Dogs' new tricks

My husband is a dog person. He told me something about dogs that helped me understand people: learning is "ridiculously easy." It's the unlearning that is hard.

Why it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks

Training older dogs can take 3-5 times longer than younger dogs and takes different methods. It is not that
older dogs are stupid or can’t learn or are less tractable: they often learn more quickly. The problem is the other stuff in their head. Anyone who has had to train an animal knows this, my husband tells me.

He told me a story: "As a
bird hunter we train to "heel" on our left, but this guy always hunted with two dogs. He trained one on the left and one on the right. That was fine and the two dogs thought that was the natural order. But imagine he’d gotten the 2nd dog as an adult, trained as usual on the left. He might have learned to take his place on the right but it would never have been completely natural. He would have to be reminded repeatedly."

This resonates with me especially as I've gotten older. I learn new things readily, but only if I didn't know anything about it before!

Of course, this reminds me of the cognitive restructuring of psychotherapy for eating disorders or for anything. Eating is so fraught with rules and habits: just the shopping and the cooking not to mention the choosing of what and where and how much. Having learned them, especially under duress, it must be a great deal of work to unlearn even if you've learned new structures and rules!


  1. Laura

    Love this because ....

    I think it is very hard for parents to "unlearn" things around food. It is hard for me not to say "What do you want for supper?" "Would you like an ice cream?" "Let's go out for dinner".

    A whole new way of life.

    Also learning to live with food being the central axis of our lives as a family, rather than usually being fun and sometimes a chore.

    Planning in advance, not eating spontaneously.

    Making sure the fridge always has something nutritous, rather than, on a Sunday night, an egg on toast.

    The family life now focussing on food, six times a day, relentlessly, no birthdays off.

    No one but the mother of an anorexic can get excited about their child accepting and eating a chocolate brownie that someone had brought to school.

    Life change. Do-able. But you have to think about it.

    And I am an old dog ...

    Charlotte, UK


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