They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but that saying might not be as trustworthy as
you’d think. Past puppyhood, dogs aren’t set in their ways. Research shows that not only can old
dogs learn new tricks, but teaching them could be a really good way of improving their quality of life.
A few studies have investigated this specifically. For example, a group of European researchers
trained 265 dogs across multiple studies as recently as 2017 to push their noses against a
touchscreen. It showed them pictures like flowers, cups, and other things. And when the canines
picked the right picture, they were given a treat. It took the animals a while to get the hang of the
game. But eventually, even the oldest doggy participants caught on, and that they may consistently
choose the correct picture to get a treat. While all dogs may learn to choose the right image, the
researchers did notice that dogs over the age of thirteen were much slower at learning than the
younger ones. And that’s because dogs, like humans, take longer to learn things as they get older.
Dogs’ cognitive development parallels ours in some ways. Just like kids seem to be faster at picking
up new languages than adults, puppies seem to be generally quicker on the uptake than older dogs.
A 2014 study that tested 145 border collies on skills like memory and attention found that dogs’
faculties start to decline as they get older maybe in a similar way that happens in humans. They also
found that older dogs were just generally less interested in new stimuli. While puppies are curious
about anything and everything, older dogs tend to lose interest in things more quickly or tune them
out entirely. So for older dogs to learn new things, you have to try a bit harder to capture their
attention. But even though it takes them a bit longer to learn new tricks, that doesn’t mean it’s any
The researchers think that just like older humans can derive satisfaction from brain puzzles like
crosswords, a bit of mental stimulation might be great for keeping older dogs healthy and happy. A
12-year-old dog might not have as much energy to play fetch as she did when she was a puppy, but
she can still benefit from playing games. And computer games like the ones used in these studies
require less energy, so they might just fit the bill. The researchers even suggested their experimental
setup could potentially be adapted to let dogs play computer games at home. So not only can old
dogs learn new tricks research suggests it’s a great idea to try and teach them. It may be a little
tougher for them, but it seems to be worth the effort.
You can always learn. We can always learn to have more of a positive influence over our dog. But if
they're doing something and they have been in a pattern for years and years and years, and we think
it's really hard for them to break what that pattern is, it's because that pattern is very strong for
them. But we can reverse it. They can learn not to do it just as long as there's another option. And if
we make sure that other option is easier for the dog then they'll switch. So yes, an old can learn new
tricks, a young dog can learn tricks. All dogs can learn. We need to switch what we're doing