The origin of an old saying
According to MythBusters, it was an English man who first coined the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Fitzherbert was literally talking about dogs when in 1523 he wrote “the dogge must lerne when he is a whelpe, or els it wyl not be; for it is harde to make an old dogge to stoupe.”
Today the saying is used in many contexts. Generally it’s used to mean that it’s near impossible to change someone who’s set in their ways. But does it hold true when it comes to dogs? Does a dog, past a certain age, lose the ability to learn?
You can and should teach an old dog new tricks
Not only can older dogs learn new things, it’s important to keep them mentally stimulated (as much as it is younger dogs). I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has come to me with a dog that they exercise like crazy and can’t seem to figure out why the dog is still unsettled.
The answer in many cases can be a lack of mental stimulation. For most dog owners taking their dog for a walk every day makes sense. Whether they do it themselves or hire an awesome dog walker to do it for them, the idea of a dog needing exercise seems natural. It’s easy to forget that dogs need to use their brains too. Dogs are smart, and teaching them to use their brains is both fun and rewarding.
Teaching an old dog is like a broken elevator
So while teaching an old dog isn’t impossible, it can be more difficult. It’s why I always express the importance of getting a puppy trained when they are young instead of waiting until the dog is older.
Another old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” also applies here. Better to nip behaviours in the bud before they have to be untaught or retrained later on.
Think about yourself. No matter how old you are, you’re set in some of your ways. Getting you to change your habit takes effort. Whether it be to become more active, to eat healthier or quit smoking. Old habits die hard.
I liken the experience to a broken elevator. Pretend for a minute that you live in an apartment building on the 5th floor. You’ve lived in this apartment for just over three years now. Each day you come home from work, enter the lobby press the up button and wait for the elevator to arrive and open its doors. Each day the same pattern starts to develop: Press button, wait… elevator doors open. Press button, wait… elevator doors open; etc..
The elevator is still broken, what do you do?
One day you get home from work and the elevator isn’t working. You press the button like you normally would and you wait and wait, but no elevator arrives. Do you:
A) Say “oh well” and take the stairs right away (with enthusiasm)
B) Throw a rope with a hook attached up the side of the building and start climbing
C) Frustrated, press the button repeatedly saying “C’mon you stupid thing.. work!”
If you were being honest, your answer was most likely C. It’s the same with your dog. When you’re trying to change behaviour, they’re always going to try what worked for them in the past first. They’ll take the path of least resistance (the elevator) before looking for another option (the stairs).
Essentially when you’re teaching your dog a new behaviour (or shaping an old one), you’re teaching them about the stairs in the apartment scenario. In order to reinforce taking the stairs as the default behaviour you also need to reinforce that the elevator (the old behaviour) is broken – no matter how many times your dog tries to press that “up button”.
If you’re consistent, your dog will go for the stairs first because it is the path of least resistance that creates the same desired effect. Obviously the longer a dog has used the elevator (or their old behaviour), the longer it’ll take them to learn to use the stairs.
Old dogs still have lots of love to give
Training an old dog isn’t impossible. It might take some time, but it can be done. All of us are stubborn in our behaviour patterns. Patience and consistency are the keys to creating positive change and teaching your dog a new trick.
If you’re interested in the MythBusters findings about training an old dog new tricks (mentioned above), you can find them here.
Senior dogs can be the hardest to find homes for. Many people prefer a young puppy instead of the old classic. Old dogs can have lots of love and fun left in them (we’ll write about great reasons for adopting an older dog in another post). So if you’re thinking of bringing a new dog into your family, consider adopting one in their golden years.