Dog New Tricks

Two years ago for Christmas, after much begging and pleading on my part, my wife bought me a Chihuahua puppy. Dobie’s an affectionate little guy (5.5 lbs. now, fully grown) who loves to perform tricks. When teaching him a new one, I can see in the glint of his eye his effort to puzzle out just what his big buddy the human expects this time. And oh the excitement in his stance, his wagging tail, his bark, when it becomes clear! Watching him celebrate his success (with much bouncing and licking of my face), I’m reminded of my childhood school days, the joyful feeling of having finished a test for which I was well prepared in a subject I loved.

Then the old saw, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” casts its shadow on my current happiness, and I wonder how much longer Dobie will be able to take on new learning. Is there some tragic turning point at which his brain will rigidify? Of course, the saying isn’t really about a dog at all, but a cynical opinion about human nature. It suggests that you and I become unable to adapt and learn as age sets in.

Poppycock! Mental rigidity is not an automatic result of aging, but rather of choosing comfort instead of taking a risk. Learning involves the willingness to hazard embarrassment for the joy of new knowledge and skills. That is perhaps most evident when tackling a new language; misspoken words tend to draw laughter, and it takes a childlike innocence to accept that laughter and continue. But it’s also the case when pursuing other knowledges. Four years ago, at age 48, I bought a motorcycle for the first time in my life, and whenever I have to ask my mechanic for advice about it, I feel like an ignoramus. Because on that subject, I am.

If he were to ever confer with me about poetry terms and history, on the other hand…

Of course, even poetry has its masters whose own expertise makes me seem ignorant by comparison. Fortunately, I’m not too proud to learn from them, either. Ignoring embarrassment for the sake of learning something new is a trick this old dog has learned well, and my life is much the richer for it.

—Les

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