Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
Over the years, the human-animal bond has evolved so that companion dogs are often considered part of the family. However, dog relinquishments remain prevalent in many countries — in the U.S., animal rescues and shelters accepted 739,123 dogs in 2021.
Italy is a “no-kill” country, which means that its animal shelters are often overcrowded and viewed as a burden by society. In turn, the overcrowded conditions can lead to welfare and behavior problems for shelter dogs, such as increased aggression. This may become a vicious cycle, as aggressive dogs may appear less desirable to potential adopters.
Many adopters believe that sociability is an important trait when adopting dogs. For this reason, some shelters use behavior and socialization training to help their dogs overcome barriers to adoption. Such training may especially benefit dogs who appear frightened, withdrawn, or averse to human social interaction when potential adopters are present.
In this study, researchers explored the impacts of a training program at one animal shelter in Italy. Dogs in the program were trained for four months between 2018-2020 by certified trainers and veterinary specialists who targeted different “problem” behaviors. Dogs were taught to respond to commands such as “sit” and “stay,” as well as sociability skills such as walking cooperatively on a leash, staying calm while being petted, and socializing with other dogs. They were rewarded with treats, games, cuddles, and other positive reinforcements for successfully completing their training tasks. The researchers compared the adoption outcomes of these dogs to untrained dogs at the same shelter from 2015-2017. In total, they looked at 1,034 dogs.
Over the study period and regardless of training status, younger dogs tended to be adopted more than older dogs. While the training program had no noticeable effect on the adoption rate of juvenile dogs (7-11 months) and young adult dogs (12-24 months), it had an increasingly larger effect for adult dogs (3-8 years) and senior dogs (9-17 years). Specifically, adult and senior dogs were significantly more likely to be adopted if they had participated in the training program.
A possible reason that the training program was most beneficial for older dogs is that people looking to adopt a dog would probably expect older dogs to be well-trained compared to younger dogs. Another factor that might cause people to be more hesitant about adopting an older, untrained dog is the commonly held belief that old dogs are difficult to train (“you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”).
The results of this study should be approached with caution. It only considered one shelter, and as companion animal advocates know, there are many factors beyond a dog’s perceived sociability and behavior that can affect adoption outcomes (e.g., breed, human attitudes, global events, and economic circumstances). The researchers note that in 2020, adoption rates were higher in general, likely as a result of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, this study suggests that a training program could increase the likelihood of older dogs being adopted. If a shelter is planning on introducing a similar program they may get the most cost-effective results by focusing on the older dogs, as this study shows that the adoption rate of young dogs is unaffected by such a program. However, the training may also benefit dogs of all ages while they’re living in a shelter setting by reducing stress and improving overall welfare, so there are other benefits to implementing such a program.