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The Canine in Conversation
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illustration of a by holding a top hat and showing some playing cards to a dog
figure 1  


old dogs will not learn new tricks or you can't teach an old dog new tricks. People in old age do not readily conform to new ways.

This is a canard. Old dogs and old people can learn new things. In the earliest form I could find references for this phrase, William Camden, an Elizabethan historian, offered a milder bit of wisdom in 1605: “It is hard to teach an old dog tricks.”reference 1 Since he was documenting the folklore of Britannia at the time, we can assume that he was not the originator.

The difference between “you can't teach...” and “it is hard to teach....” is critical here. Presumptions of a decline in cognitive function, the key ingredient in acquiring new knowledge or learning new behaviors, is often matched in a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, studies show that for both dogs and humans, such a decline is unnecessary. In a two-year study of aged beagles, a combination of good nutrition and “behavioral enrichment” were shown to slow and in some cases reverse cognitive decline.reference 2

So, while there is a grain of truth in the adage, there is no reason to let it apply to you. Indeed, the phrase “to be an old dog” is sometimes used to mean to be experienced at or knowledgeable about something.reference 3

1. Skinner, Bruce, ed. 1997. Dog Quotes. A Breed Apart: Advising and Entertaining Greyhound Owners Worldwide 2 (12). Accessed Apr 1 2001 from http:// dogquote.htm

2. Milgram, NW, E Head, SC Zicker, CJ Ikeda-Douglas, H Murphey, B Muggenburg, C Siwak, D Tapp, and CW Cotman. 2005. Learning Ability in Aged Beagle Dogs Is Preserved by Behavioral Enrichment and Dietary Fortification: A Two-Year Longitudinal Study. Neurobiology of Aging 26 (1):77-90.

3. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from http://

About the illustration: A young man showing a dog his card trick. Whether he is attempting to teach the dog or trick him is unclear. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.
see also: like an old dog; there's life in the old dog yet Last updated: August 29, 2009
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