How old is too old for a dog to learn?

 Two questions that I get asked most often and usually in the same breath are “is my dog too old to be trained?”, and, “what do you think of Cesar Milan (the author of several books and star of his own show on Cable Television)?”   To you, these are two separate questions, but both questions can be answered using almost the same context. 

Is my dog too old to learn? 

No, I think any dog can be trained, no matter the age, breed or temperament.  Dogs are followers.  Man domesticated the dog because man needed a friend, and dogs allowed themselves to be domesticated because they needed a pack leader.   When I am re-training or doing behavior modification with a ‘problem dog’, I have to look beyond the dog and look at the family and household.  Most problems are perpetuated by the humans in the house whether they realize it or not.  Once I show the owners how they are allowing this behavior to take place, and show them how to institute the rules as I have explained, their dogs do not revert to the ‘problem behavior’.  Problem solved!  

But, every so often, I come across a person who is in denial of their part in the dog’s behavior or worse yet, refuses to change how they handle their dog or treat their dog so a change can come about.  This is the same person who will go through 4 and 5 trainers until they find the answers they want to hear.  But, please realize, the answers never changed, the only thing that changed was the manner in which the solution was presented, hence, their new found wonderful ‘behaviorist’.   

In order for the dog’s behavior to change, the owners must change how they handle and lead their dog.  The owners sometimes do not want to take on the role as Alpha or Pack leader; do not want to set rules or do not want to believe that their dog is ‘acting like a dog’.  In plain English, most times it is the owners that are refusing to change, and hence the dog’s behavior never changes. 

Dogs do what is good for them, what satisfies their needs at that time.   That may mean obeying you or not, dogs do what is good for them at that moment.  It is up to the owner to establish him or herself as Pack Leader and not to allow unacceptable behavior. When the owner acts as the Pack   Leader  the dog realizes (a) obedience is not an option and (b) there is a consequence to acting ‘outside of the pack rules’.   

Cesar Milan 

And, yes, I think the verbal information Cesar Milan gives on his program is great.  Cesar makes training seem very easy, it is not. That is my problem with his program.  It is not the sound that Cesar makes or the way he touches a dog; neither you nor I can duplicate the way in which Cesar trains.  Training a dog may be easy for Cesar and for me, because we are professional and natural born dog leaders. But training a dog is not easy and does not come naturally or easily to many people.  

I’m sure there is a lot of ground work that is done that we as television viewers do not see.  But what I do like about Cesar’s show is that if you really listen to his answers, most dog behavioral problems are not about re-training the dog, but re-training the owner or human in the manner in which they live or handle their dog; that is the difficult part! 

Cesar spends a great part of his show listening to the owner’s problems. He then explains to these owners that they are allowing their dog to exhibit this undesirable behavior by treating their dog as a human and not as a dog. And of course they must establish themselves as the Alpha. 

Teach your dog to be a follower 

The only way behavioral problems go away is if you teach your dog that his behavior is unacceptable and he must follow your lead as Alpha.  A dog does not want to be pack leader; that is a stressful role for a dog.  He must protect and make decisions in a world which he doesn’t understand the language, all but a few words anyway!   

That is like me asking you to take over as leader in a different country in which you do not understand the customs or the language.  This stress that the owner gives the dog creates the improper behavior and the dog just reacts the way he knows how, like a dog.  Then he gets punished for acting like a dog!  It’s a ‘lose- lose’ situation for the dog. 

It is up to you, the reasoning human, to take over the leadership position, change the way in which you handle your dog, set some rules and boundaries and be prepared to enforce the rules should they be broken by your beloved pet.  Now your dog can go back to being a dog, a role he understands!  He wants to be a follower, which should be his role in your home. Once you establish clear and consistent rules for your dog to follow, his behavior will change.  But the moment you allow misbehavior or a breaking of the rules, you will see your dog’s unwanted behavior rear its ugly head again. 


Yes, any dog can be trained and re-trained at any age, but are you the owner willing to make changes in your life and in the life of your dog so the training has a chance of success?  I never guarantee the dog will not go back to the problem behavior because, frankly, I am never convinced the humans in the household are up to the challenge of the change in themselves.  No one can guarantee their training methods will work because it is not the dog we are worried about, it is the change in the human that we are worried about.  Unfortunately, I have met very few humans who make me confident that they are up to the challenge of changing themselves. 

If you are not willing to make a change in yourself and maybe your lifestyle, your dog’s behavior is not going to change.  If you are willing to change and realize maybe you have to alter your lifestyle a little bit, yes, any behavior can be trained out of your dog.  No, the change will not happen overnight but once you acknowledge the changes that need to be made and you stop creating excuses for why the training will not work, you will see a huge difference in your dog and the life which you live with your dog will be dramatically changed for the better.