August 24, 2019
I don’t think you can teach me how to use this new phone, son. I’m not use to this technology. As they say, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’
Sorry for not having any Famous Sayings for the past week, so this is going to be the first of two in two days. This proverb might be much older than you’d expect, but the meaning of it is clear.
What Does ‘You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks’ Mean?
The adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” speaks to the notion that it is (nearly) impossible to move someone away from one way of thinking, to teach them a new skill, or get them to try a new method of doing things. Just like an old dog may be set in its ways, an older person or experienced person may be set in their ways. It’s also hard for anyone to take advice from someone who is younger than them, mainly due to pride.
Nowadays, when I think of this saying, I can apply it to something like computers and new technology. Younger people tend to pick up these things easily because they grew up around advanced technology (Wonderopolis). Also, younger people tend to be more adventurous and curious, so they will play around with their computers and gadgets more and discover more features of that technology and new ways of doing things with the technology.
Who Coined This Adage?
Various sources I consulted (including The Phrase Finder) pointed to John Fitzherbert’s 1534 book The Book of husbandry as being the earliest examples of the proverb in print. Here is a quote from the book:
… and he [a shepherd] muste teche his dogge to barke whan he wolde haue hym to ronne whan he wold haue hym, and to leue running when he wolde haue hym; or els he is nt a cunninge shepeherd. The dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or els it will not be: for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe.
[The word “stoupe” (stoop) meant that a dog would “put its nose to the ground to find a scent” in the 16th century.]
The proverb was later cited in a 1546 collection of proverbs by John Heywood.
According to a page on Know Your Phrase, the actual expression might have showed up in the 1700s. The following quote comes from Divers Proverbs (1721) by Nathan Baily:
An old Dog will learn no Tricks.
Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks?
In a word, yes. This has been confirmed by psychologists, dog owners, and the MythBusters.
On MythBusters, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage once performed an experiment in which they tested the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” In their experiment, they took two 7-year-old Alaskan malamutes, siblings named Bobo and Cece, because this breed of dog had a reputation for being particularly stubborn. After four days of training, the dogs were able to heel, sit, lie down, stay, and shake upon command. Thus the “myth” was busted.
Clever Dog Lab
In 2016, Stanley Coren discussed results of a scientific study that was part of a series of investigations carried out at the “Clever Dog Lab.” The purpose of the study was to see if old dogs could in fact learn new tricks and the results were positive overall.
The study, headed by Lisa Wallis, was conducted at the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna (which is part of the University of Vienna) over the course of three years. The study involved 95 Border Collies of different ages, ranging from give months to 13 years old.
The test had three parts, all of which involved the dogs to using a touch screen (with their noses) to select pictures:
- The first part of the test required each dog to touch the correct picture with its nose. There were a set of four pairs of pictures and whenever a dog chose the correct (“positive”) picture, they were rewarded with a treat. If they chose the incorrect (“negative”) image, they were given a timeout. The younger dogs did better than the older dogs during this part of the test; the young dogs only needed 18 trials to reach the criterion set by the people conducting the study (87% correct choices) while the older dogs needed 39 trials to reach the same criterion.
- In the second part of the test, the researchers examined the dogs’ logical reasoning. Again, they were given four pairs of images to choose, but this time, there were four new images and four “negative” images from the last part of the test. Since the negative images didn’t reward anything before, logical reasoning would hold that the dogs should choose the new images and be rewarded. The older dogs performed better during this part of the experiment.
- The third and last part of the test involved testing the dogs’ long-term memory. After at least six months, the dogs were invited back to do the same tasks as they did before. Nearly all the dogs passed the tests and there were no significant differences between the younger and older dogs.
Tips for Training Dogs
In a post for PetPlace, Dr. Nicholas Dodman wrote that it was not only possible to teach old dogs new tricks, but that doing so would be beneficial for dogs and owners. Dog owners need to have patience, use one-word commands, and use positive reinforcement. Owners should never punish their dogs for not obeying commands but use conditions for obeying commands and quickly reward the dogs’ obedience with treats to reinforce the good behavior.
Alina Jumabhoy reaffirmed this. In a blog post for Train Dogs and Puppies, she wrote about how it was certainly possible to teach an older dog new tricks. She stressed that it would be harder to do given the physical and mental limitations older dogs might have (like loss of hearing, loss of sight, less cognitive ability). However, she gave owners some tips to work around those limitations.
- First of all, owners need to have patience when working with older dogs. The process of teaching older dogs will take longer than a process for puppies.
