactly does one go about altering those few quirks in a pet? Like Fitzgerald says, it starts with a form of brainwashing, aka reward-based training.

“Training is about setting things up so that we can show the animal what we want them to do and help them make the correct choice, so that they do it again,” she says. “And that’s a fun process for the animal—they have some input and they want to be part of the process.”

If the dog has some bad habits or simply doesn’t know any better, the issues have probably been in his repertoire for a while. But the dog doesn’t simply forget how to do the “bad stuff,” Fitzgerald explains. So, in a card game analogy, Fitzgerald says the owner needs to help the pet shuffle bad decisions so far back in the deck that it’s not the first card the dog goes to. “There are other, more desirable behaviors to encourage and bring to the front,” she says.

Change won’t happen overnight. It’s certainly a process, but a rewarding one—especially because training should be lots of fun for both you and your dog. “People see their older dogs perk up because they like learning new tricks,” Fitzgerald says. “It should be fun for the pet and the owner. The pets get treats, and have improved behavior, the owners learn how cool their dog really is.” Win-win.

If a dog already has good manners but you think it could benefit strictly from learning fun tricks—high fives, rolling over, handshakes—these tasks and training will usually make the dog a lot happier.

When Fitzgerald adopted one of her adult dogs, it was well-behaved and would have been fine lying on a dog bed all day, but when Fitzgerald introduced tricks, the dog came to life. Fitzgerald says the dog does “all kinds of goofy things now,” like jumping in the air on cue or pushing a skateboard with her paws.
Regardless of what a dog needs, for pet owners, there’s really always an answer.

“I’m amazed at the transformation people have managed,” says Fitzgerald. “They get good guidance, then put in the work. It’s their commitment and time invested in the dog that paid off.”

Embarrassing Behavior

Oddball behavior in pets, like people, can be a major embarrassment—especially when they’re no longer children—or pups. A dog’s excessive barking or other annoying habits may mean that boarding your dog or taking it to daycare aren’t comfortable options. Fitzgerald says this doesn’t have to be a stalemate. With a little work, the dog can join the pack, and the owner won’t have to feel nervous all day about what the dog may be doing.

“Training is behavior modification, so if you stick with it, it almost always works,” says Fitzgerald. “Don’t throw in the towel at every little bump in the road. It’s not always a smooth process.”

Adopting Adult vs. Puppy

Local experts agree that new pet owners tend to be overly optimistic about how amazing they’ll be with a new puppy, and sometimes things just don’t work out as planned.

“It’s sad to me how many puppies end up back in shelters,” says Fitzgerald. “Choosing wisely is really critical, and a lot of people choose on a more casual basis, and that’s not fair to the animal or to them.”

New pet owners may jump on the puppy adoption bandwagon because they’re nervous about adopting adult dogs – but it really is an “educated decision” to consider, she says.

No matter what, it’s best to seek out a trainer to help start you off on the right path, says Stephanie Gomez, Delaware Humane Association animal marketing and adoption event coordinator. While an adult dog may of course have some bad habits that need to be broken with training, he or she most likely has great habits, too. You have to start from scratch with a puppy, but an adult dog typically already has mastered foundational necessities like house training.

Says Gomez: “It’s never too late to adopt an adult dog. If anything, I feel you can get a better sense of where the dog is as an adult vs. a puppy, temperament-wise. I personally prefer adult dogs to puppies. After working at DHA for almost four years now, I’ve watched how quickly puppies find homes, and some of your favorite adult dogs sit for simply being misunderstood.”

Be open to options, Gomez says. She’s seen people come to the DHA looking for puppies, only to walk out with an adult instead.

Executive Director at Faithful Friends Animal Society Jane Pierantozzi agrees. “Adult pets can be just as easy or easier to adopt than puppies. Why? Because we know their personality and we know if they have any quirks or behavior challenges and what they are.”

Gomez’s suggested approach for adult dog adoption isn’t all that complicated, either: don’t rush into things, get to know the dog’s likes and dislikes. For one thing, you should find something the dog will work for, like a favorite treat, toy or praise.

Likewise, if you’re looking to adopt a dog with known behavioral issues, you need to be in it for the long haul and take what people are advising you to heart, says Gomez.

Encouraging people to adopt adult pets who may have some behavior issue can be difficult, but Pierantozzi believes the best way to do it is to share with potential adopters the animal’s stories and have an effective training and management plan in place for people who may be adopting them. “It takes work, but it is always worth it,” she says.

“We have hundreds of success stories from families who adopted an adult dog who showed some anxiety or behavior challenge in the shelter and with the right, committed person or family, they have become a fantastic companion,” says Pierantozzi.