Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?
Charlie, our little bichon frise, is now 11 years old. Depending on whether you use the 7 dog years for every human years, or the more complicated formula of 24 years for the first two years and 4 for each year thereafter, our pooch is the equivalent of 60-77 years old. According to the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” he won’t be learning anything new, and he may even forget some of the tricks he already knows.
Charlie spent most of his life in a leafy Albany neighborhood four doors down from a walking trail and a pond. He traded this idyllic setting for the mean streets of New York City last winter. Our East Village neighborhood has seen a number of dog-on-dog attacks recently, and we’ve worried about Charlie because, ever since he was a puppy, he’s barked and lunged at big dogs.
Dog trainers call this “fear aggression.” Charlie has decided that the best defense is a good offense, and by barking or lunging, he can scare away a potential aggressor. The strategy hasn’t worked very well; three times, big dogs have attacked Charlie. And he doesn’t listen when I try to tell him, “In a dog-eat-dog world, don’t be the dinner bell.”
This past August, I was walking Charlie along East Second Street between Avenue A and B, the block where my daughter lives, and I saw a sign outside The School for the Dogs. It advertised a workshop by New Jersey dog trainer Pia Silvani, “Dog-Dog Aggression on the City Streets.” I signed Charlie up.
The workshop, it turned out, was for dog owners, not the dogs themselves (though five demonstration dogs showed up). For four hours that Saturday afternoon, we learned how to take our dogs aside when other dogs passed, commanding them to sit and feeding them favorite treats. Pia Silvani also showed up how to use treats so that our dogs could pass other dogs without barking and lunging. At one point, I asked her, “Can you teach an old dog to do this?”
She smiled and answered, “Yes, but it takes longer. I even taught an 8-year-old dog to behave on the street.”
“Well, my dog is 11.”
She said I could still teach him, but I would have to be patient and firm. Ever the conscientious student, I set out to instruct Charlie through his favorite snack — cheese.
Despite his advanced age, Charlie responded immediately. He loves cheese. The allure of the treat was so powerful that it distracted him from the presence of even the largest and scariest of dogs. Over the next few weeks, he went from barking at every dog within sight to barking at half, then a third. Better yet, when he saw a dog, he looked up at me first, expecting a reward. He had begun to internalize the lesson.
Charlie didn’t follow a smooth learning curve. He still erupts from time to time on the street, especially when we first come out of our building or if a dog comes too close to him. But he has improved to the point that he’s no longer the neighborhood nuisance. In fact, people have come up to me for tips on training their dogs not to bark and lunge on the street.
There’s a commonly-held view that dogs, and people, cannot learn when they’re old, that they’re already set in their ways. In the United States, this attitude contributes to age discrimination and a cohort of older white workers who feel so hopeless and marginalized that their deaths from suicide and alcohol and drug abuse are dragging down the life expectancy of the entire country.
When I moved to Portugal three years ago and signed up for an intensive Portuguese class for immigrants, I worried that I would fall behind the other students because “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Or, as the Portuguese say, “O burro velho não aprende línguas,” which refers specifically to our ability to learn languages.
We all know how that one turned out.