11 Tips for Training Senior and Disabled Dogs

Can you really teach old dogs new tricks? Yes, despite this prevalent myth, you can indeed teach old dogs new tricks. Not only that, but senior and disabled dogs must be taught new things for their mental stimulation.

An old or disabled dog is likely to have some physical limitations compared to young and energetic puppies but they will still continue to embrace the fun in learning something new.

Here are 11 tips for training senior and disabled dogs:

1. Limit the training to short sessions

Senior and disabled dogs should not be overwhelmed and overstimulated with training, as this might contribute to their physical and mental stress. However, the dog has to receive consistent lessons even if the sessions are short. It may be enough to spend about 15-20 minutes two times a day on dog training, or mix it up with playtime, and nothing more or less

Walkin’ Wheels Dog Wheelchair
Walkin’ Wheels Wheelchair
Walkin’ Lift Rear Harness
Walkin’ Lift Rear Harness
drag bag for paralyzed dog
Walkin’ Drag Bag

2. Play the searching game regularly

The searching game is perfect for senior dogs with a diminishing sense of hearing and sight, as well as for the pup’s mental stimulation. It’s one of the standard training exercises of search-and-rescue dogs. The game is about finding the reward to hone the dog’s sense of smell. To do the searching game, let your dog sniff a bone or treat. Place this somewhere he’ll easily see at the beginning of the training and then say the command to find it. Repeat the process, but next time place the treat in different parts of the house as a challenge. Do the searching game as part of your dog’s regular routine.

3. Use a head collar during the searching game

Some tools can help you and your pooch with training. For example, a head collar or a head halter which looks like a muzzle. It’s strapped around the dog’s snout and connects to the neck and chin, and it’s mainly used for leading special needs people to walk. This device, however, works for leading blind dogs to a safe direction too. Use commands like “stop” or “stay” as you train the dog to get used to this head collar.

4. Pay attention to some of the cues

Disabled dogs with special needs may be giving you cues about their training that you won’t pick up right away. Pay close attention to what they are doing (or aren’t doing) in your sessions. For instance, if you say “sit” and the dog won’t do it on a hard surface, then he’s likely uncomfortable about his weak legs. Before you get frustrated that your dog isn’t listening, try doing the training on a carpeted area and see how the dog responds. The same applies to all other commands – be observant.

5. Change diet to something more age-appropriate

Studies show that as dogs age, their dietary needs change. Consider limiting the fat content of your senior dog’s meals to keep him healthier and ready for training sessions. If needed, add supplements like chondroitin and glucosamine in his diet, which will help with arthritis pain and joint weakness. Some pet owners believe that protein may worsen an older dog’s kidneys, so they limit the intake and most senior dog foods are adjusted for that. But even senior dogs they still need at least 50% of calories from to come from protein to strengthen their muscles and immune system.

6. Avoid repeating physical activities

It’s not advisable to ask your disabled or senior dog to learn to sit and bend down 20 times in a row, particularly if you know of any joint pains or other related health issues. Obviously this will put more stress on the dog’s joints and further complicate the situation. Instead, take breaks during training sessions and keep a variety in your routine so every part of the body gets exercised without overstressing it too much.

7. Don’t forget to do the stretches

This is something that’s often ignored by pet owners, but stretches help dogs to perform physical tasks better and safer because the muscles will be limber. Doggy stretches are great for three areas in the dog’s body that might easily feel sore: his shoulders, hips, and back. You can facilitate the stretches even if your dog is lying down or if balancing is a problem. To do this, grab his legs and gently straighten it out. Hold the position for a few seconds before setting it down. Include gentle and light massage strokes to his tummy and chest when you do the stretches

8. Practice hand signals together with verbal signals

Hand signals are great for dogs with weakening hearing and verbal signals are perfect for pets going blind. But why not combine both signals during the training to get the benefit from both? If you’re not sure what parts of your pup are getting weaker — his hearing or his vision — then it’s best to teach him two types of signals. Either way, it will be useful when the time comes, and this is yet another way to mentally stimulate your aging or disabled dog.

