In this case the old dog is actually a middle-aged tomcat, also known as ‘our Binkie’. The trick we want to teach him is to go through a cat flap from our storage room to the garage, where we recently moved his food bowl. Next week Django the puppy will be added to our family – undoubtedly a new source of countless Inspirations – and for practical reasons we decided to turn the storage room into Django’s bedroom annex feeding place. In other words, Binkie has to move.
We decided to teach him this new habit well in advance of Django’s arrival, as having a puppy around will already be plenty stressful for our old rascal. We assumed that this transition would go smoothly, since we know Binkie as a dynamic, smart, confident and inquisitive cat that regularly presents us with freshly caught mice. You can already guess where this is going.
To our surprise this transition is not going smoothly at all – the cat flap even scares him, an emotion that is hardly helpful when it comes to learning something new. When he wants to eat, he walks into the storage room, to where his food bowl used to be. You can see his little cat brain at work, shifting his gaze between the now empty spot and the cat flap, as if thinking :”How does this work again? It had something to do with that ominous hole in the door. If only I could remember…” The past few days he has leapt through the hole on a few occasions, but only when the flap is removed. He seems really petrified by the flap system, as if it radiates danger. So this will be the next step in his learning process – I’m curious to see if we can help him conquer his fear.
The saying in the title implies that it is generally assumed that the older you are, the more difficult it gets to learn or accept new habits. As if some kind of calcification of your brain makes this impossible. Brain research has shown that this is not entirely accurate. What is true, however, is that old habits die hard and learning new habits takes effort and repetition. It’s as if a new pathway needs to be forged. This new pathway – or new connection in your brain – needs to be travelled quite a few times, in order to make you start using it spontaneously, without giving it much thought.
During this difficult process, positive emotions and confirmation help to instill a new habit. So we will have to think how we can make the experience of going through the cat flap pleasant instead of scary to Binkie (not by rewarding him with tasty snacks -we tried this to no avail, the snacks do not outweigh his fears).
If you have any suggestions or experience, do share them.