Old Dog, Clever Tricks

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Whoever came up with that must have been a complete failure as an animal trainer. As I’m sure the pup-lovers among us would report, old dogs, who have learned many tricks, are often much quicker to pick up on a new one than the younger specimens with smaller training vocabularies and tons more energy.

In humans, faster learning among the more experienced is often because we learn by analogy. After a phase of memorizing nomenclature or being shown some basic structure, we grab on to new material by linking it to something familiar. Sitting on a trotting horse, for example, has a certain “washing machine agitator” quality to the movement.

If you’ve ever watched a top-loading washing machine go swisheroo-and-swisheroo you already have a rhythm in your head that will sync your seat up with the horse’s back… even if you’ve never been on a horse before. If you’ve run a marathon (or even a hilly 10k), you have a grasp of boredom and endurance that will stand you in good stead when you start a college degree program, and so forth. The more we learn, the better we get at learning. Learn the violin, and the French horn’s learning curve is shorter and shallower.

And this is fortunate, because a taste for education–formal, informal, any sort of learning at all–is one of the factors linked to later and lighter mental decline in old age. If we want healthy brains, it becomes imperative to keep learning new tricks. I’ve learned to wear my mask out in public, for example, and that was pretty easy because by the age of three, I was having to keep track of my eyeglasses. I have yet to be caught without a mask when I needed one (knock wood).

I’ve learned to Zoom. The writer job keeps me online a fair amount, so click this/open that/turn on the other wasn’t much of a leap, (and what an absolute JOY to see my daughter’s face and hear her voice). I think my next exciting adventure will be to Duo-lingo French, in part because that’s the language I’ve studied that I’ve heard the least in real life (Scottish Gaelic doesn’t count), and in part because Xavier Fournier is giving me fits. (And French is beautiful.)

I’m thinking of ditching the piano in the living room that has been decimated by wild temperature and humidity fluctuations, and getting an electronic keyboard, because I never did learn the Chopin Ballades, and they are sumptuous. Also, most musical instruments require “cross body” physical functioning–you just can’t just use your dominate hand–and that is also good for keeping the neurology happy.

How are you doing in the new tricks department? Have you had an opportunity–or been forced–to pick up any new skills or knowledge lately? Is there a learning project you’d like to tackle on the bucket list?

To three commenters, I’ll send ebook files for A Rogue in Winter. This title has already gone on sale in the web store (and in print and libraries), but the retail launch won’t be until Nov. 2, and that just seems so far away…

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22 comments on “Old Dog, Clever Tricks

  1. 1
    Elizabeth Cecconi says:

    Navigation! I have been forced to think about how long it’s going to take me to get from one place to another in my familiar territory. We are currently in year one of a three year project to improve the inner belt and outer belt highway system around the city where I work. I have traveled back roads and side streets to determine if there’s a faster way than what it takes if I have to sit in the seemingly endless backups around the city. It might not seem like much of a brain training activity, but if I don’t get in the correct lane when I first get on the highway, it can make a big difference in travel time. I have had to retrain my brain to do what has not been part of my routine for 10 years. It’s also an exercise in patience.

  2. 2
    Teenie Marie says:

    Hum, good question–what is one of my new tricks? I was forced to learn new technology and now I feel, ahem, almost comfortable with it. Being FORCED to Zoom and to figure out how to record something (on my phone, no less) and post it was a lesson in patience. I have skills I never imagined needing but because of the Pandemic I’m happy to have almost mastered them.

    I’m a life-long learner. I’ve always WANTED to learn, in fact, if I don’t learn something new everyday, I feel cheated. Mostly, it’s little things (the Kids call them *Hacks*) but occasionally, it’s something directly affecting my work, so I pay attention! We’ve been taking Online courses through the Teaching Company (everything from Music History to Latin, Spanish and Hinduism) and it’s been lovely.

    Here’s a bit of advice about that piano–electronic keyboards are NOT the same, even if they claim to be *just like a piano*. Look into sprucing up the piano versus getting a keyboard. My guess is it will be LESS to get the ol’ piano shipshape than purchasing a keyboard that claims to be *just as good*. The expensive ones can sound and almost *feel* like a real piano but wood truly sounds–and feels–so much better!

    Take care, and have a great week, Grace! 🙂

    • 2.1
      Marianne says:

      Or put the word out, watch the classifieds. I know of 3 @ $1 pianos, ranging from superb to “maybe you could plant flowers in it?” The rest of the price was removing it from its premises immediately.

