You can’t teach an old dog new tricks ... or can you?

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks ... or can you?

Do you find it difficult to change your behaviour? Are you set in your ways? Is there ever a time when it is too late to change?

Have you ever heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?

This idiom or proverb has been circulating the world for around 500 years. Originally it appeared in Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry in 1534 – referring to the fact that it is easier for a young dog to learn new behaviours, and he was referring to teaching a dog to follow a scent.

Fast forward to 1721 and Nathan Bailey wrote in his book Diverse Proverbs"An old dog will learn no tricks." In writing this Bailey was referring to humans and the difficulty, if not impossibility, they face in learning something new or changing a behaviour.

We have accepted this saying as a truth and at times used it as an excuse to not even attempt to alter our behaviour or try something new. We will use anything to avoid change and stand firm in our ways, even if they are bringing discomfort to ourselves and to those around us. Men tend to be stubborn creatures and stick to patterns they are familiar with. This saying is a perfect excuse to stay set in our ways.

We also have similar expressions in other languages as well –

French – Ce n’est pas à un vieux singe qu’on apprend à faire la grimace

You can’t teach an old monkey how to pull a funny face.

Spanish – El loro viejo no aprende a hablar

An old parrot can’t learn to speak.

Italian – I vecchi non imparano cose nuove

Older people don’t learn new things


All these sayings translate to the same message, but why are we taking heed of a proverb that was originally talking about dogs?

As humans we are intelligent creatures and know a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. To change a pattern, behaviour, or way of being we must first come to the understanding that this action is not working for us and be willing to change, and from there work out how we want to go forth and put that action into our lives (we need to be able to walk the talk, not just talk the talk).

The older we are does not necessarily mean the harder it is, but it does mean that we have ingrained these behaviours into our being and so we have the belief that the way we operate is the right way.

If we let go of our pride, and exercise dedication and commitment, there is no reason as to why an old dog can't learn new tricks.

  • By Tony Steenson, Brick/Blocklayer

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