How to Be as Terrific as Your Dog Thinks You Are


by Mort Crim

Golum was full grown and well-trained when he came into our lives. The college student, who first found this Doberman as a puppy wandering along a road, had done a fine job of guiding him to maturity as a true gentleman.

            He’d also taught him several charming tricks. Golum shook hands with either paw upon verbal command. He knew his left from his right. But to me, his most endearing performance was when he would sit as still as a statue after a dog biscuit had been placed on his nose.

            Golum would balance the biscuit, without wincing a single one of his powerful muscles, until permission was given to move. As soon as I said, “Okay, Golum,” he’d flip the biscuit into the air and catch it in his mouth.

            He never seemed to tire of this routine, and we never tired of initiating it to show friends how clever Golum was.

            Young dogs learn easily. With understanding and patience, they can be taught remarkable and sophisticated skills, far beyond the more common feats of heel, sit, lie and roll over. We’re all familiar with the incredible way guide dogs become eyes for their blind masters. Recently dogs also have shown an amazing talent as ears for the hearing impaired.

            Of course, for centuries dogs have been trained to pull sleds in Alaska, herd sheep and cattle, rescue hunters trapped on mountains and guard both people and property. The reason dogs are able to accomplish all of these missions is because they’re teachable. And contrary to the popular myth, most dogs never totally lose this capacity. You really can teach an old dog new tricks.

            To be as terrific as our dog thinks we are, we, too, must remain teachable. Always. As long as we live. We have to rid ourselves of this notion that learning happens in school and once we’re through with that, we’re through. Graduation ceremonies are called commencements precisely because they represent a commencing—a beginning —not a conclusion. They may mark the end of school, but they should represent the start of education.

            School doesn’t teach us what we need to know to deal with life so much as it teaches us how to learn what we need to know. And the learning process should never stop.

            When he was well along in years, Albert Einstein found himself seated next to a young college student at a dinner party. The student failed to recognize the great scientist and to make conversation, he asked, “What would you say is your profession?”

            Einstein replied, “I devote myself to the study of physics.”

            To which the student replied, “You mean you’re still studying physics at your age? I finished that last semester!”

            Unlike that naive student, Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, understood that one can never know everything about anything—that even a brilliant scientist has to continually study and learn.

            It is the workers who remain teachable that are surviving and even thriving in today’s rapidly changing job environment. The breathtaking rate at which technology and downsizing are changing the workplace has created a new axiom in the marketplace: Only the flexible survive. Those who can’t or won’t remain pliable—teachable—are destined to be broken by today’s economic forces.

            This principle is quite apparent in the world of physics. As a news reporter, I’ve covered more than one story where an infant was the only survivor of a car wreck or a plane crash. I recall one incredible account of a toddler falling from a five-story window and surviving with only a few cuts and bruises.

            Why? Because babies don’t tighten up. Their bodies don’t become rigid in the face of challenge. Because they remain flexible, they’re often able to survive an impact that would be fatal to a tensed-up adult.

            While serving in the Strategic Air Command, I learned something quite interesting about our B-52 bombers. These behemoths of the sky have wings so flexible their tips move up and down during flight more than thirty feet. This flapping motion, which isn’t detectable to the eye, is essential to keep the wings from breaking under the stress of nearly half a million pounds.

            Flexibility is a key to survival and success. Dale Carnegie used to keep an old sock on his desk just to remind him of how limp he needed to be. It prompted him to relax. To roll with the punches. To stay flexible.

            When we stop being teachable, we stop altering our opinions. And opinions should be subject to adjustment as we acquire new knowledge. When we refuse to consider new ideas we stunt our own growth. We halt our own progress.

            Inflexible people also tend to have higher blood pressure, more heart attacks and other stress-related illnesses. Flexible—teachable —people are healthier, happier people.

            In Rocky Ford, Colorado, an older woman sat on the floor to play paper dolls with her granddaughters. She has a touch of arthritis and is a bit overweight, so assuming this position wasn’t easy. But she decided it was worth it when one of the little girls said to her, “Grandma, I’m glad you know how to bend.”

            Age may stiffen our joints. It doesn’t have to harden our attitudes. At home or on the job, there are six words that can bring progress to a screeching halt. The words are: We’ve always done it this way! Whenever anyone pulls out that old chestnut in response to some new idea, watch out. Such people seem oblivious to the fact that the way it’s being done now—the way we’ve always done it—was itself an innovation at one time. Somebody, at some time, had to do it that way for the very first time.