      Unless you would like to record… then electric is maybe better.

  3. 3
    Susan G says:

    Yesterday, I drove out to western Massachusetts to attended a tracking clinic sponsored by my dog club. I learned so many new tips and tricks that I can apply to training my corgis to track scent. The teachers were awesome and I got tips for each one of my dogs. I was thrilled that both 91/2 year old Greg and 41/2 year old Laci “got it”- they were able to complete a small track.

    I am thinking about installing security cameras outside- porch view, driveway and backyard. My house is on a private road and I have noticed since I have been working from home that we get a lot of solicitors. Some of these people are quite persistent and they have to make an effort to find our houses. And then we have the neighbor who wants to cut down our trees for his view. We have 2 corgi alarm service now and it might not be loud enough. It’s an uncomfortable feeling not to feel 100% safe in your surroundings.

    We are going to remodel our kitchen. This endeavor is a true learning and compromise lesson. I have am amazed by the new type of storage solutions. Am learning a lot about reconfiguring appliances, cabinets, windows and doors. And I am getting a pantry of some type which makes me happy.

  4. 4
    Gollihar Judith says:

    At 79, I have got to have a new source of income since my job has dried up recently- still there after 13 years but much fewer hours under new management. This summer I have been volunteering and building up a supply of rarish books. I hope to go on line to sell books in the next couple of weeks. It’s somewhat daunting to figure out the ins and out of online selling but I am going to be successful.

  5. 5
    M L says:

    I am learning a new knitting technique for the sweater I am making for my great niece.

  6. 6
    Make Kay says:

    I too would like to learn a new language, Grace. I’m torn between French, which I already know a little of, or Portuguese, which I don’t.
    Keeping the mind active and interested is so important, isn’t it?!

  7. 7
    Tina Ann Armato says:

    I have always enjoyed learning just for the sake of experiencing something new, however as I have reached my 70th year, I have come to realize just how important it is to “keep on keeping on” in my education. I have an affinity for computers (as a graphic designer and teacher, I’d better be comfortable with computers!), and my husband and I have recently purchased a 3D printer. Learning how to use it to print exactly what we want, at the size and scale that we need has been quite the learning curve. We are getting plenty of experience printing furniture and accessories for my other passion, assembling and decorating a dollhouse kit that I purchased over 30 years ago and never quite found the time to build until now. Figuring out why some object refuses to print, or deciding which parts to print, or changing the proportions of an object, or even printing portions of different files to assemble into a whole new object, has been challenging, but in the best way possible. We have accomplished way more than we thought we would be able to in the short time we have had it. Next up, learning a program where we can actually design pieces from scratch! I’m hoping that there will be some parallels with the design programs I already know, the same way that knowing how to play a violin makes learning the French horn easier. And if it’s all new, well, I will be happy to tax my brain, knowing that in the long run I can only benefit.

  8. 8
    Beth Lisk says:

    Side note on your piano: get a warming, dehumidifier thingy that you put inside the sound box of the piano and plug into the wall. It will help with the humidity in the piano.

    I took classes in my mid 40s to become a pharmacy tech. This year I have learned to use Zoom for meetings and educational seminars. Also this year, for my chorus’ virtual chorus recordings, I have learned to record myself with my phone while listening through headphones to a recording I needed to match everyone else in their home recordings (while figuring out when and where in my house to do the recordings so it wouldn’t pick up the yards around me getting mown or my son’s shower water going through the pipes, while picking the right natural lighting conditions). Then I was able to use that recording knowledge to do recordings of myself reading books for foster kids. Thanks for helping me learn new words and historical facts from your writings!

  9. 9
    Karen H near Tampa says:

    I have said for years that older employees make better hires because they have all of their prior knowledge to hang the new tasks on. I have always used what I already know to help me learn something new and never understood why too many employers figure that older workers cannot learn something new, rather than appreciate they will probably pick things up at least as quickly.
    Haven’t applied myself to any particularly new tasks lately but am toying with the idea of learning a new language, when I have time and get around to it.

  10. 10
    Sue says:

    I have been learning to talk to my dogs so they will listen and obey. I am actually making progress without sacrificing my preference for treating them like my children.

