Who ever said that an old dog can’t learn new tricks? It turns out that an English author by the name of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer was the first to reference the saying "Old dogs will not learn new tricks" in his 1894 publication, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, a compilation of popular idioms and proverbs of the time.
Leave it to someone named Ebenezer to dwell on the negative, yes? Well, it turns out that this old folklore was referring to human behavior and had nothing to do with the canines species at all. And as you might guess, of course, both humans and dogs alike can definitely learn new behaviors.
It’s certainly true that a puppy between 8 weeks and 16 weeks, in what is known as the socialization period, can soak up new behavioral information (both good and bad) like a sponge. Unless there are physical or developmental issues stemming from situations like social isolation or malnutrition, older dogs, dare I say even senior dogs, can certainly learn new tricks.
So you say that you don’t have a need for your dog to learn showy and useless “tricks”… You just want him to behave when company comes over! I have good news, then. When you train with positive reinforcement methods, then every training session is like a fun game for your dog, no matter what skill you are working toward.
When your dog is properly motivated to learn new things through the use of rewards, like treats, toys, praise or belly rubs, then anything is possible – within physical reason, of course. What about the process of correcting unwanted behavior, you might wonder? I would challenge you to ask yourself what replacement appropriate behavior (trick) you might ask of your dog instead.
Purporting that an old dog can’t learn new behaviors is, as I suspect Ebenezer initially reported, an old wives' tale. If it were true, what sort of disservice would we be doing to ourselves, our dogs and countless adult rescue and shelter dogs needing forever homes if we subscribed to this fabled notion?
If you are having issues with your dog, or would like to improve your dog’s behavior, seek out group obedience classes or private training sessions with a positive reinforcement trainer in your area. Indeed, if you are looking for tricks to teach your dog, here’s a fun online resource for trick training, or find a local trick training group class.