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You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks But Puppies Learn Faster!

by | Dog Breeding

Cool new findings about which, what and how dogs learn!

We haven’t completely processed this recently released research (Wallis, Lisa, Virányl, Z, et al. 2016; download it below) but wanted to pass it on to you because it’s interesting in so many ways.  “Aging Effects on Discrimination Learning, Logical Reasoning and Memory in Pet Dogs,’ just published in Age, gives us insight into the effect of age on how dogs learn, as well as the effect of sex, types of objects, how often the dogs are rewarded, and more.

Privately-owned border collies, from 5 months to nearly 14 years, were taught to use a computer touch screen to select a specific image from among other images.  First, they were taught to use the screen, then they were taught to discriminate between images based on various criteria, from shape to type (photo or drawing) to newness.  If they selected the right image, they got a treat.  Once fully trained, if they selected the wrong image, there was a noise, the screen turned red and the test was repeated.  All the dogs went through the training and testing before taking a six-month break before being retested to see how much of the training they remembered.

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What did they discover?

Dogs are naturally drawn to round objects…and drawings. Way cool! Golden Retriever at the Museum, Tom Mosser

Dogs are naturally drawn to round objects…and drawings. Way cool! Golden Retriever at the Museum, Tom Mosser

There are many, many interesting findings in this research that is linked below, but here are a few:

  • Age appears to have a direct negative impact on how quickly a dog learns; younger dogs learn more quickly with fewer wrong choices than older dogs.
  • But dogs’ longterm memories are not affected by age; older dogs retain learning as long as young dogs.
  • Dogs are more naturally attracted to round objects and drawings than shapes and photographs.
  • Female dogs learn more quickly, requiring fewer trials and making fewer errors to learn a task than male dogs. Males tended to “perseverate,” repeat an unrewarded behavior, more than females.
  • Rewarding dogs less than 100% of the time for right answers slowed the learning time for all but one task.


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What are our take-aways?

These findings will be investigated by others but for us the big take-aways are:

  1. Teach your puppies what you want them to learn! At this age, they learn quickly, easily and they remember it a long time. That applies to both what we want them to learn and what we don’t.
  2. Older dogs can absolutely learn new things but we need to be more patient and committed to helping them do that!
  3. But retraining older dogs out of bad habits will be far more difficult than teaching puppies right the first time!
  4. When teaching, reward dogs 100% of the time for right choices. Only once they have learned something well, should you gradually step the reinforcement down over time.
  5. And from our golden retrievers, USE TENNIS BALLS!!

Enjoy reading this enlightening research and see how you might apply it to your dogs!


Wallis, Lisa, Virányl, Z, et al. 2016. Aging Effects on Discrimination Learning, Logical Reasoning and Memory in Pet Dogs. Feb 2016. Age 38:6

We thank the authors of this study and Age for making it freely available through a Creative Commons license.  We have made not changes to the original article or supplemental material.

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