5 adult dogs in training session, lying in a "down' position in the desert
/ / /

Can You Train An Adult Dog? Step-By-Step Guide To Success

Quick Answer

  • An old dog is perfectly capable of learning “new tricks,” no matter what their age.
  • Older dogs have a unique advantage because they often arrive with a ready-made set of life skills.
  • Adult dogs have longer attention spans (compared to puppies), which can make training sessions more productive.
  • Adult dogs have longer attention spans (compared to puppies), which can make training sessions more productive.

Despite the popular belief that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, dogs, just like humans, never stop learning new skills, regardless of whether they are puppies or adults. 

However, there are some basic differences to bear in mind when teaching an older dog compared to a puppy or younger dog.

Puppies, for example, have the advantage of being a blank slate and have a natural curiosity for learning.

Adult dogs, on the other hand, have the benefit of maturity and life experience. 

If a dog has already been in a previous home (or homes), most likely she will already come with a set of learned behaviors that may be good, bad, or a bit of both.

But if she has never experienced life in a human household, then absolutely everything will be new.

Assessing Your Adult Dog’s Training Needs

Start by observing your dog’s behavior in daily situations. 

Pay attention to how she interacts with you, other pets, and new people. 

Note any problematic behaviors, such as excessive barking, jumping on people, lunging at other dogs when on leash, or destructive tendencies like chewing on furniture.

Think about the existing cues* your dog knows and responds to. 

Does she understand “sit,” “stay,” “down,” “wait,” and “come”? 

If not, these are a good place to start.

They will not only improve overall behavior and impulse-control, but also ensure your pup stays safe. 

If she’s already got the basics down pat, you may want to teach her some more advanced behaviors, like “drop it,” “leave it,” or even some tricks for fun.

Once you’ve identified the areas in which your dog needs training, consider your own schedule and availability. 

Make sure you can dedicate the necessary time and effort to effectively training your dog.

*In the days of yore, dog trainers used the word “commands,” but as I’ve said, dog training today is all about teamwork over coercion.

House Training

One of the biggest challenges for most adopters of adult dogs will be house training—teaching your new dog where she can go to the bathroom.

Most likely, if your dog has been living in a shelter or foster home, then someone else has already gone through the process with her and it may be relatively easy for you.

But if she hasn’t been house trained before, then you will need to put in some extra effort, just like you would with a puppy.

That’s certainly something we had to work on with two of our adult rescue dogs, Lennox and Florence.

Both had been rescued from the street and had spent long periods of time in an open shelter, so they had no concept of where it was – and wasn’t – appropriate to go to the bathroom.

2 black Romanian rescue dogs sitting on doorstep in front of white door
Florence and Lennox had both been rescued from the street and were around 7 years old when we adopted them – neither were fully house trained and it’s something we had to work on © The Cat and Dog House

Patience And Consistency

Let me just say that patience and consistency are absolutely essential when it comes to house training an adult dog!

It’s important to establish a new routine for bathroom breaks and stick to it, reward good behavior, and never punish accidents. 

In the meantime, be prepared to get up in the middle of the night for potty breaks until your dog has gotten the hang of indoors vs. outdoors.

While we were working with Florence, we used baby gates to confine her to a small area at night and covered the floor in puppy pads.

That way, if she had an accident, it was a lot easier to clean up and didn’t ruin the floor.

So be prepared to think outside the box!

In this video, well-known dog trainer Zak George tells you everything you need to know about the house training process:

Good Manners And Life Skills

A key goal in working with an adult dog is to teach her manners and life skills and eliminate any bad habits. 

These include behaviors such as:

  • Not jumping on visitors
  • Walking nicely on a leash
  • Waiting politely for her food
  • Waiting at the door instead of rushing outside
  • Not barking at the mail delivery person or garbage truck
  • Coming back when called
  • Going on car rides
  • Staying calm in various situations (e.g. going to the vet, when someone rings the doorbell)

Note: In the old days, manners and life skills were referred to as “obedience,” but dog training in the 21st century opts for a more collaborative approach.

