You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to tell someone that they are set in their ways? If they struggle to learn new concepts or don’t pay them any mind, you could say that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

The expression “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” refers to seniors stuck in their ways and resistant to change.

Example Usage

“I give up on teaching my grandad how to use the internet and email. Sometimes you just can’t teach old dogs new tricks. He’s set in his ways, and he doesn’t care.”

“Look at Elaine struggling to learn the CRM. She’s spent the last twenty years using the old system, struggling to adapt to the new CRM. I guess you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.”

“Don’t bother trying to teach mom how to use Twitter. Old dogs can’t learn new tricks, and it will just frustrate her.”

Origin

The origin of the expression “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” comes from the mid-1500s. It’s one of the oldest idiomatic expressions in English, and the original use of the phrase appears in

The earliest use of the expression in print comes from John Fitzherbert, in his book “The Boke of Husbandry,” published in 1534, where it appears as follows.

“…and he [a shepherd] muste teche his dogge to barke whan he wolde haue hym, to ronne whan he wold haue hym, and to leue ronning whan he wolde haue hym; or els he is not a cunninge shepeherd. The dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or els it will not be: for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe.”

The saying also appears in “A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue,” published in 1546.

The more modern version of the saying first appeared in print in 1721 in the book “Divers Proverbs” authored by Nathan Baily. While it isn’t the exact version of the modern phrase, it’s very close.

“An old dog will learn no tricks.”

Phrases Similar to You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

  • You can’t get blood out of a stone.
  • You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
  • You can’t hold with the hare and run with the hound.
  • You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
  • Old habits die hard.

Phrases Opposite to You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

  • You can learn at any age.
  • It’s never too late to learn.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Ways People May Say You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks Incorrectly

Some people may use the phrase in its literal meaning, referring to their pet. However, it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks as long as you incentivize them. When using the phrase, the “dog” refers to a person, not the animal.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

You can use the saying, “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” when referring to people set in their ways. They spend a long time practicing their techniques or habits, and they are resistant to change, preferring to do things their way.

The phrase suits social and professional use. You could use it at work to describe a manager’s attitude to running their business or team and their inability to look for a new, fresh approach to problem-solving.

You could use it at home to describe how your grandfather refuses to use the internet. His resistance to technology may come from his lack of interest in learning new things.

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