Old Trainer: Yes, you can really teach an old dog new tricks

08/09/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 3:00 PM

Dear Old Trainer: We decided to adopt a dog from a shelter and since we are retired thought we were better off getting an older dog. When I told my friends, several of them said they heard older dogs refuse to learn because their habits are set. Is that true? Lynn, Manteca

A: No, it’s pure hot air.

And while we’re at it, Vincent Van Gogh did not cut off his own ear (Gauguin sliced it off with a rapier), Einstein did not fail high school math, and you can’t get high from smoking bananas.

Old dogs learn faster – and remember longer – than young dogs because their brains are more developed and used to learning. The only limitation is they have less energy to apply to learning as they age.

That old tale – you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – has been around for decades and is just one of many misconceptions about dogs. Some of the others – so goofy you wonder if maybe General Custer, the inventor of New Coke, and the captain of the Titanic got together and invented them – are:

• Females should have one litter of pups before being spayed. (Exact opposite of the truth: A dog is healthier if spayed before she ever has puppies).
• Working dogs should be kept locked up except while working so they will work harder. (Wrong: A dog has to train the same as an athlete does).
• A dry nose means a dog is sick. (No, the nose changes throughout the day).
• Dogs see only in black and white. (Dogs see in color, but in a different way than humans).
• Playing tug of war causes aggression. (The opposite is true: It decreases aggression and strengthens the bond between you and your pet).
• You must always win the tug of war or your dog will decide he is the leader. (Winning tug of war has nothing to do with your dog accepting you as the leader).
• Brewer’s yeast will keep a dog from having fleas. (A holdover from the hippie years. It may be good for your dog, but it won’t help with fleas. Neither will garlic).
• Dogs eat grass because they are ill. (This may be true on rare occasions, but most of the time dogs just feel like eating grass).
• Dogs are ill if they throw up. (Dogs eat anything they come across and throw up whatever their system tells them to throw up. It is part of their omnivorous nature.)
• Dogs have poor vision. (Dogs have excellent vision, especially for movement. Dogs can see another dog 300 yards away).
• A dog must walk behind you or he thinks he is the leader. (An example of what happens when you project human psychology onto canines. If you are a leader your dog doesn’t care where you walk).

In addition to learning as well as any other dog, older dogs make quick adjustments to a new home. They know they have been rescued and form a stronger bond with their new humans than non-rescue dogs.

Work with your local shelter. The perfect dog for you is just waiting for you to arrive.

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