February 26, 2016

Old Dogs, New Tricks, and Kelly Bundy

As we get older, most of us realize jumping through hoops of fire at the circus we call work isn’t worth the “treat” any more. So, is it true? Can old dogs really not learn new tricks? I think it depends on what kind of old dog you need to take to Puppy Obedience training. Here are a few musings on the topic, complete with case studies from my personal past, and a few simple opinions for you to chew on.

 What is an old dog?

Age, even for old dogs, is relative. Take me for example. I am a veteran of the commercial Internet world, but big dogs look on me as a pup in the world of e-business. Heck, in dog years I’m only 10! That’s a spring chic … er um … spring puppy, but I am no Dali Collie of ancient wisdom (or old habits that won’t roll over and play dead) either. Your old dog then, might be someone who has walked around the block a few thousand times, but maybe in a different industry. Or, your old dog might be too old to walk the block, but more than ready to show you a trick or two. 

Teaching new tricks to an old dog means figuring out which breed of dog you are dealing with. Let’s take a closer look.

The One Trick Wonder

Think about the dog that knows that one amazing trick that pleases everyone, but he just can’t seem to master anything else. You know the dog. We have all had one; the one who offers his paw to shake with anyone, but no matter how many treats are used, sit, stay, and fetch on command, nothing else is going to happen.

One of my firefighter officer friends could be classified as an old dog with only one trick. He is a nice guy and that is his trick. For as long as I have known him, about 20 years, he has been so nice and full of entertaining anecdotes; he could break down the strongest resistance of any prospective patient in an emergency situation. Unfortunately, once the patient was open to hearing a proposal for his emergency care, he often wasn’t sure what to do and would pitch an idea that didn’t meet his urgent needs, the patient care protocol, or both.

In the firehouse, it was no different. His joyful, entertaining demeanor kept everyone feeling happy and united in a cause. As you dug under the surface though, no one was really sure of the purpose.

Attempts were made to teach the old dog new management and emergency care techniques. New processes and procedures giving more structure for such new tricks were introduced. Nonetheless, the old dog stuck to his one trick. He continued to be nice while many people attempted to update him with new and innovative tricks.

Eventually I realized: our one trick wonder was very comfortable with his trick. He had spent years and years perfecting it. His trick had become so robust; he did not have the room to learn new tricks. He had reached his capacity. This has also been called the “Kelly Bundy Syndrome.” A dumb blonde character in the TV sitcom “Married With Children”, she maintained that her head was so full that any new idea going in one ear would push another out the opposite side.

Like Kelly, some one trick wonders may stop learning new tricks because they fear change. If the fear of change inhibits learning, look for ways to create a comfortable learning environment. Other one trick wonders may see no reason to move out of their comfort zone which indicates you need to provide a challenging environment to simulate and encourage learning.

If your old dog is like my personal case study, you may decide they are not capable of new tricks, but you can find a role where their old trick can bring new rewards to your organization.


Imagine a dog with selective hearing, who does what you ask only when it suits him. Otherwise, at the sound of your voice he only half opens his eyes and doesn't bother to lift his head. When you have an old dog that refuses to learn new tricks, you may have a Fido in your backyard.

In the Internet industry, Fido’s are all too common. I see many brick and mortar organizations who consistently run after potential Internet LOEs only to choke themselves when they reach the end of their own chain. They refuse to acknowledge that working on the Internet requires new tricks.

Figuring out how to train a Fido can be a new trick in itself. Some clues to look for if you need to get your Fido to heel before he rips your arm off:

1. Does Fido understand why he needs to know and what he doesn’t know? Maybe it’s an issue of straightforward education as to why the new trick is important. Hint: Show him the reward.

2. Does Fido bite when your try to teach him new tricks? Maybe you have a heavy hand that comes across as threatening and you just need to change your approach. Hint: Put away the rolled newspaper.

3. Is Fido overwhelmed and tired from the stress of it all? Fido may just need a vacation or a more comfortable atmosphere where progress is rewarded. Hint: Hide the Frisbee.

Rin Tin Tin

Don’t despair, you may have a new best friend.

Do you have a Rin Tin Tin? You know, the dog who sizes up the situation and saves the day. He sees the woman in distress in the burning building, the bad guy getting away, and yet still manages to execute a plan that saves the woman and nabs the bad guy at the same time! In my experience, there are plenty of old dogs who learn new tricks.

Even old dogs will jump through the hoop of fire at the circus that we call “work” — that is, if they are happy, healthy and agree that the “treat” at the end of the successful trick is relative to the heat of the flames around the hoop!

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