Day 423: Teaching an old dog new tricks

Yes, that’s the title for today’s post.  “Teaching an old dog new tricks.”

First of all, what does that mean?  It’s an English idiom, defined as follows, according to

Idioms & Phrases
teach an old dog new tricks

Change longstanding habits or ways, especially in an old person. For example, His grandmother avoids using the microwave oven; you can’t teach an old dog new tricks . This expression, alluding to the difficulty of changing one’s ways, was first recorded in 1523 in a book of husbandry, where it was used literally. By 1546 a version of it appeared in John Heywood’s proverb collection.

I’m noticing the reference to microwave ovens there, something I blogged about here (and which actually does relate to teaching an old dog new tricks).

As I look at the other definitions of that idiom online, I’m learning it may be the oldest proverb/idiom/saying/whatever-you-want-to-call-it on record. Wow. That’s impressive.  I’m also reminded that the actual idiom is the negative form, that is: 

You cannot teach an old dog new tricks.

Prov. Someone who is used to doing things a certain way cannot change. (Usually not polite to say about the person you are talking to; you can say it about yourself or about a third person.)  I’ve been away from school for fifteen years; I can’t go back to college now. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Kevin’s doctor told him not to eat starchy food anymore, but Kevin still has potatoes with every meal. I guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.


Geesh!  I have so many reactions to THAT definition, I’m wondering this: Will I be able to avoid my old trick of digressing and digressing away from what I wanted to say, like a dog off the scent, with a dog’s chance of getting back to where I want to be?

Well, I’ll quickly say this. That last definition:

  • Encourages indirect communication (also known as “politeness”) (also known as “talking behind somebody’s back”).
  • Encourages negative self talk.
  • Made me hungry.

Okay!  Back to some things I knew I wanted to write, today.

First of all, is it even okay to use my idiom du jour?  Or is it too politically incorrect?

Well, I AM using it, aren’t I?  This IS my blog, after all, and every dog has its day. But is it nice, or helpful, to use that idiom?

Three of the words in that saying DO make me uncomfortable, actually:

  1. The word “old,” which can be interpreted as an insult.*
  2. The word “dog,” which can be interpreted as an insult.*
  3. The word “tricks”, which can be interpreted as an insult.*

Also, I hesitate to use the original saying:

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

… because it is the absolute opposite of what I believe:

People can change, no matter where they are in their lives.

So why did I choose that saying, this morning? Because I’ve been aware of some old, doggedly automatic habits of mine, lately.  And I’ve been working like a dog to change them.

Here are two old, dogged, tricky thought patterns I’ve been noticing:

  1. After I publish a post and I notice something “wrong” with that post — a grammatical error or any other type of mistake — I tend to dismiss or minimize any positive comments I get from readers before I can correct the error(s).
  2. If a stranger smiles at me, my automatic response is this: to check myself, to see if there is something ridiculous about how I look.

Those are old tricks, for sure, dear readers.

How am I changing those and teaching myself new ones?

As always, it helps — a lot — to catch those puppies in the act. It also really helps to name them.

Maybe I’ll call the first one “Fido” and the second one “Spot.”

Okay! I see I’m up to some old tricks in this blog post, dear readers. That is, I’m approaching the end, without a helpful and/or playful image in sight.

Let’s see what pictorial bones I can toss out there, right now.

Hmmmm. I can’t find my iPhone.  That’s an old trick of mine: hiding — or temporarily losing — important things, perhaps to make my life more interesting. (Here’s a new trick in response to THAT: having faith that I’ll find my iPhone, in one of the old familiar places.**)

So, let’s go to Google Images, and see what we can retrieve for “teaching an old dog new tricks.” Yes, let’s see if that dog will hunt.


(I found that image here.)


(I found that image here.)


(I found that image here.)


(I found that image here.)

My conclusion for this post? There’s life in the old dog yet.

Thanks to dogs of all kinds, all humans who contributed to the images in this post, and to you — of course! —  for barking up this tree/post, today.

* Especially for a woman.

** My phone usually hides in my pocket, my bag, or my car.

Categories: humor, inspiration, personal growth | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “Day 423: Teaching an old dog new tricks

  1. Great reminder that we can change – but that we have to want it – as it is too easy to just let ourselves slide and stick with out (bad) habits out of, well, habit and familiarity!

  2. I’ve always felt like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is an excuse. I much prefer your conclusion.

    My phone often hides in the bathroom.

  3. I’ve often wondered why ‘dog’ is used as an insult, when dogs have so many wonderful qualities.

  4. To take the use of “dog” in the old saw of a saying as in insult is your interpretation annabelle. I, on the other hand, find it an affectionate allusion. Look at that old dog, still trying to write the perfect response to Ann’s post, for instance. Ann, I think that saying has lasted through centuries because, at its root, what it really means is that change is hard. And I think that’s cross-generational.

  5. Great post. I think the great tech craze and new ideas also make it essential for old dogs to learn new tricks…and it is pretty exciting. Also, while we do have our old tricks we will never let go of (part of who we are), the beauty of life makes change fun.

  6. You notice I waited to like this until I was pretty sure you’d weeded out any typos. See, I just learned a new trick, thanks to you! But Dalo’s spot on; it’s almost impossible not to learn new tricks these days. It’s actually amazing how quickly we adapt and forget yesterday’s habits…along with the whereabouts of that new tricked out tech.

    • Yes, Jeff, you were wise to wait, since I DID have some typos I needed to weed out today. Many thanks for this spot-on comment, from Fido, Spot, me, and my phone.

  7. I’m old and I have dogs… so I LOVE this post Ann! Thankfully neuroscience research is proving that we can change our neural pathways – which means new habits and new tricks are possible. Don’t you love it when science agrees with our own beliefs 🙂 Bring on the new tricks!
    p.s. I’m off to teach yoga this morning with dogs in mind. Downward facing, upward facing, fire hydrant … and a few I’ll make up as I go along. Thanks for the inspiration. Val x

  8. Pingback: Day 741: Patterns | The Year(s) of Living Non-Judgmentally

  9. Sepiso

    After a contetious issue someone got annoyed when i used the idiom ” you cannot teach an old dog new tricks”. Please help me explain the idiom.

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