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You Actually Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

By February 3, 2016 0

My border collie Dixie is a cutie-pie. I picked her up when she was just 4 weeks old off a plane at LaGuardia Airport that had flown in from Texas. She was the pup of my cousin’s dog’s third litter, and she was the runt. Her mother had left her to die in a pile of blankets just hours after giving birth to her other healthy babies. Dixie was simply too tiny to fight for a space with her brothers and sisters. My cousin found her just in time, literally nursed her back to life (she swears she was dead for a few moments before suddenly gasping for some air), and so she’s my miracle puppy.

Dixie is pretty smart. She knows the important buzzwords: food, eat, treat, hungry, toy, ball, Tim (my fiancé), Jess (me), Matthew (my brother and incessant treat-giver), Josie (her doggie cousin), “go get ______,” “go find ______,” and lots more. We taught her to jump in our arms on command, mostly by accident, because when we’d take her to the dog park, she’d be so scared of the other dogs she would leap into our chests and literally grab on to us for dear life, so that became a fun little trick to show off in front of family and friends some months later. She’s got springs for legs and endless energy, and she’s an absolute ball of mushy love and cuddles.

But Dixie would not play fetch.

Border collies are supposed to be, like, brilliant, right? My beagle will do anything for a treat. I can get him to dance around on one foot if I really want him to, as long as he knows he gets that yummy morsel in the end. He gives paw, sits, lies down, rolls to his side, the whole shebang. Dixie, however just sits there.

“Dixie, paw! For a treat!”

Nothing. Blank, cute puppy stare.

“Dixie, paw. Watch.”

Ears perk. Head cocks. No paw.

For months, we tried to teach her something other than “sit” and “leap into my arms like your life depends on it,” but there was nothing. She never responded and never learned a trick. When we tried to teach her fetch, it was worse than pulling teeth. She loved the ball, and would watch it fly through the air, and then just look at you. For years, she would carry the ball around in her mouth, and when you grabbed it and threw it for her, she just sat and started at you. No matter how many treats we gave, examples we offered, instructions we tried, cues we used, the dog refused to fetch. And it was unfortunate, too, because she was such a high-energy pup, and there was no way for her to get it all out unless we ran down the street with her (which, to be frank, I am not fond of doing).

Then one day, after we had moved into our forever home in a tiny Connecticut town, my S.O. and our three dogs (yes, we are those crazy dog people) were hanging in the front yard. Dixie is good enough that she can be off-leash, so she was running around at our feet as usual, yap-yap-yapping, searching for a way to get her energy out.

There was an old, old tennis ball in the yard that was probably around before I was born. One of us picked it up and threw it at the other, and Dixie perked right up and chased after it. We laughed, knowing it wouldn’t amount to a damn thing, and went about our business in the yard.

Next thing we knew, Dixie was running towards us, ball in mouth, tongue lolling all over the place, puppy tail going a million miles an hour. She skidded to a stop right before us and dropped the ball at our feet, sat politely, and waited, eagerly.

My S.O. and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. Was this real? Was she fetching? Had she just picked up the ball and brought it back in order for us to toss it once again?

We threw the ball clear across the yard for her and she dove off with frightening speed. Gosh, she was fast. She nabbed the ball from the air and brought it back to our feet once again.

And ever since then, Dixie has been a stellar player of the wonderful game of “fetch.” You should see her jet off across the yard in pursuit of a bright green tennis ball. She literally kick-flips off the slope of our yard into the air in order to nab it before it hits the ground. And most importantly, her little body has so much fun doing it, that when she comes back inside, she’s so happily spent and exhausted, that she naps for a solid – let’s be honest here – 20 minutes or so.

I watch Dixie bound across our yard in absolute awe. This little ball of fire and fluff found a way to, essentially, self-regulate. She never understood what the hell we wanted her to do. She never was keen on following our directions or taking orders, or copying our silly miming of what a dog should be doing. But in her own time, and in her own way, Dixie suddenly decided, “Damn right, that looks like fun!” and bam, off she ran, and she did it.

Dixie could teach us all a lesson or two, both about ourselves and about the people we meet and encounter on a daily basis. No matter how hard you try, you can’t shape someone into your perfect ideal; you can’t change them, or move them to be something they are not. Similarly, you can’t be someone you’re not; if you’re not ready to leave your comfort zone, then no one can push you there but yourself. But the moment you’re ready, the moment you realize the necessity, the importance, the benefit for yourself, or the moment that someone realizes it for themselves – that’s the moment when growth, change, and miracles can happen. Most importantly, they can happen any time; the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” does not apply. An old dog – or even a young one, in Dixie’s case – can learn plenty of new tricks, but only in their own time, and only in their own way.