    I am also enjoying the heck out of Masterclass, watching how to do all this stuff I will never do, but still want to know “how it works.” This is an excellent indulgence for us retired folks along with playing fetch and giving belly rubs! LOL

  11. 11
    Pam says:

    No new tricks for me at this time – too exhausted just trying to keep up with the old routines (retirement can’t come too soon for me), but I did want to praise electronic keyboards. We reluctantly traded our old piano for a Yamaha Clavinova many years ago when our son was taking piano … and it still sounds like it did on day 1. I love real pianos with strings for the richness of the sound, but this is not a bad trade.

  12. 12
    Sarah Ruiz says:

    Keeping up with all the things my kids are interested in provides a lot of my new skills and knowledge, and also a lot of entertainment. For myself I switched my diet to an anti-inflammation diet because of arthritis, and had to learn all the allowed and not allowed foods and work out the adapting of recipes etc., that was quite the learning curve. I feel like I am perpetually wanting to learn ASL but never get very far before something happens and my energies are required elsewhere, but that is top of my wish list for new tricks.

  13. 13
    Marianne says:

    I’m trying to hang onto my old tricks, some of them, anyway. Most (90+%) of my extended family have had some degree of dementia by the time they were mid-80s. My mother lives in a great barn of a house with almost nothing in it, so she doesn’t have to remember what to do with it. She has a fairly strict daily routine and a wall of reminders around her chair, including what to say to people on the telephone. Mostly there’s been someone with her or close by the last year or so, and the neighbors watch out for each other.

    So, I guess I am learning how to hang onto old tricks, what to do for and say to those who have lost some of their old tricks for whatever reason. And A Rogue in Winter is lovely.

  14. 14
    Elizabeth says:

    I picked up acrylic painting this winter after a creative hiatus of 20 years – last time i painted was only oils and mostly portraits – now I am painting everything in acrylics (mostly because I have a family and 2 nosy cats, so having oils and terpentine in the livingroom is not a good idea). It was awesome and humbling to start over.
    At roughly the same time I started a new job where I have had to learn new tricks as well, and new ways of working and ways to handle things I more or less could do with my eyes closed before. Scary and hard on self confidence but also fun and exciting to start something new.
    In a few months I will be turning 50 and the changes in body, mood and life are presenting some changes as well, which are both welcome and unwelcome. The sense of gradually turning more invisible in the public combined with not caring what other people think is incredibly freeing and strange at the same time.

  15. 15
    Glenda M says:

    Aside from Zoom meetings and making multi-day car rides with cats comfortable (as comfortable as any multi-day car ride can be), I can’t think of any new skills. I do want to learn how to grow a great fall & winter garden, but a lot of that is choosing the correct veggies to put in.

  16. 16
    KarenM6 says:

    i have also been in the “learning technical things” category.
    And, while I picked up a book on learning Egyptian Hieroglyphics, I haven’t cracked it yet. I am in my second hand surgery of the year and have found that it feels like the surgeries affected my brain power in the negative. Also, typing with one hand has taught me that “muscle memory” is strong! my hand that is in a cast _really_ wants to jump on the keyboard bandwagon. Learning how to do things with a non-dominant hand is fascinating… the original unreadable signature becomes more and more legible, etc. as time and practice move along.
    What I started awhile ago was trying to translate a French children’s book into English because the story and characters looked so fun… when i get both hands back, i might get back to it! 🙂

  17. 17
    Laura says:

    I decided since I was retired and had the time, I would take a course thru Coursera, the online “college”. I took a course about Thomas Jefferson taught by a scholar from the University of Virginia.

    I learned a lot, but a whole lot more about myself than Jefferson. I learned that I don’t like to sit thru long lectures, and that taking quizzes STILL makes me nervous. (This course was taken just for the experience; quizzes had no consequences for me) But I also learned that I still like learning new things, and still love American history, but that this format was probably not the bet for me.

    lil

  18. 18
    Cheri Endean says:

    Ballroom/partner dancing. It was a real stretch for me (and continues to be) because following is a skill I have yet to acquire any dexterity with.

  19. 19
    Jane Goldsmith says:

    We recently had a friend move in with us who is on parole and homeless. What we have had to learn about the rules and restrictions that govern her are daunting. Most of the people we have had to deal with have tried to help as much as they can, but even their hands are tied in many cases. There is no central ombudsman or checklist source to follow, so we have been on our own in most cases. So I document, document, document.

  20. 20
    Tammy Earnest says:

    I have been studying Spanish, Latin and French on Duolingo with moderate levels of success in the first two but my French is so bad! I am from Alabama and Duolingo can’t understand my French accent. I call it “Deep South French”.