9. Check the day’s weather when you’re training

The older the dogs get, the more sensitive they become to the weather, especially if they suffer from common age related diseases like diabetes or arthritis. The same applies to disabled dogs. So it’s too hot or too cold outside, your pooch will likely to feel it more acutely in his body than a healthy adult dog. They won’t be able to do well in training because they are stressed and uncomfortable about the environment they’re in.

10. Manage your expectations

Disabled dogs are not incapable of being trained or performing well – many of them even have important jobs as service dogs that they do well. However, don’t expect your disabled or 10-year-old Labrador to learn how to stand on his hind legs. If he’s not going to be able to perform the training well since he’s in pain, then it’s best to let go of this training even if it’s a good form of exercise. While you can teach an old dog or disabled dog new tricks, you have to pick appropriate ones for their situation and health. You cannot force a senior dog to be able to carry out every trick you teach him, especially if he’s not physically capable.

11. Limit the high-calorie treats as rewards

Treats are a crucial part of training because it motivates a dog to complete those tasks. However, some treats might worsen his already deteriorating condition like obesity or diabetes due to sugar content or high calories. Choose healthy dog treats with low caloric content, or pick your pup’s favorite fruits and vegetables as treats instead (apples and carrots often work great with dogs). Limit how you reward your dog when he has done well during the training.

In Summary

Teaching senior and disabled dogs new tricks is not that different from training pups. You still need the show the same amount of patience, love, and consistency. The main difference is being mindful of your pet’s limitations and managing your expectations accordingly. The great thing about older or disabled dogs, however, is that they have better attention spans and will be less distracted than puppies. You will likely get through the training sessions much faster.

samantha randall

Thank you to guest blogger Samantha Randall. She has been a writer, YouTuber, and Podcaster in the pet industry for more than 10 years. Samantha loves spending time outdoors in her home state of Maine hiking, swimming and kayaking with her Labrador and Beagle.

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  1. I really need to inquire about something. My husband insist on teaching my almost 12yr old Pomeranian to do new tricks. 1st having her lay down for a treat when for 9 years with only me she knew “sit” for her treats. Now when I have her sit, she really doesn’t do a good job. She does a half sit, half lay. Now he tells me he’s been teaching her to rollover. She’ll lay on her side but won’t go over. I explained that I appreciate him wanting to teach her new tricks but to remember she’s old and rolling over may cause her discomfort. Of course he was offended, he thinks I don’t like him teaching her new tricks. I dont mind at all but with the 1st he confused her and now he’s hurting her, although I know its unintentional. She had just gone to the groomers and was whimpering when she would come out from under the bed, that’s where she sleeps. She has always been uncomfortable for a couple of days after being groomed, her paws are tender from the nails being clipped but she had never whimpered like this before! Third morning after her last grooming he tells me about him working with her for the last week and a half on rolling over. He was doing it on the hard kitchen floor! I asked him to please use the carpet. Two weeks later while getting her wet for her bath I now see bruising all down her back! She hasn’t wimpered since those 2 days 2 weeks ago so IS MY BABY OK??

    • I would continue to watch for signs of pain and discomfort. If you’re concerned she’s in pain, I would recommend speaking with your Vet. But remember, an old dog can learn new tricks. You’ll get better results When training if you use positive reinforcement, lots of treats in praise. And understand that she may become frustrated since she’s doing something she’s never been asked to do before, or might not be able to do due to her age or health. So take your time, and pay attention to the cues your Pomeranian is giving you. If she’s had enough, let her take a break from the training.

  2. I agree with Jojo, let him roll over on the hard floor. Would he ask a 70 year old human to do that? He’s indeed a selfish idiot. If she’s getting bruises, that’s abusive. Would you stand for that with a child? He needs to redirect himself to teach her some more age appropriate tricks. Like a high five. My senior just learned “fist bump”. He has to touch your fist for a treat. He can do that from any position that he’s in, standing, sitting, laying down. We hold a fist and state “fist bump”. Very easy, age appropriate physically but keeps them thinking.