- Owners should incorporate both verbal and visual cues for commands.
- Owners should first go over the basic commands (like “Sit,” and “Stay) before teaching older dogs advanced tricks.
- Some things owners can teach their dogs will be to walk backward, ring a bell, and tidy up. These tasks can keep an older dog active and the bell-ringing task serves the ultimate purpose of preventing accidents in the house when nature calls.
Dealing with Changing Dog Behaviors
In a blog post from La Vida Fresca, Margarat Nee wrote how dogs could change their habits and behaviors when they go older, especially in response to changing circumstances. To illustrate this point, she wrote about two dogs she had, Hesher and Vida. When Nee first had Vida, Hesher was the older dog and in order to vie for Nee’s attention, like jumping for the first time (he was 14 years old), finding new ways to interact with other dogs, and climbing into bed. When Vida got older (she was 12 at the time the blog post was published), she formed new eating habits and stopped doing some of the activities she used to do while the family lived in California (Nee had moved to New Hampshire by then).
At first, Vida’s change of eating habits concerned Nee, but Nee talked to a specialist named Gina Palmer. After Palmer reassured Nee, Nee learned to accept the changes in Vida’s behavior and to respond positively to them.
At the end of the post, Nee also wrote this:
And if I pulled out a clicker and some treats, she’d be more than happy to learn a new trick.
How Do You Use This Proverb?
Whenever I hear “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” I especially think about computers because there is a lot I don’t know and there is a lot certain family members don’t know.
Personally, I never really got into using the Internet until 10 years ago, so there was a lot I needed to know about being online. I was willing to learn enough to navigate the websites I use and to figure out how to find good sources for things. There is still much I need to know and my willingness to learn will determine how much I learn.
Now, when it comes to dealing with certain relatives, that can be a trying experience. I don’t want to bash my elders, but it can be very difficult to talk to older relatives about using the Internet. Those who are unfamiliar with it tend not to want to learn how to use it. The situation is even worse when those relatives don’t want to hear about the importance of making new passwords or finding ways to safely store those passwords.
I have tried to patiently explain some simple concepts, only to be yelled at. I’m also angry at this point, so this adds to my frustration. And to think … the person getting mad at me has lectured me in the past and other things, but they don’t want to learn how to do something that will help them in the long run. Maybe it’s just best for some people to stick to paper and for certain companies to accommodate people who don’t know how to Internet.
In short, old dogs can learn new tricks. But just like older humans, it talks a longer time for older dogs to learn new things. The most important aspect is that someone is willing to learn.
“Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?” Wonderopolis. Web. Retrieved 17 Aug 2019. <https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/can-you-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks>.
“Can’t Teach Old Dog New Tricks.” Discovery Channel. Accessed via Web Archive. Retrieved 17 August 2019. <https://web.archive.org/web/20140710214020/http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/mythbusters-database/teach-old-dog-new-tricks.htm>.
Coren, Stanley. “You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.” Psychology Today. 24 Feb 2016. Web. Retrieved 17 Aug 2019. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201602/you-can-teach-old-dog-new-tricks>.
Dodman, Nicholas (Dr.). “Teaching Old Dogs News Tricks.” PetPlace. 10 Dec 2014. Web. Retrieved 17 Aug 2019. <http://www.petplace.com/dogs/teaching-old-dogs-new-tricks/page1.aspx>.
Jumabhoy, Alina. “Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?” Train Dogs and Puppies. Web. Retrieved 17 Aug 2019. <https://traindogsandpuppies.com/blog/can-you-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks/>.
Martin, Gary. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 17 Aug 2019. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/you-cant-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks.html>.
McQuerrey, Lisa. “How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.” eHow. Accessed via Web Archive. Retrieved 17 Aug 2019. <https://web.archive.org/web/20170804094933/http://www.ehow.com/how_2066800_teach-old-dog-new-tricks.html>.
Seasick Steve. “Seasick Steve – You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks.” YouTube. Published 26 May 2011. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5661DlLWV80>.
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You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks – Idiom (Or Proverb?). Q Language. 22 Nov 2012. Web. Retrieved 17 Aug 2019. <https://www.qlanguage.com.hk/you-cant-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks/>.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Web. Retrieved 17 Aug 2019. <https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/you+can%27t+teach+an+old+dog+new+tricks>.
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“‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ Says who?” La Vida Fresca (The Art of Dog). 8 July 2012. Weblog. Retrieved 24 Aug 2019. <http://theartofdog.blogspot.sg/2012/07/you-cant-teach-old-dog-new-tricks-says.html>.