  • Short on time? We’ve condensed the highlights of this article into this handy video:

Case Studies: Adult Rescue Dogs Roxy And Lennox

When we adopted Roxy, she had spent the first two years of her life in the local animal shelter and was very poorly socialized as a result.

When we first brought her home, she wouldn’t stop barking at the news anchors on the TV or her own reflection in the oven door.

She wouldn’t go up or down stairs either.

It was all completely new to her, and she had no idea what any of these things were.

Another of our rescue dogs, Lennox, had lived his entire life as a stray and never experienced living in a human household

Poor Lennox was, among other things, scared of walking across the slippery wooden floors in his new home.

We had to put rugs or yoga mats down everywhere and keep a light on, so he could always see clearly where he was going.

Black German Shepherd cross dog headshot looking at camera with green vegetation in background
Roxy grew up in the shelter and had no idea what it meant to live inside a home with humans © The Cat and Dog House

Training Tips For Adult Dogs

  • Keep training sessions short and frequent, around 5 to 10 minutes each.
  • Use positive reinforcement techniques, such as treats or praise, to reward desired behaviors.
  • Use positive body language and an upbeat tone of voice to communicate with your dog.
  • Be aware that some dogs may have negative associations with training because of a bad experience, for example, if a previous owner or trainer has used aversive training methods or tools that cause pain and fear.
  • Always end training sessions on a positive note, even if your dog is struggling with a particular exercise.
  • If your dog loses focus, or gets tired, bored, or frustrated, take a break – a few good minutes is better than a long, unproductive session.
  • Avoid punishment or negative reinforcement techniques, as these can harm your relationship with your dog and may worsen behavior issues.
  • Practice training in different environments to help your dog generalize her newly learned behaviors. For example, she may sit and wait beautifully at home or reliably come running when you call her, but when you’re out in the local park, it may all fall apart because there are so many more attractive scents and distractions. This is completely normal!
  • Keep in mind that every dog is different and may require unique approaches to training. 
  • Establish a daily routine for exercise and play. This helps keep your dog physically fit and in a positive emotional state, making her more focused and able to learn new things during training sessions. Predictability is important because it helps a dog feel more in control of her environment; she knows what’s happening and when, and doesn’t need to stress about it.
  • Train in a quiet place; depending on past experiences or even simple genetics, some dogs get very nervous around loud noises.
  • When socializing your adult dog, expose her to a variety of experiences, environments, and other animals and always make sure the experience is positive. This will help build her confidence.
  • Learn to read canine body language so you can understand the signs when your dog is feeling scared, stressed, or anxious. If you see the signs, end the training session or remove your dog to a place where she feels more secure.

What If My Dog Makes A Mistake?

Dealing with setbacks and mistakes is inevitable when training your adult dog and is a natural part of the learning process – for both of you. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself – or your dog – if things don’t go as planned. 

And if you find she is having trouble grasping certain concepts, try not to get discouraged or frustrated. 

Instead, take a step back, acknowledge the challenges, learn from them, and adjust your training approach as needed. 

It’s essential to remain patient and consistent, as learning new behaviors can take time, especially for dogs that have never received any formal training.

Ultimately, you are helping you dog build new neural pathways in her brain, so hang in there and enjoy all the small successes along the way.

Choosing The Right Training Method

There are various methods for training your dog, and it’s important to choose one that aligns with your values and goals. 

Positive Reinforcement

The kindest, most humane, and most effective training method is positive reinforcement, which encourages and rewards good behavior.

Positive reinforcement involves rewarding your dog with treats, lots of praise, or even a favorite toy when she successfully completes a task or follows a cue. 

The key is to use tasty, small treats that your dog absolutely loves (think hot dogs or cheese), as this will encourage her to learn the desired behavior quickly. 

