You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
When my younger daughter was in about third grade, she decided that she wanted a little, black lab, and it had to be a boy. For the next two years she managed to work the words black lab into almost every sentence she uttered. Whenever she drew a picture at school, it was a black lab. When she had to write a story (Can you guess the subject?) black lab. So when her best friend’s yellow lab had a litter of thirteen little, black labs, was the universe talking to me? Hmmm, maybe. But when twelve of the puppies were female and only one was a little male, then was the universe screaming at me? All right, I give up.
And that is how Sammy came to be a member of our family. From the time he was a puppy he was such an easy going dog, in direct contrast to our beagle who was always in trouble, what? He was gentle and happy just hanging out. He did not chew. He would play fetch all day. He loved to swim. He did everything that he was supposed to do, and he literally never caused a problem. He was just happy to be in his skin.
Well, now my daughter is grown and gone, and we decided that Sammy would be happier here than in an apartment in the city, so his routine continues. Since he was a puppy, when I go out to feed the other animals I toss his ball, and he fetches it and follows me dropping it at my feet for me to throw again, and again, and again.
Well, now he is approaching thirteen years old, and of course he has slowed down a little. He has some arthritis in his front feet, but at feeding time he still grabs his ball and drops it at my feet, and waits with his tail wagging.
A couple of months ago he was lying down and had trouble getting up. Sadly reminiscent of our older lab, I had a horrible feeling that he had turned the corner to old age overnight. I asked my husband if he had noticed that Sammy was having trouble getting around, and he had noticed also.
Sammy seemed a little better the next day, and when I was feeding, he stiffly walked beside with his ball which he dropped at my feet and wagged his tail. My husband was outside, and as I went to gently toss the ball not quite so far, my husband commented that maybe the jackrabbit starts and sliding stops that he does when he plays fetch are making him sore. And as I slapped my forehead flat I thought, wow, I would probably be really stiff tomorrow if I ran and slid and tumbled to catch a ball, so maybe, hopefully, that’s what is causing this stiffness.
So for the next three days we did not play fetch. He would drop the ball at my feet, look at me quizzically and wag his tail. It was sheer torture not to throw the ball for him. However, after the third day he was back to his old self, bounding across the yard. Such an obvious thing, but it had never occurred to me that playing fetch was the problem.
What to do now? He still brought the ball to me, and when I did not throw it he would pick it up and drop it on my feet again. Guess my daughter taught him that if you ask enough you will eventually get what you want. And he finally did. We now play a modified game of fetch.
Since running is not the problem, but the abrupt starts and stops are, we have evolved our fetch game into something that looks more like the baton hand off in a relay race. I take a few steps and hand off the ball to him, and he continues running a big loop around the yard. Then he heads back around to me and drops the ball at my feet ready to go again.
He seems to have happily substituted the new fetch game for the old one, and the gentler running agrees with his age. You have no idea how happy I am to know that you really can teach an old dog new tricks.
For more information on teaching an old dog new tricks: