Beggars Would Ride
Educational Challenges And Aging Canines
Once upon a time I was owned by a Doberman Pinscher named Zee. He was, during the latter half of his life, the flesh and bone embodiment of that well-worn cliché; “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This was in stark contrast to Zee as a young dog. Fetched home from the Monterey SPCA at about a year old, having been incarcerated in the “dangerous breed and problem dog” wing of the pound for three long months, he transformed in a very short time from being a massive coiled spring of nervous energy – choking against whatever leash he was attached to while purposefully avoiding any eye contact whatsoever – to a well-trained, whip smart, quirky, funny, charismatic, mischief loving, handsome rogue. For my part, I went from thinking that adopting this dog was a very bad idea to regarding Zee as one of the most amazing dogs I have ever had the privilege to know.
Wait, back up. “Once upon a time” kind of implies that Zee was a one and only kind of deal. That’s not the case. I guess I’m a dog person, and there have been dogs in my life since I was born, aside from a dogless (and as a result less awesome) decade between 1985 and 1995 when I was barely able to tend to the care and feeding of myself, let alone a four legged companion. But otherwise, throughout my life, there have been dogs. And they have all been awesome, except for that Irish Setter my parents had for a few years when I was about eight. The problem with awesome dogs is that we almost always outlive them. They go from puppies to friends to old to dead, in an arc that can span a decade or more but which always seems far too brief, flooding us with unconditional love along the way, then teaching us the dance of heartbreak and loss and grief. Then when we finally recover from that pain, we willingly sign up for it again.
So, living with Zee wasn’t my first dog rodeo. But it was the best. And it was also the worst. And, in light of that old-dog-new-trick adage, I’ve been thinking a lot about Zee lately when I ride. I’ve been thinking about Zee when I ride because I’ve been thinking about whether I’m losing by ability to learn new things, or maybe I lost it years ago but didn’t really realize. And that makes me think about trying to teach old dogs new tricks.
When he was young, Zee had a whole bagful of tricks. He was a masterful soccer ball thief; could run onto a playing field, strip a ball away from a skilled striker, and have it punctured in his long jaws before the rest of the team could even register their outrage. He had an entire arsenal of party tricks and commands, as well as a strong improvisational range that encompassed a broad array of food theft techniques ranging from elegantly subtle to downright menacing. In spite of his size, he was a smart and considerate trail dog who would follow on either side of the bike with a hand command and manage to stay out of the way of other riders.
This is all to say that when Zee was young, he enjoyed learning new tricks. He was an exceptionally intelligent dog who masked his cunning with an opportunistic charisma that made people fall in love with him in spite of the fact that he may have just stolen a freshly roasted chicken off their kitchen counter and eaten half of it in the space of a few seconds. Even though he was super well trained, he could still be incredibly mercenary in his actions. But, for the sake of the whole human-canine co-existence deal, he always seemed to know where the boundaries were. At least, when he was young.
"At some point I contemplated changing his name from Zee to “Goddamnit, You Asshole,” given his complete and total indifference to responding to any sort of call unless it was dinnertime."
The second half of Zee’s life started with a move to 85 acres of rural splendor that (in my mind, anyway) should have been his cue to relax and enjoy his newfound domain. He took that concept and ran with it, literally, and went from relative obedience with occasional flashes of mischief to full-on Russian Gangster. At some point I contemplated changing his name from Zee to “Goddamnit, You Asshole,” given his complete and total indifference to responding to any sort of call unless it was dinnertime. Something in the move had signaled to him that he no longer really needed to listen to me or anyone else, and he embarked on a reign of misadventure that racked up an astonishing number of vet bills and more than a few dead wood rats and ground squirrels and ultimately a couple goats.
I had always thought that the old-dog-new-trick adage was a slam on the intelligence of old dogs. That they were too dumb to learn new tricks. Zee taught me that this was patently not true. His cunning only grew as he aged, evidenced by his ability to figure out how to open doors, turn himself invisible, and dig through, under or around any kind of fence. Zee learned all sorts of new tricks living in the country. His intelligence was fully intact. He just decided that he was done being taught new tricks.
Over here, on the human side, I wonder about my neural plasticity, that my brain itself is less able to absorb information as it once was. When it comes to riding bikes, it feels like the progression of riding skill across all ages and all types of rider is leaving me behind. I struggled for years to really get my cornering back up to scratch with modern geometry, and I find myself tentative about jumping in ways that never entered my mind when I was in my 20s. I wonder, often, old dog that I am, if I am mentally tapped out. If my mind is becoming too slow, too inflexible, to incorporate new skills into my riding.
But, countering that suspicion is the realization that I have learned so much more about so many more things in the past eight years than I did in the entire preceding two decades. It’s just that none of the things I am learning have much to do with bicycles: growing tomatoes, pruning fruit trees (very badly), fixing tractor hydraulics, repairing irrigation systems, patching leaky roofs, building things that hopefully won’t collapse, shoveling dirt. My inability to wheelie for any measurable distance, or my total lack of confidence at jumping, those are things I can live with even though they make me feel less credible as a mountain biker. The learning effort of the past decade has been necessity based, and has also dominated what I perceive to be my mental bandwidth.
Toward the end of his days, Zee was feeling the toll of a life spent charging through barbed wire fences, barfing up half-digested rodents, and getting shot at by irate farmers. Physically he was nowhere near as agile as when he was young. But he could still strip a football out from under your feet like it was nothing. And he could make an entire roast chicken disappear before you even knew he was gone. And when he needed to show the young dogs who the boss was, he still had some impressive moves.
I try to keep his spirit in mind when I ride, in those moments where I find myself facing down a new section of trail with a sketchy line that challenges what I think I know. It’s not that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The old dog just has to want to learn. Thanks for the reminder, you old pain in the ass. I hope the squirrels are just as tasty on the other side…