It’s said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This is not really true of course. A dog can learn new things at any age. It just takes a bit more time and effort to teach an older dog something new. This is not so much due to any differences in an older dog’s brain, but rather to the fact that they’ve already been conditioned in a certain way. They are no longer a blank slate. Instead, they have some level of preexisting conditioning that needs to be undone and replaced with the new behavior.
In our practice, we are trying to teach our minds a new trick. Rather than pursuing happiness by running towards or away from the pleasant and unpleasant experiences awareness encounters, we are attempting to train the mind to discover the happiness that is inherent in awareness itself, when it stops trying to identify with what is being experienced – the happiness that comes from awareness seeing and knowing that it is unharmed by the pleasant or unpleasant objects that it perceives – just as the open sky is not harmed by what passes through it, or as light is not harmed by what it illuminates.
Every one of us comes to this practice with an old dog. Even if you’re only 20 years old, that is like 140 in “dog years.” For all of us, there is a tremendous amount of preexisting conditioning there. It is important to remember this so we can be patient with ourselves and not lose heart. For our whole life, our poor dog has been taught by everyone around us to engage with what is unfolding in one particular way, moment after moment, day after day, year after year, and now, all of a sudden, we’re trying to get it to do something different. We need to have compassion for this old dog. Be patient with it, knowing that it is not incapable of learning this new trick. It will just take time and persistent, but gentle effort.
People teach their dogs many things. Some tricks are useful, and some are just amusing. In my view, the most useful trick one can teach one’s dog is “sit-stay.” Learning “sit-stay” is an important way to protect the dog and prevent it from aggravating those around it. As an example, our daughter has a dog that hates the UPS truck. Every time she sees the UPS truck she wants to chase after it and teach that driver with the brown uniform a lesson. This of course would not be good.
Learning “sit-stay” is very important. Learning how to just watch the UPS truck come and go without running after it, no matter how much those brown shorts piss you off, is vital to the happiness of both your dog and everyone around you. There are many other tricks people teach their dogs – like “play dead,” for instance. In fact, many people meditate by playing dead. But “play dead” is just a parlor trick. It is not nearly as useful as “sit-stay.”
Of course, when we are teaching this old dog to “sit-stay,” it’s not the body that we’re trying to get to “sit-stay,” it’s the heart. This isn’t a practice of passivity. It’s about teaching the heart to sit and stay in this present moment without running after something else. This is what leads to the dog’s long-term happiness. When trying to teach this to your dog, just remember your dog’s age and all the conditioning it has acquired. So, when, despite the command to “sit-stay,” your dog goes chasing after something, gently bring it back to the present moment with patience and understanding. Poor thing – all her life she’s gotten used to doing one thing, and now she needs to unlearn all that and try to do something new.
I’ll bring this dog story to a close with one final thought. There is a training facility in CT that we have used with our dogs in the past. They offer a program where you drop the adult dog off there for two or more weeks to be trained. The idea is to remove the dog, for a time, from the cues and triggers it has grown up with. This makes it much easier for it to learn something new. Our center has a similar training program for your dog. Please consider dropping your dog off at one of our 5 or 8-day residential retreats. Of course, you can train your dog without a residential program like this, but if you’re able, removing your dog for a time from the cues and triggers of your daily life does make it easier for it to learn a new trick.