dog laying in the grass

Training Adult Dogs — You’re Never Too Old to Learn

Some people say that training puppies is easy, if you know what you’re doing, but training adult dogs is nothing more than a lost cause.

Whatever they say about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks, it is patently untrue. Old dogs may not learn as quickly as they did when they were young, but with time and patience, most older dogs can be taught to do anything that a young dog can.

Maybe the adage about age and learning was intended to be interpreted less literally. It certainly is true that dogs’ personalities don’t change much after puppyhood. Anxious or fearful dogs tend to remain that way. It’s hard to persuade them otherwise. And you can’t make a dominant dog super-submissive.

What you can do is teach such dogs how to behave in a particular situation, how to remain calm in a threatening situation, and whom to look up to and respect as a leader. If a dog’s personality is a hunk of wood, learning is a veneer superimposed upon it. Is the wood mutable? No! Can the veneer be changed? You bet — and at any age.

Here are some tips on training adult dogs.


There are several reasons why an adult dog might suddenly revert to soiling in the house. The cause may be medical, hormonal, managemental, or behavioral. The first order of business is to get your dog to a veterinarian. If the veterinarian can’t find anything physically wrong with your dog, the problem probably has something to do with mismanagement or the dog’s emotions.

The first step in re-training acceptable toilet habits is to observe your dog carefully in an attempt to establish a pattern to his/her behavior. Keep a diary of when and where accidents happen. Are you at home or away when the accidents occur? Also, keep a list of when your dog goes outside and what you were doing at the time. If you find a pattern to the behavior, for example, your dog seems to be going in the house only when you’re away for a long time, make sure you take him for a good walk before you go out and try not to leave him alone so often or for so long.

House-training an adult dog isn’t much different from house-training a puppy — in fact, your adult dog should be able to “hold it” for much longer than a puppy, making retraining an adult less labor intense. Dog crates can be useful for training adult dogs, because dogs generally will not soil in their immediate environment. However, if your dog has never been placed in a crate, take care to introduce him slowly. For some dogs that are crate-phobic or have been forced to soil in them in the past, crates will just not work.

Also, consider that your dog may define “home” differently than you do. To you, home may be a multi-story house, but your dog may see everything beyond the kitchen (which he has kept spotless) as “outside.” By restricting your dog to a smaller area for a while, and then gradually extending his home area, you can help him learn the ropes.

Keep Calm and Welcome Guests

Does your normally well-behaved dog lose his mind when guests come to your home? From your dog’s point of view, you can certainly understand it. Guests are a break in the normal routine. Depending on your dog, the guests might be perceived as friends or as trespassers, but in both cases they are a change; something different. In either case, it’s important to teach your dog what you want him to do. After all, your guests aren’t going to appreciate being jumped on or otherwise mistreated by your dog.

Your ultimate goal will be to have your dog sit at the door while you answer it. When you invite your guests in, he should not jump on them and, ideally, should greet them calmly.

First of all, if you haven’t been practicing your dog’s obedience skills, do some training. A tune-up will get the two of you working together again. Make sure you spend some time working on the sit command. Remember that the sit command means self-control, so spend some time practicing in different situations; especially at the front door.

The second step helps teach manners at the front door (or any door where guests enter your house). Practice teaching your dog not to dash through open doors as this will also help teach your dog to be calm at doors. Practice the “watch me” command also, so you can gain your dog’s attention when he’s distracted.

Training adult dogs is one thing — you also have to train your guests! You need to teach your guests to completely ignore your dog. All of the attention must come from you. This is going to be hard, but you need to convince your guests that this is important so your dog can learn good manners.

If all else fails, it’s OK to give your dog a time out. Put him in his crate in a back room away from the noise and confusion. Give him something to chew on, or at least a few treats, when you put him in his crate. This time out is not punishment; he’s done nothing wrong. Instead, you’re just giving him time to calm himself.

Stopping Jumping

When good behavior is consistently rewarded and jumping is ignored, dogs can quickly learn that keeping four feet on the ground is a preferable posture.

Training books and videos offer a number of creative methods for teaching a jumping dog to stop. Why, then, do so many dog owners continue to be subjected to this often unwelcome advance? The most important reason lies in the way that dogs learn.

When training adult dogs — or any dogs for that matter — any behavior that results in a reward is likely to be repeated. Rewards may be obvious or may be quite subtle. When dogs are excited, they naturally jump up onto their “target.” Over the course of time they are met with hands petting them or pushing them away — with voices sometimes warm, at other times stern or surprised. All of these responses can be rewarding — and, therefore, all of them may reinforce jumping up behavior. When such rewards are scarce and intermittent — they are even more powerful reinforcers. So even if the family is working hard to ignore jumping up, the occasional reward supplied by a long-lost, third cousin can undo all the good work.

Again, you have to train your family members and guests. Inform everyone that, from this day forward, jumping of any kind is banned. Peoples’ only reaction to jumping should be no reaction. Everyone should remain utterly silent, averting their gaze and adopting an indifferent posture.

Persistent attempts to jump can be corrected by saying, “OFF,” walking your dog briskly in a circle, then telling him to sit (followed by a reward). Repeat the exercise as needed. Unlike pushing, petting or begging your dog to “get down,” this exercise is unambiguous and rewards an alternative behavior — sitting.

Reclaim Your Couch

If you’ve plunked down several thousand dollars on a new Natuzzi sofa, though you love your dog madly, he’s the last individual you want sitting on it.

He sits on it anyway, despite all the alpha-dog command presence you can muster. Why must he misbehave so? First of all, who says its misbehavior? Most of the so-called behavior problems that dogs exhibit are, in fact, normal behaviors. From the owner’s perspective, though the behavior just happen to occur in an inappropriate situation. Couch-sitting is one such owner-perceived “misbehavior.”

Behavior problems, like beauty, are often in the eye (sometimes ear) of the beholder. Jumping on furniture is a behavior problem that, along with barking, falls into the category of “a problem for some owners but not for others.” One person may positively enjoy having his small dog resting on the furniture and may encourage his pet to sit next to him. However, owners of seborrheic [oily skinned] or dirt-impregnated outdoor hounds that shed like Alpacas may have a conniption if their pet decides to take a nap on the pride-and-joy white couch in the living room.

Some people wouldn’t mind allowing their dog on furniture, except that he tends to growl at them from such a vantage point. For owners of such dogs, keeping their pet off furniture can be a matter of safety and survival — theirs.

The new art of training adult dogs centers around encouraging behaviors that you appreciate rather than punishing an unwanted behavior. For example, in the old days it may have been standard practice to yell “OFF” and jerk a dog’s metal choke collar to enforce its compliance. Today, a gentler reward-based “positive” approach has evolved.

This approach is completely different from the old yin and yang of punishment and reward. It may take a small investment of time and know-how initially but the results are well worth the effort. Non-verbal communication is the name of the game, though occasional utterances — verbal “cues” or “signals” — may be incorporated after the fact. If verbal cues are not used, then visual ones, hand signals, can be employed instead.

Resources for Training Adult Dogs

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