            Can’t you hear some traditionalist objecting to the first book with the observation, “Don’t know why we have to turn pages when we’ve always gotten along with scrolls. Rolling must be better than turning because we’ve always done it this way.”

            Or how about, “I don’t see why you want to put the bathroom indoors. Outdoor privies must be just fine because we’ve always done it this way.”

            An executive was scheduled to address a formal banquet and was nearly ready when the host of the event showed up at his hotel room to drive him to the affair.

            But the executive was having some difficulty tying his bow tie. “My wife usually ties this for me,” he explained to his host. “But she couldn’t come on this trip. Do you think you could help?”

            “No problem,” the man at the door replied. “I’m good at tying bow ties, but you will have to lie down on the bed because I’m a funeral director and that’s the only way I know how to do it.”

            Often the way we’ve always done it is the only way we know. But clinging to a procedure or a process simply out of habit isn’t the only indicator that we’ve lost our teachability. Six other gauges may suggest a hardening of the attitudes:

1. We’re not ready for that yet.
2. We’re doing all right without it.
3. We tried it once, and it didn’t work out.
4. It costs too much.
5. That’s not our responsibility.
6. It won’t work.

            If we find ourselves routinely throwing up these reasons for maintaining the status quo, then we might want to reexamine our teachability. When we have a high teachability quotient, we’re excited by new ideas. We’re eager to learn, to grow, to take advantage of the incredible opportunities created by change. 

            This is not to suggest that change is easy, even when we recognize its value and welcome it.

            After the decision was made several years ago to computerize our TV newsroom, there was much consternation among some of the old veteran journalists. I must confess, I had serious reservations about my ability to master the new technology after years of plunking away on a typewriter.

            However, I remembered how strange the new electric typewriters had felt when they first arrived to replace our antiquated, manual machines. Those old finger-pushers had served us well since my first days as a cub reporter.

            I recalled that within a very short time, the electric typewriters had proven themselves so much faster and easier that none of us would have ever considered going back to the manual machines. (Didn’t we go through the same process with power steering and power brakes on our cars?)

            Well, it didn’t take our newsroom long to adapt to the new computer technology and, almost as quickly, become addicted to it.

            As I write this book—on my computer, with its automatic spell-check, its built-in dictionary and thesaurus, its willingness to let me quickly and easily move entire paragraphs or pages around—I can’t imagine returning to any typewriter, manual or electric. It would feel like chiseling words onto stone tablets. Every hour that I spend writing now would take a day.

            There’s always some discomfort, even pain, associated with change. That includes change which, ultimately, is for the better:

            Once when my tennis instructor showed me an improved way to hold my racquet, I found his method most uncomfortable. Early on, it made my swing worse. But, eventually, as I got accustomed to the new grip, my swing improved considerably. In order to improve, I had to give up the familiar and accept some pain in the process.

            Sometimes we cling to the tried and true because it’s easier. Sometimes, because we’re afraid that if we try to change, we’ll mess up. We do things a certain way because it’s the only way we can do them with certainty.

            A family had recently moved into the neighborhood when the little girl overslept one morning and missed her school bus. The father said he’d drive her to school if she’d show him the way.

            After traveling several blocks, she told him to turn right. Then, a few blocks later, turn left. Another left and two rights finally brought them to the school. But as they arrived, dad recognized that they were only a couple of blocks from their house.

            “Why did you take us so far out of our way?” he asked the little girl.

            “Because, Dad,” she said, “that’s the way the school bus goes, and it’s the only way I know.”

            How many tasks are we performing the hard way simply because it’s the only way we know?

            How many problems are we failing to solve because we haven’t been teachable, haven’t been willing to seek out solutions that would work!

            This much is certain: If we continue doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll continue getting the results we’ve been getting. It may sound like stating the obvious, but often we’re slow to understand this truth: There’s no real change without change.

            Life definitely is a fast-track these days. Lee Iacocca acknowledged this when he said, “Either lead, follow or get out of the way.” He might have added, “If you don’t make dust, you eat dust.”

            One good way to be as terrific as our dog thinks we are is to be as willing as our dog to learn new tricks. Flexible people, like teachable dogs, fit in better, get ahead faster, make friends easier, feel better about themselves and their environment and, generally, have more fun.

            And, as any well-trained pooch can tell you, learning to do new tricks can get you some really neat treats.


©2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Second Thoughts on: How To Be As Terrific As Your Dog Thinks You Are by Mort Crim. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.

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