Old Dogs, New Tricks!

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  Everyone has heard this saying but is it true?  Definitely not!  Apex is my 13 year old  Border Collie.  His hearing and eyesight are not what they once were but his ability to learn is still possible!
In my house I have several flights of stairs.  Apex has never wanted to come down into the basement.  I have tried to encourage him but he always took the option to go and lie down somewhere else.  I was okay with this because I didn’t really want him to do extra stairs and he has never really been a dog who felt like he had to be everywhere you are.  In fact he loves to go lie on an available couch, dog bed or even in his kennel!
However, in the last couple months I started to notice a change.  Recently I found out the reason Apex decided he wanted to be where I am but I will instead mention how he was communicating it to me.
My younger Border Collie, Listo, insists on being where I am.  So he will go wherever I intend to go.  Apex would go with us and when he saw we were heading downstairs he would find somewhere else to lie down.  When he would lie down he would hit the floor pretty hard.  It was his version of a heavy sigh.  At first I discounted this as just the way he was choosing to lie down.  But then he started to go upstairs!  Well the whole point was that he wasn’t supposed to do stairs.  Then I thought that was ok because he would go lie on the bed upstairs and even though he has a habit of unmaking the bed I felt okay because I was thinking he was happy.  Turns out I was wrong. He was sending me a message!
Now to teach him to do a set of stairs he doesn’t want to do.  I got some treats and turned on as many lights as I could and then used flashlight mode on my iPhone.  Apex was always a confident dog and would always try to do as I asked.  Having more light really helped him want to try but he still hesitated.  I positioned him on the top step so he would know that I really wanted him to try and so he could get a feel for the depth.  He still wasn’t happy of the feeling of the flooring under his feet but with some encouragement, he tried.  There are a few steps and then a landing and then another section.  When he got to the landing I gave him a treat and celebrated his success.  He then offered to scramble down the rest.  Not very graceful and he looked relieved to be done the process.  He earned his treat!  I showed him a place that he could lie down and call his own and he settled.
This took a few attempts and he gained more and more confidence.  Going up the stairs was quite a bit less challenging and certainly not graceful but he did it.  I used the flashlight on my phone to make sure he could see.
As his confidence grew he started to offer to come down on his own and he started to follow me wherever I decided to go.  I still wanted to keep his stairs at a minimum but he wasn’t showing any physical discomfort from it so I just tried to keep a nice balance.
When we were downstairs he even started to occasionally chew a bone and he would even jump up on the couch sometimes.  He became very comfortable with his surroundings.  I will also mention that the look of relief gradually changed to a look of achievement.  Every time he did the stairs he looked like he was very proud of himself.
I should mention that there was a transition period with my other dog Listo.  He had gotten used to having that area to himself.  I had to make sure Listo would leave him alone.  Pretty soon everyone was comfortable.
I mentioned earlier in this post that Apex seemed to be telling me something.  I am so thankful that I listened.  Not long after he mastered going downstairs into the basement he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  I mentioned this story to the vet and she told me that she often hears stories like this where dogs seek comfort because they know they are ill.  They want to be close to their human companions.  I have never experienced this before because my previous dogs had all died suddenly.  I don’t mean to end this post on a sad note but unfortunately Apex passed away recently.  So I will say two things, listen to your dogs.  They can speak to us in many ways.  And finally, old dogs can learn new tricks.  Especially if given a good foundation of learning!!