Aging and Learning: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Gayle & Mary outsideThis post by Gayle M. Irwin


He sleeps on the multitude of dog blankets which we’ve bought for him and spread throughout the house. He stands and his back legs wobble, oftentimes collapse, and he falls and struggles to regain his footing. In dim light, he walks into corners and simply stands and stares, as if confused. His appetite has decreased so we often coax him to eat using hamburger and chicken. Despite the struggles of aging, he looks at me with adoring, trusting eyes and cuddles next to me on the couch as I watch TV.

Cody_PlaidBlanketCody, our 16 ½ year old cocker spaniel, came into our lives when he was nearly 10. Used as a stud dog all of his life, his previous owners declared his services no longer needed and left him at the local Humane Society. I noticed him immediately as I leafed through the “Dogs Available for Adoption” book at the shelter’s front desk, four days before my birthday in 2008. By week’s end, Cody was still in a cage, and the shelter manager, a friend of mine, said, “You know, his chances of adoption are slim. Even though he’s a small dog, his age is against him.” That statement sunk in, and it was “happy birthday to me!” Neither Cody nor I have looked back.

“His age is against him ….” A sad testimony to how we view and value (or de-value) the elderly. Both humans and animals are seen as “less than” after a certain age. True, as we age, we begin to lose functions – in fact, sometimes I’m like Cody: I walk into a room and forget why I’m there (stand in the corner and stare); I’d rather sleep than go out, especially on cold, snowy days; and, my legs aren’t as steady and sturdy as they once were (the knees creak when I go up or down stairs unless I’ve taken my glucosamine). I sometimes forget the word I’m looking for when I’m talking or writing (more gingko, please!). But, with age comes wisdom and opportunity – to learn, to share, to grow and to give.

Gayle speakingDespite getting older, I’m still learning as a person and a writer. My Cody dog – well, not so much! He still doesn’t come when called – but he’s deaf, so that’s a good reason! – and he still raids the cat food dishes if I’m not vigilant (but then, at least he’s eating!). However, he does remind me to take more resting opportunities and that I don’t have to race around like a stock car on the NASCAR track nor do I have to try to do everything myself. Cody looks to me for more help now than he did even three years ago, and I, too, need to recognize my limitations. Yet, my limitations don’t have to include no longer learning. For example, I’m starting a fiction writing class at the community college this week from which I hope to produce that romance story I mentioned in another post. Also, I’m doing more speaking engagements this year, including speaking to a group of seniors today and another group of senior citizens in a few weeks. I have vast experience talking with students in a classroom, but during the past year I branched out and began conducting more speaking engagements with adult groups. I also began teaching a community education class at our local college last year and hope to again next spring, a course on writing and publishing for people 50+ years of age.

Just because we age and things begin sliding south doesn’t mean we can’t do some fun things or learn new things: old dogs can be taught new tricks! So, whether you challenge yourself as a writer, a worker, in a hobby or personally, take those steps to learning something new. You will grow in many ways.

Cody FaceAnd you and I can give back. November (which is just around the corner) is National Adopt-a-Senior-Pet Month – maybe an older furry friend can help you along that pathway of learning something or doing something new. After all, studies show people with pets are healthier mentally and physically, so consider adopting a senior pet to help you age more gracefully … and maybe you will help it do the same. With age comes wisdom … and opportunity – make the most of all three while helping a senior pet who just wants a home and love – and gives so much in return.

What new things are you learning and/or doing as you get older?


Gayle and Mary at KnowledgeNookGayle M. Irwin is writer, author and speaker. She is the author of several inspiring dog books for children and adults, including Sage’s Big Adventure, Walking in Trust: Lessons Learned with My Blind Dog, and Devotions for Dog Lovers: Paws-ing for Time with God. She is also a contributing writer to five editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and writes for WREN (Wyoming Rural Electric Network), Crossroads, Creation Illustrated, and Our Town Casper magazines, as well as for the Casper Journal, River Press, and Douglas Budget newspapers. She’s also authored a guidebook for owners of blind dogs, available on Kindle. She has a passion for pets and volunteers for and donates a percentage of her writing revenues to several animal welfare organizations. Her speaking engagements include presentations for children and adults about the lessons people can learn from pets. Visit her website at

SageLearnsShareFront-small    SageBigAdventureFront-small   Walking_FrontCover_small   Dog Devotion Book_Cover_Final  Blind Dog Ebook Cover_updatedMay2014   Chicken Soup_DogDidWhat_Cover


21 thoughts on “Aging and Learning: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

  1. Gayle, this post is so interesting because of the correlation between pets and people. I had really never thought of it before. I believe in adopting an older animal and have done so in the past, but this time we got our frisky little Shih-Tzu from friends. Definitely our home changed in the blink of an eye. I can’t imagine being without her. Your work with the public is so important as you inform people about how much pets can help people and also about the parallel in the aging process. Cody must be a very special dog and he’s so lucky you found him. I’ve reblogged this on my own blog because the points you bring up are things I think everyone may want to know. Good luck with your beautiful dog.


    1. Linda, thank you for your comments — yes, Cody is a special boy, and I’m thankful we have him! One of my upcoming speaking engagements takes place in November, during Adopt a Senior Pet Month, and I’ll be speaking to senior citizens; I intend to talk about the benefits pets have for people, especially for senior citizens, and hope to see a few special critters in that community get adopted! Thanks again for taking in your little dog and may she bring you years and years of joy and blessing!


  2. Beautifully said Gayle. Although I love dogs, I am a cat person and even old cats can teach you something. My 24 year old cat Samantha (who has since passed on) was very active until about 3 days before she decided to rest permanently. She took life in stride and didn’t let things bother her. Great lessons for me. Life is about learning and when we stop, well that is the end in more ways than one. Bless Cody, he’s had a beautiful life since living with you. Doris


    1. Hi, Doris — yes, dogs are not the only lesson-providers. I had a cat who lived to nearly 19, and I will share more about her in November in honor of Adopt a Senior Pet Month. As I noted in my comment to Linda, I’ll be speaking to senior citizens next month, and I intend to weave the benefits of pets, dogs and cats, for senior citizens. I know you are a learner — I see it in your posts and in your eyes when we have the blessed opportunity to get together. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


  3. With age comes wisdom but not it seems, to me, for the owners of Cody the stud dog if they chose to get rid of him at that stage in his life. I think you’ve given him a totally different life since you took him on and the reciprocal devotion shows. I like the people/animal comparison you’ve made as well.


    1. Thanks, Nancy, for your kind comments and your observations — because I live with pets, I’m always “on the prowl” for lessons they teach us, and being part of pet rescue provides opportunity for lessons, stories, and life-encompassing events. Today at a presentation I gave, I talked about passions and discovering opportunities to help, to give, and to educate — I like doing that and I’m grateful my writing, and my passions, allow those opportunities! I’m sure you encounter those times as well. Best to you always!


  4. Love how you tied society’s perception of aging to both dogs and humans. How true. Back in the mid-80s I did a series for the Leesburg Commercial on the aging of the population of Lake County, Florida. The weeklong series won a first place in the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors competition for 1983 and got a $500 Chairman’s Award from the New York Times. It’s one of the efforts I’m quite proud of. To kick off the research, I attended a gerontology seminar at the University of Kentucky. The seminar was the first time I took a hard look at Alzheimer’s after listening to the wife of a UK professor with Alzheimer’s talk about their struggles.


    1. Mike, thanks for your comments and what a wonderful piece (and prize!) for you! My husband creates and sells DVDs for caregivers and patients with Alzheimer’s — in fact, we recently attended a conference for caregivers and found it very helpful (such a ROUGH disease!)


  5. So sorry to hear of your Cody’s struggles with aging, Gayle, but I like what you have to say about society’s devaluing of aging. We’re so focused on youth and all its characteristics instead of seeing the wisdom that can be gained with age. As far as learning new things go, writing provides endless opportunities for learning for me. There’s always something new!


    1. Thank you, Stephanie, for your comments — yes, it’s hard to watch Cody go downhill and there have been several times I thought we were about to say goodbye, but he keeps hanging in there. Watching my own parents decline has been rough, too, but life continues on, in one form or another. Yes, writing provides many learning opportunities — I start a class tomorrow night and will be challenging myself to write that pet rescue romance story!


  6. Gayle, I too hate that Cody’s age is getting the best of him. It’s so hard. But you, well girl, you have blossomed before our very eyes. You have came a long way in the last couple of years that I have known you. You Go Girl. Cher’ley


  7. 16 1/2 years old, Wow. That is a testament to her care. Our dog is going to be 12. She is loosing her hearing, but is adapting to hand signals, once I get her attention. Her morning nap is often followed by an afternoon nap at my feet. Aging is something we all have in common and how we meet those challenges says a lot.


    1. Oh, so true! Cody’s hearing is pretty well shot as well, so I use gentle touch, which is what we did with our blind (and eventually deaf as well) Springer Spaniel, Sage. Growing old is hard on both people and pets, and those who love them. Thanks for sharing about your dog — may the time you continue to share be blessed!


  8. Great post Gayle. And Cody is one blessed dog! I agree, his age is a testament to your care and love. And I too loved that you made an understandable comparison to our de-valuing aging people, I see it often in health care. And it’s scary as I age. You are a fantastic woman.


    1. Neva, I appreciate your comments and am very blessed by your friendship! You know I LOVE my pets and even when times get really difficult I thank the Creator for blessing my life with the animals He’s brought to me. “My angel kid has four paws…” that’s my motto! I hope I can age as gracefully and beautifully as you! Hugs!!


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