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Learning in the New Economy Magazine :: Fall 2000
Old Dogs, New Tricks, and a Few Simple Options. by Kellee K. Sikes
As we get older, most of us realize jumping through hoops of fire at the circus we call work isn’t worth the milk bone 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 send to puppy school. Here are a few musings on the topic, complete with case studies from my personal past, and a few simple opinions to chew on.

What is an old dog?

Age, even for old dogs, is relative. Take me for example. With a decade of experience, I am a veteran of the commercial Internet world, but big dogs look on me as a pup in the world of business. Heck, in dog years I’m 196! That’s no spring chic…er um…spring puppy, but I am no Dali Lhasa Apso 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 old dogs means figuring out which breed of old dog you are dealing with. Lets 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. 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 gonna happen.

One of my clients, the leader of a painfully slow-to-mature startup, could be classified as an old dog with only one trick. Nice guy¾and that was his trick. He was so nice and full of entertaining antidotes; he could break down the fiercest resistance of any prospective client in a sales call situation. Unfortunately, once the prospective client was open to hearing a proposal, he often wasn’t sure what to do and would pitch a proposal that didn’t meet the clients needs, his company’s business model, or both.

In the office, 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 company’s purpose.

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

Eventually I realized: our one trick wonder was very comfortable with his trick. He had spent decades perfecting it. His trick had become so robust; he did not have the room to learn new tricks. He had reached his capacity.

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 zones which might indicate 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 the bulldog 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 commercial Internet industry, Fido’s are all too common. I see many brick and mortar companies who consistently run after potential Internet customers only to choke themselves on 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 what he doesn’t know? Maybe it’s an issue of straightforward education as to why the new trick is important. Show 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. 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. Hide the Frisbee.

Rin Tin Tin

Don’t despair, you may have a company’s 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 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 we call work—that is if they are happy, healthy and agree the milk bone at the end is relative to the heat of the flames around the hoop!


Kellee K. Sikes is a contributing editor for LiNE Zine, an associate of Ageless Learner and Principal of Pioneer Technologies, a consulting company focused on business development and project management based in St. Louis, MO. She may not be very old, but has more than a few things to teach even the oldest dogs. Contact her directly.


(c) 2000-2002 LiNE Zine.

This article was originally published in Learning in the New Economy Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. See the original article online at


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