The Importance of Training Dogs at Every Life Stage
By: Andrea Arden
Andrea Arden Dog Training
As pet parents, we cherish the journey we embark on with our furry family members. Each stage of their lives brings its own set of joys, challenges, and opportunities for growth, enrichment, bonding, and fun. When it comes to training our dogs, positive reinforcement techniques can make a world of difference in fostering a strong bond, shaping our dog's behavior, and providing our dogs with the best quality of life during every stage: puppyhood, adolescence, adulthood, and senior years. (Don’t believe what they say — you can teach an old dog new tricks.)
Training our dogs using positive reinforcement techniques at every stage of their life is a fun and effective approach. From their playful puppyhood to their graceful senior years, fun, reward-based training fosters a deep bond, builds trust, and helps shape desired behaviors. Remember to be patient, consistent, and understanding as you navigate each stage of your dog's journey, celebrating the milestones and cherishing the moments together at every stage.
Puppyhood (Up to 5 Months of Age)
Puppyhood is a critical time for learning and socialization because during this stage of development, a pup is like a little sponge, eager to absorb information about the world and their place in it. Pet parents should consider this stage as a time to lay a strong foundation for a mannerly, social, and confident adult dog by employing the many benefits of positive training, management to prevent mistakes and set their pup up for success, and a thoughtful socialization protocol.
Being that there are so many things we must teach our pups, it can feel overwhelming knowing where to start and what to prioritize. As a general rule, the most important first skills are setting a foundation for house training, teaching bite inhibition, time alone skills to prevent future separation issues, and the foundation for manners skills like impulse control, come when called, and sit, down and stand.
Using a science-based method means your pup will most efficiently and effectively learn skills while also learning to love playing the training game with you! There are loads of things we can use to reward our pups for a job well done, including (but, not limited to) healthy food rewards, toys, praise, and a game like tug or fetch. Basically, anything a pup likes is useful as a way of giving them feedback when they respond to our requests and/or when we want to associate an experience with something positive.
Management to prevent predictable mistakes is especially important for young pups since they have yet to learn what is expected. Some of the most important management tools are:
A crate for short periods of confinement so one can best predict when a pup needs to potty and so the pup can start learning to self-pacify.
On-leash supervision during play time to prevent wandering about and making mistakes and as a gentle tool for time outs for nipping and mouthing.
Lots of food-stuffed chew toys to keep the pup happily occupied.
A food, water, potty, and play schedule.
In addition to teaching your pup a foundation for life skills and employing management to prevent mistakes, socialization is paramount during puppyhood. This means giving your pup opportunities to get to know various environments, people, and other animals in a positive, gradual, and controlled manner. This helps prevent fear-based behaviors and fosters a friendly, well-adjusted dog.
Adolescence (5-18 Months)
Perhaps the most challenging of all development stages, adolescence is when a dog has more energy than ever, has developed stronger preferences and opinions, is more inclined than ever to test boundaries, and is experiencing hormonal surges. Living with a teenage version of a pet requires extra patience and consistency as you help your dog navigate through this transitional period of their life.
Plan for a few 3-5 minute training sessions every day so your dog has plenty of opportunities to build strong learning muscles and to run off mental and physical energy. In addition to practicing the behaviors you set a foundation for in puppyhood, add in some new tricks and activities to keep them engaged and to make playing the training game fun for all.
Continue to manage your young adult dog to set them up for success. The tools you used when your pup arrived home, such as a crate, on-leash supervision, food-stuffed chew toys, and a play/training, feeding, and potty schedule are still valuable and necessary. While your pup should be making progress in all manner of skills, they still need your support to help them make wise choices.
Don't assume your young adult dog is fully trained, because they are not. Even the most diligent and talented professional dog trainer knows that their own dogs have just the foundation of life skills and manners/obedience training through the first five months or so of their lives. Ongoing attention must be paid to helping your dog learn to respond reliably to your requests in various environments and contexts and to make consistently good choices.
Be prepared to take steps back in training — regression is normal. Adolescent dogs often need us to give them opportunities for a refresher course, even for things we practiced diligently during their early puppy months.
Adulthood (1.5-10 Years)
Adult dogs benefit from the solid foundation set during puppyhood and adolescence but also require continued feedback when they respond to requests appropriately. While you may not need to reward at the same rate as when your dog was younger and at the beginning stages of their education, previously learned behaviors require ongoing attention to be maintained.
Vary what you use as rewards to keep things interesting for your adult dog.
Throw in some jackpot rewards occasionally. This means giving your dog something extra special, like a most favored treat or an extra enthusiastic moment of praise. This type of varied positive feedback helps keep a dog’s enthusiasm for responding at a higher level — the dog version of being kept on one’s toes!
Incorporate more complex training exercises to challenge your adult dog's mind and maintain their skills.
Ensure consistent and appropriate physical exercise to keep them healthy and happy and to avoid behavior issues that stem from boredom and a lack of outlets for mental and physical energy.
Make an effort to vary the routes for daily walks to keep things more interesting.
Consider enrolling in a training class to enjoy the challenge of a new dog sport such as agility, scenting, rally, herding, or dock-diving. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian to ensure you are choosing activities that are appropriate for your dog.
Senior Years (10+ Years)
As dogs age, their bodies and minds may slow down. But, they can and should continue to learn and to reap the many benefits of playing the training game with their family. A dog’s life revolves around their human family members and there is little to compete with the joy they get from time with their people. Just as most people still enjoy playing games or spending time on a hobby, so will a companion dog enjoy time spent being applauded for their skills, both old and new. Yes, you can and should teach an old dog new tricks! Just be sure to adjust training exercises to accommodate any physical limitations, and to be patient and understanding with your senior dog. You may need to teach them new behaviors as they age, such as using stairs to get on the couch, or not jumping with enthusiasm, which can be hard on aging legs — so it’s good to keep education and training a lifelong practice.
Be sure to focus on mental stimulation, as it can help keep their cognitive functions sharp and reduce cognitive decline. Puzzle toys, scent games, and fun, brief training sessions can provide mental enrichment which is crucial in their golden years.