Downeast Dog News

Old Dogs and New Tricks

Improving Cognitive Functioning
By Diana Logan | Jan 01, 2018

Learning new things is an important factor in self-preservation. After all, we need to know where dangers lurk in order to be able to avoid them. When we cease learning, we risk being physically and/or psychologically deficient. Learning keeps us safe, engaged in the world around us, connected, and depending on the environment, can also deepen social ties. If we are learning something physical in the process, such as dancing, there are additional benefits.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is an expression we have all heard. Though the meaning is partially valid, as described in another expression, “old habits die hard,” the popularity of the phrase has done a disservice to our older dogs. We tend to overlook our older dogs' capacity for learning that can help them thrive. Sure, it’s really difficult to change old habits, but it doesn’t mean that new habits and new behaviors can’t be started, too!

The same physical and cognitive benefits of learning that apply to us also apply to our dogs. We should do the very best we can to sprinkle a bit of positive training throughout our dogs’ lives so that learning “tricks” is a normal part of aging. If a dog is already familiar with the game of learning (through clicker training, for instance), her learning aptitude will be just as great as as it was when she was younger. It’s astounding how ravenous dogs can be for training games, no matter what their age!

If we truly want to reap the most benefit from learning, it should be doing something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging to the student. Repeating known behaviors is good, but optimal learning involves pushing the limits a bit and expanding the repertoire. For us, it might look like taking up photography, a new instrument, or welding, for example. For a dog, it might be learning how to do leg weaves (weaving through your legs as you walk), spinning, learning to bow, sit pretty, object discrimination, learning new cues… and much more.

How about making a New Year’s Resolution to train your older dog to do one new thing a month? Why not start with leg weaves? If you have balance issues or your dog is too big to comfortably pass between your legs, you will have to choose something else.

Hold a bunch of small, meaty treats in both hands. With your dog at left heel, feed him a treat from your left hand. AS you are feeding him the treat, take a step forward with your right leg. With a treat in your right hand, lure your dog between your legs and feed him at your right side. Repeat from the right side, but step forward with your left leg instead. Repeat!

“It’s never too late to learn” is a much better mantra to live by, don’t you think?

video of leg weaves, demonstrated: