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Beggars Would Ride

Educational Challenges And Aging Canines

Words Mike Ferrentino
Photos Gary Perkin (cover shot)
Date Jun 29, 2022

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.

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Just out of the camera frame you can almost hear the indignant howls of a junior soccer team...

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."
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See? Tricks for days!

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.

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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…

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"Mmmmmm, squirrel..."

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Comments

kcy4130
kcy4130
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+20 Kos mrbrett Rick M Alex Hoinville Lynx . Andy Eunson shenzhe Mammal Jerry Willows Andrew Major Deniz Merdano Pete Roggeman hardtailhersh Velocipedestrian Tjaard Breeuwer Mike Ferrentino Dogl0rd Matt L. OneShavedLeg Cam McRae

Reminds me of a awful joke I saw the other day: 

A fortune teller told me I'd suffer an emotionally devastating loss in 12 years. I was upset by this so I went out and adopted a cute puppy to cheer up, and now I'm really happy!

Reply

BadNudes
BadNudes
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+11 Lynx . Sandy James Oates 4Runner1 Pete Roggeman Mammal Tjaard Breeuwer Mike Ferrentino Muesliman Adrian White Dogl0rd OneShavedLeg

Can't teach an old dog new tricks, but he could learn as many as he likes on his own. The old dog knows what matters in life. Love it Mike, thanks!

Reply

mnihiser
mnihiser
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+6 Lynx . Andy Eunson Pete Roggeman chacou Mike Ferrentino Muesliman

I love dogs and especially black Labs. First one came into my life in 2005 and we had ten great years before losing a long and hard fought battle with lymphoma. Jumped right back in with another pup and this one made it five years before a large tumor on his spine caused the loss of back legs and we had to make that awful "choice". At this point I said "I can't do that again" but within 2 years I was looking for another pup.

They have all been terrific companions and their mannerisms so similar you would swear they knew each other. "Do this- Dad will love it". I know there will be more pain coming with this one someday but then the laughter will come and dry the tears.

Reply

chacou
chacou
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+6 Andy Eunson Mike Ferrentino kcy4130 mnihiser Pete Roggeman Lynx .

I've got what I think is an "Aussiedor", we know from the rescue that the family that surrendered her had a female chocolate lab. Believe the father is one of the working herders from a nearby ranch, and I'm not about to do a DNA test because it doesn't change anything. Her manners and looks lead me to think maybe Aussie Shepherd, or possibly Border Collie, more so than Heeler.

Point is though, like any good 2.5 years old Lab, she's pinned from the moment she wakes up until she gets a good ~6m, 1500' ride in and/or multiple walks/runs and of course a solid session of fetch. She is particular to the squishy, ultra bouncy, Chuck-it rubber balls.

Here's "Jane" with her friend/neighbor "Zooma", pure yellow lab.

Reply

andy-eunson
Andy Eunson
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+5 Andrew Major Pete Roggeman chacou Mike Ferrentino OneShavedLeg

My old black lab will be 13 in August. We got in 50 days of Nordic skiing this winter and we still go riding. Rides are shorter and slower of course and rest days in between. My younger lab is 6 but has a heart condition so the two have similar exercise needs. But we have decided not to get another dog when the boys are gone because I don’t think I’ll be able to give them what they will need as I age out. But we will see.

Reply

mnihiser
mnihiser
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+1 Andy Eunson

Maybe you could consider a mellower breed? My Labs have generally pegged the intensity meter so I try to wear them out each day if possible.

Reply

jt
JT
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+5 Pete Roggeman Tjaard Breeuwer Mike Ferrentino Lynx . Cam McRae

When we had to make the decision to put down our pup, I recalled a tome you wrote in Bike ages ago that pretty perfectly well encapsulated that point in time for me, and now here you are again with another bit that I'll probably recall later in life. Thanks for the tear jerkers through the decades.

Reply

mikeferrentino
Mike Ferrentino
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+1 Pete Roggeman

Ahh yeah... the late, great Lena Toast. She was pretty damn amazing. After the past decade and a half of dobermann fun i've gone back to another kelpie, and she is proving to be another pretty damn amazing dog. I am not planning on writing about her anytime soon.

Reply

jt
JT
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+2 Lynx . Mike Ferrentino

Crom willing, may it not be for many, many years yet but when it does may it be as full of joy and laughter as can be.

Reply

Lynx
Lynx .
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+4 Mammal Pete Roggeman Mike Ferrentino dhr999

Mike, first up, sorry for your loss, he sounded like an amazing dog. As you said, they leave us way too soon and they take a piece of our hearts with them, size dependent, but sounds like he took a good "bite" out of yours, something I've also experienced when I lost my first and wonder, can I do that again another 12 times, as it sits right now.

As you say, I think as we get older and we've learned so much, it takes more "persuading" to us old dogs to learn new tricks or sometimes to remember that we need to due to injury etc. Think I popped loose the scar tissue holding the piece of my fractured knee cap loose again on Monday; was being pushed on a climb by a visitor I was showing about, that I didn't expect to climb so well, was inspired to try and clean the loose, slippery climb and just made a bobble, slipped a tyre and instead of falling/stepping to my good leg side, lost balance and went on that side, fully loaded and folded the leg - have to learn to chill a little and be careful with even what was once considered easy, because I can't fold/bend past 60 degrees with that knee and if I do, bad things happen.

Reply

kos
Kos
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+4 eriksg Sandy James Oates 4Runner1 Mike Ferrentino Lynx . finbarr

Nothing better, or eventually tougher, than a good dog. Rock on, Zee!!!

Reply

denomerdano
Deniz Merdano
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+4 Pete Roggeman Mike Ferrentino Lynx . Cam McRae

Sounds like late Zee was as well behaved as the NSMB zoo at Sea Otter....

Thanks for a beauty read, again!

Reply

OLDF150
Kerry Williams
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+2 mnihiser Mike Ferrentino

Love this story Mike.  As an mtbing 53 year old that has had a few dogs, I can relate on so many levels.  We were going to stop once our current Golden was gone, but instead ended up getting a puppy and keep the love/loss train rolling because hard things are worth it.  And, as far as mtb goes, I've gotten to the point in my life where I'm no longer learning new ways to send it, but rather, new ways to appreciate the sport I love. It's been an adjustment, but just like the dogs, well worth keeping going. Dogs and bikes.  That's a full life.

Reply

cxfahrer
cxfahrer
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+1 Mammal Lynx . dhr999

I think it is difficult to discuss on the matter of self perception when aging with a (dead) dog. Dogs perceive themselves as what they are doing, achieving and how other animals treat them.

As an aging human, it is way different. One can be completely off that line, and think anything is great. Just cut yourself off of every relation to other people, and perceive yourself as big, strong and of intellectual brilliance. Every failure and retreat as a secret trick, full of bravery. 

Thanks for that cute dog story! Now I know why I hate dogs.

Reply

sandy-james-oates
Sandy James Oates
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

Awesome story Mike, it hit home with my dog Cruz.

Reply

mammal
Mammal
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+1 4Runner1

Amazing! Thanks for this. I love dogs and have been asking these questions about myself over the past year.

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
Pete Roggeman
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

Sorry about Zee, Mike. What a beauty. Your words were fitting tribute.

Reply

hongeorge
hongeorge
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

I lost my trail dog recently and unexpectedly, he was only 4 years old, thought we'd have another ten years, this article reminded me of the good bits a lot.

Reply

mikeferrentino
Mike Ferrentino
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+2 hongeorge dhr999

Awww, man, shit. Sorry to hear that. It always hurts, but going so soon is brutal. Here's to the good bits.

Reply

Lynx
Lynx .
1 month, 2 weeks ago
0

Oh man, that's rough to loose a pup so soon, so sorry for your loss. Hope as time passes, you can find a place in your heart, when you're ready to give some other pup a chance at a great trail dog life. As Mike said, even though you know you'll face this heartache, until then if you want it, they'll do their best to make your life better and fuller.

Reply

chacou
chacou
1 month, 2 weeks ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

"Man's best friend".

Zee seems like he was a rascal! ;)

Reply

AlanB
AlanB
1 month, 2 weeks ago
0

Woof!

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