Science shows that behaviors that get rewarded are more likely to be repeated.

If you’re interested, it’s known as Thorndike’s Law of Effect.

Positive reinforcement is the kindest way to train because it rewards desired behaviors and doesn’t punish mistakes or unwanted behavior.

The worst thing that can happen is that your dog doesn’t get a click.

This just encourages her to try harder and use her brain to work out what she needs to do to get the click/treat.

The entire premise is to empower dogs to think for themselves, make good choices, and set them up for success.

On the flipside, aversive training tools (such as choke chains, prong collars, shock collarsspray bottles, citronella bark collars, and startle devices) and punishment-based techniques work by causing pain and fear.

It’s hard to use your thinking brain to learn something new when your emotional brain is in overdrive because you’re scared or in pain.

This applies to humans, and it is just as relevant to dogs. 

On top of that, the dog doesn’t actually learn what you want her to do instead.

So positive reinforcement is the way to go.

Clicker Training

Clicker training is another excellent training option and it’s also based on positive reinforcement. 

Clicker training involves using a small device that makes a distinct clicking sound when pressed. 

By clicking to mark a behavior you like and then promptly rewarding your dog, you can easily let her know when she’s got it right. 

Using a clicker is remarkably efficient because it’s so easy to get your timing right. 

The instant your dog performs the desired action, you simply click. 

There’s no delay while you take a breath to say “Yes!” or “Good girl!”

A clicker also offers consistency because it always sounds the same, regardless of your mood or tone of voice. 

This clarity can accelerate your dog’s learning process, making your training sessions more effective. 

It can also help strengthen the bond between the two of you, as it relies on consistent and clear communication, rather than outdated notions of “dominance,” being the “pack leader” or “alpha dog,” or punishment. 

This great little video from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home demonstrates how you can start with clicker training:

One-On-One Training Sessions

If you prefer a more personal approach, consider enrolling in a one-on-one training session with a professional trainer

This allows your dog to receive customized guidance tailored specifically to her needs and learning style. 

One-on-one training can be particularly useful for older dogs, as it offers flexibility and the opportunity to address specific behavior issues.

When you’re looking for a trainer for your dog, it’s really important to ask the right questions before you get started.

This video highlights the main things you need to look for in a dog trainer:

Group Classes

Group classes offer the added benefit of socialization, allowing your dog to develop essential social skills by interacting with other dogs in a controlled environment. 

Again, make sure you choose a class that uses positive reinforcement or clicker training methods.

Note: If your dog gets stressed or anxious around other dogs or is, like our Roxy, poorly socialized, a group environment might be overwhelming, and it would be best to opt for one-on-one training. 

Age And Learning Capacity

When training an adult dog, it is important to consider any physical limitations she might have. 

For example, many senior dogs have arthritis, so might have difficulty jumping, sitting, or even walking for long periods. 

Older dogs sometimes become hearing-impaired, so it’s always a good idea to use hand signals as a back-up if your dog can’t respond to your verbal cues.

Canine cognitive dysfunction is another condition that can affect a senior dog and may cause her to have trouble learning new things. 

If your dog is displaying signs of cognitive decline, be sure to work closely with your veterinarian to explore treatment options and adjust training methods as needed.

Depending on the dog’s age, adult pups may simply have less energy than when they were in their prime.

Adapting your training strategy to suit your dog’s abilities helps your dog engage fully in the learning process. 

If this means taking lots of breaks so she can rest, or getting extra creative to find what works best, then that’s absolutely fine.

At the same time, you’ll be minimizing any potential stress, anxiety, or injury risks while fostering an enriching experience for your pup.

Behavioral Issues

Adult dogs sometimes have existing behavioral issues. 

In fact, if they’re a rescue, a behavior problem may well be why they ended up in the shelter.

Addressing behavior issues requires a tailored approach and, in some cases, professional help*. 

