Teaching the old dog a new trick


Lots of people have been convinced, mostly because of the old adage they’ve heard since childhood, that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Dogs know better than anybody that this is nonsense.

The other day I had to spend a few hours under the truck to try to keep the complicated hydraulics that operate the suspension from failing. It’s not a complicated job, but it’s an unpleasant one, because without a lift, there isn’t enough room down there. And, because there are five times in the process when the hydraulic pressure is relieved and drops the truck as low as it will go, you have to stay out of the way when it comes down to keep from getting your head cracked open like a walnut. To relieve the pressure, all you have to do is open a tiny valve by turning a nut a quarter of a turn. First you put some hose around the opening so the hydraulic fluid — which is messy, messy red stuff — doesn’t dump all over you and on the ground, and goes instead into a water jug at the other end. I had the wrong size hose. Had it been the right size, it would have snugged on and held itself in place. Mine was a little too wide, so I was going to have to hold it in place when the fluid drained. This was difficult because four of those five valves are tucked up behind other junk. Another three elbows would have come in handy. 

Another problem was that I didn’t have the right kind of wrench. I thought I did, but I was wrong, and I didn’t want to drive all the way to town to buy one. I had a small adjustable wrench that would work. It just wouldn’t hold itself in place the way the right wrench would, but there we were. It was going to make it harder to do it all by feel when I’d have to get out of the way to keep from getting crushed, but I was going to try it

I had left the camper door open because I had to go back inside to check the computer for the instructions for this operation from time to time, and I didn’t want to get gunk all over the place every time I went inside. It was only around 11:30 AM —much too early for Roo to wake up — so I was a little surprised when she snuffed at my ear while I was lying on the cold asphalt with my neck craned and both arms snaked and twisted to hold onto the wrench and the hose in place while trying to move out of the way enough to get out of the way of the truck when it was going to come down.

“Well, if it isn’t Chiggi Bear Beker the dog,” I said. “What gets you out of bed so early of a morning?”

She lay down on the ground and gave me a serious look. I couldn’t risk opening the valve with her there, because if the hose slipped it could spew fluid all over the place. I had put a towel don to protect the asphalt in case that happened, but if it squirted on Roo it would stain her a deep hydraulic red that could take months to come out. It would be as bad as the time Orville had to sit there and have several garlands of flowers hung around his neck and red tikka powder sprinkled all over his white head on the day when dogs are celebrated in Nepal as representatives of the Hindu god Bharat (who is a dog, and the idea is that you need to keep the dogs happy because on their next life they get to come back as humans and you want them on your side). Orville had blotches of red on him for weeks.

Roo kept looking at me.

“Little Bear, please, get out of here, will you?” I said, but this had no effect. She just kept staring at me with her ears up and her eyes wide open. Roo has never been told to get away from me, so there wasn’t much of a chance that she would start now. By now, my shoulders were cramping up anyway and a crick was developing in my back from the awkward position and the cold, so I gave in and undid the hose and the wrench.

Roo kept staring at me. When I got far enough out from under the truck she sat up and smiled and wagged her tail. She got up and took a step towards the camper, stopped and looked back at me. She took another step that way again, putting a playful little hop into it, and looked back at me again.

I stood up. That made her prance back at me and then back at the camper. It was obvious that she wanted to show me something.

“Okay, okay, hold your horses,” I said. “I’m coming.”

I followed her back into the camper. She went in first and then stopped to make sure I was following her. When I was inside she went to the bed and sat at the foot and put her chin on it.

“You’re kidding,” I said. 

She rolled her head a little in my direction to look at me, cocking the downwind eyebrow way up, but she didn’t lift her chin up. She had her ears flattened out in the way dogs do when they’re asking you something nicely. What she wanted was my help to get up on the bed. 

“You have got to be joking,” I said. ‘This is what you brought me in for?”

The bed is high off the ground and it’s true that at seven-point-something years old it’s getting hard for Roo to jump up there herself. On the rare occasion when she wants to get up there she puts her chin up there like that and then hops her front paws up and I help her up by lifting her up the rest of way by the hocks. That’s what I did now.

Now, you know how when you get a dog to do something you praise them to let you know how pleased you are with them? Roo believes in that technique, too. As soon as she was up on the bed she dropped onto her back and started wiggling around the way she does in the snow and started snorting, enough to make her sneeze. Oh, she was pleased with herself. She kept wiggling and looking at me until I came over, patted her a few times on the belly and congratulated her. 

So, even if it’s one I might come to regret now that she’ll certainly try it out more often, that was the lesson in this. The way she congratulated me so enthusiastically pretty much guaranteed that the next time she pulls this on me, this old dog will have learned his lesson and learned it well. It wasn’t just getting me to perform the behavior she wanted — following her inside and helping her up on the bed — it was getting me to feel good about it that was the key.

So forget about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks. I’m 60, and training me is a piece of cake.