The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Old Dog, New Tricks?

‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

That was the phrase that was bandied around my kitchen as I tried to convince my eight-year-old Labrador, Bramble, that she really did want to learn to roll over.

After months of trying, countless acts of bribery, and quite a lot of gentle shoving, I am delighted to report that Bramble can now roll over on command.

What did I learn from this experience? Many things, mostly dog-related. But one which has particularly stuck with me is how often we resort to turns-of-phrase such as ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ as an excuse for giving up, or for bad behaviour. We know that the older we get, the less teachable we are – science tells us so: as we age, our brain loses some of its plasticity, and we find it harder to learn from experience.

But why is it that we find ourselves using this as an excuse for ignoring unacceptable behaviour, or indulging laziness? We accept behaviour in ourselves that we would never condone in children: ‘do what I say, not what I do’. We refuse to change our bad habits because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’. We can be loath to challenge others in their sin because they’re ‘set in their ways’.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus warns us about letting go of the commands of God in order to hold on to human traditions. Where might we have bought into the idea that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, and therefore stopped believing in the power of the gospel to transform lives?

The transformational nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – his interruption of our old ways, and the bringing in of something new – means that we no longer need to be stuck in the patterns we have lived with for so long. It also means that there is an opportunity for a change of heart from the unruly teenager, a chance for relationship transformation with the patronising colleague, the prospect of breakthrough with a stubborn neighbour. It means we can offer hope to those who are trapped in seemingly never-ending cycles of hopelessness, and bring reconciliation into communities fraught with conflict and violence.

That is the good news and the power of the gospel: transformation, redemption, and a chance to learn new things – tricks or otherwise – no matter how old you might be.


Nell Goddard


  1. Excellent challenge and encouragement! Thank you.

    By Claire Ralf  -  1 Jun 2018
  2. I’m a christian currently researching how older people continue to learn, especially with regard to their spiritual development in later life. I can assure you older people can and do learn well, especially by reflecting on experience. Often, the life changes that are facilitated by retirement and responding to a ‘third age’ calling can usher in significant changes of the kind you refer to in your piece. The only learning older people find harder is rote learning, which is not really a significant handicap for anyone in these days of IT.

    By Joanna Walker  -  1 Jun 2018
  3. Thank you Nell for that timely reminder, for renewed hope and encouragement. We so easily forget in the busyness of daily life, the teachings of Jesus.
    Today’s story of old dog and new tricks really resonates with me and has spurred me on to keep praying and trusting.

    By Gaynor Saleh  -  1 Jun 2018
  4. When you’re in the autumn season- your reflections are such en encouraging- thank you so much

    By Ann Blackmore  -  1 Jun 2018
  5. Well Done, Nell. G’ma.x

    By Angela Pearce  -  1 Jun 2018
  6. Thanks Nell.

    I think much of what you have said could be applied to politics or society in general. The idea that ‘You can’t change the system’ is not an uncommon belief.

    Individuals can change. They can also help change a malfunctioning political system or broken and fragmented communities.

    By John Steley  -  1 Jun 2018
  7. A timely word for this ‘old dog’ – and encouragingly much of what Christ suggests is not dependent on the quality of ones knees!

    By John Scarland  -  1 Jun 2018
  8. nice

    By Bruce Gulland  -  1 Jun 2018
  9. I agree with much of what was said about changing.

    But is it our job to ‘challenge others in their sin’ (I emphasise ‘others’)? A quote by Billy Graham who I think everyone would rate as a biblical Christian:
    ‘It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.’ Plus didn’t Jesus says something like, ‘Let him (or her) without sin cast the first stone’?

    By Jean Watson  -  3 Jun 2018

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