It’s crucial to address any behavioral problems early to avoid them escalating into bigger challenges later on.

*I’ll list some of my favorite professional dog trainer member associations at the end of the article.

Here are some of the most common behavior problems we tend to see in adult dogs:

Inappropriate Elimination

Inappropriate elimination, such as urine marking, can be extremely frustrating and annoying.

When we brought home our rescue dog, Bertie, he had been the longest resident at the shelter for a staggering 3½ years. 

I’ve no idea why because he was an absolute gem of a dog! 

However, once settled in his new surroundings, he began marking the walls with urine. 

Oh my goodness!

We had to address thes unpleasant bathroom habits swiftly and effectively, but also kindly.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure your dog has a consistent and accessible outdoor area to eliminate, as well as a regular schedule for going outside. 

Reward her when she eliminates in the appropriate area and ignore mistakes. 

Simply clean up any potty accidents promptly and thoroughly to remove any lingering odors. 

If the issue persists, it may be a good idea to consult with your veterinarian to rule out a possible health condition.

Sandy color desert rescue dog sitting on top of Tuna Canyon, Los Angeles with Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica below
Bertie spent 3½ years in a shelter environment and would mark the walls inside the house when we first adopted him © The Cat and Dog House

Fear

Fearful behavior often stems from a lack of early socialization. 

If your dog exhibits fear or anxiety around unfamiliar people or situations, you can help her by gradually exposing her to these stimuli in a controlled, supportive environment. 

Make sure you go at her pace and don’t try to rush her.

Separation Anxiety 

Sadly, separation anxiety is a common issue in dogs, especially if they’ve been relinquished to a shelter or moved around from pillar to post with multiple owners. 

To address separation anxiety, try gradually increasing the time you spend apart from your dog. 

Start with very short absences and gradually extend them over time. 

It’s very important not to rush the process.

Only leave your dog alone for as long as she can handle before she starts to panic.

In some cases, you may not be able to leave her at all.

Other dogs may just be okay for a few minutes, but no longer.

Separation-related disorders are usually best addressed by a canine separation anxiety specialist.

I’ll list three of my favorites at the end of this article.

Excessive Barking

Excessive barking can be both annoying and disruptive. 

Identifying the cause of the barking – whether it is due to boredom, attention-seeking, anxiety, or a warning – can help you address the issue. 

Benefits Of Training Adult Dogs

Just like humans, dogs need to keep their brains active as they get older and training is a great way to do this.

Benefits include:

Improved Communication 

Establishing a line of communication that allows both you and your dog to understand each other better. 

Better Behavior

Consistent training sessions help keep your dog’s mind engaged, providing mental stimulation that can prevent boredom and destructive habits.

Safety

Training helps teach your dog appropriate responses in various situations, preventing accidents and aggressive behavior. 

Cues like “sit,” “stay,” and “leave it” can also be crucial in keeping your dog safe in potentially dangerous situations.

Builds Trust And Strengthens Bond

Adult dogs, particularly those with a history of being in shelters or having multiple owners, may have experienced much inconsistency and instability in their lives. 

As a result, building trust is a vital step in the training process, making it easier for your dog to relax so she can learn from you. 

Spending time together in training sessions also helps you establish a deeper connection with your furry friend. 

Separation Anxiety Specialists

*These are my personal recommendations for specialized separation anxiety trainers. Even better, they all do online consults so geography doesn’t matter!

READ NEXT

Resources

NEED A DOG TRAINER OR BEHAVIOR EXPERT?

If you need more help dealing with a training or behavior issue, please find professional help from a force-free dog trainer who can consult with you either in person or remotely.

GOOD PLACES TO START ARE:
- COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers
- Pet Dog Trainers of Europe
- International Companion Animal Network
- Institute of Modern Dog Trainers
- Pet Professional Guild 

All dog owners deserve to have successful relationships with their canine companions!