Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cool Dog, School Dog

In addition to thinking about books, I've been thinking about training/teaching.  A big part of this is because tomorrow marks the start of the final month of summer vacation, so it's time to finish the syllabi and think about starting a normal sleep schedule.  It's time to go back to my office and recycle all of the leftover handouts that are strewn about every horizontal surface and find places to hide the final papers and portfolios that students most likely will never come to pick up.  I've also been thinking about this because Barley and I have been immersed in training this summer, especially for the last month when we've been taking two classes at once.

When I first got Barley, it was winter and bitter cold.  I didn't want to be outside, even though she did.  On our walks, we had the world mostly to ourselves.  The neighbors weren't out walking their dogs and their dogs weren't lounging in their front yards.  I didn't know anyone else in the area with a dog, so Barley never met other dogs.  As the snow started to melt and dogs started emerging from their homes, I learned that my dog is a reactive dog.  By reactive, I mean that when she saw another dog she sounded like Old Yeller after he got rabies (skip ahead to about 1:40 if you aren't sure what this sounds/looks like).

I'd never seen a dog act this way before, so at first I thought it was just because the first dog that prompted this response is a really nasty dog that I don't even like to walk by on my own.  I figured that because that dog growled every time we walked by, Barley growled.

Then we met Oscar, a min pin owned by a very sweet, but completely oblivious old man in our apartment complex.  Barley reacted so strongly to this tiny dog that I had to carry her from the front of our complex all the way to our front door.  Carrying a writhing 50-pound dog is not an easy task.  (Oscar's dad still comments on what a nice dog I have.  Really?)

This was the moment when I decided I needed help.  I had an unpredictable dog and an unpredictable dog is a dangerous dog (not that any dog is completely predictable, nor completely safe, but some are more predictable than others).  In the words of a book my sister reads her kindergardeners, my Barley was a "breaking all the rules dog."  In the house, she was a perfect (energetic) angel.  She knew how to sit and lie down.  I taught her to shake in less than 10 minutes.  She'd only had one accident in my house and it was in the first 15 minutes I'd had her at home (and one in my parents house--but that was because she was so excited to see her Aunt Linds, so who could really blame her?).  She would do "the stare" for a minute when I ate, but once she realized I wasn't sharing, she'd curl up and wait for me to finish.  She had lovely manners inside.  After an extensive google search, I found a training center that sounded perfect; they offered private lessons that were affordable and the sessions were held inside a massive training facility (not in a backyard or a parking lot like so many of the classes I found).  I emailed the center and explained what was going on, and one of the co-owners responded almost immediately that she specialized in rehabilitating shelter dogs.  I set up a lesson and we got to work.  The more we trained, the more I realized how similar training my dog is to teaching my students.  Here are some of the lessons I've learned working with Barley.

Learning should be fun.
Luckily, this lesson is easy to accomplish with Barley.  She's like her mama and loves to learn (even if she sees little use for that book learnin').  Her tail never stops wagging when we are in our training center or practicing our homework (I'll admit, my tail quit wagging when I had to do algebra 2 homework, so Barley might enjoy learning even more than I do).
Notice the blurry tail.  Seriously, this thing never stops moving--even when she sleeps.
Even though Barley naturally loves to learn, our trainer taught me how to make it even more fun.  I learned to use my "party voice" to make Barley excited to come to me.  Not only is this a great tool for recall in general, it's good for agility (to get your dog excited about tunnels, etc.) and it's been especially helpful for getting Barley to choose me over the "snacks" in the litter box.  For big accomplishments, the party voice is accompanied by a shower of treats and lots of loving.  

Making learning fun is less natural for my students, but it's just as essential.  Many of them have not finished a book in 10 years by the time they come to me, so I have my work cut out for me.  When I think about my favorite classes, though, they were the ones where learning was fun.  I became an English major for this sole reason.  My first college English class was taught by the most fun professor I've ever met: Dr. Emily Seelbinder.  Whether it was doing interpretive dance to Emily Dickinson poems or dressing up as the scariest thing she could think of (a college student) for Halloween, it was clear she loved her job and that made it easy for me to love reading some of the drier pieces of early American literature.  I know my sister often employs the party voice in her classroom, too, and her kids love her.  So, I try to remember this lesson every time I plan what I'm doing for the day.  Sometimes it fails, but I've had students actually finish the assigned reading materials AND recommend them to friends/family, so I think that's a pretty big success.

Learning is about making choices.
This lesson is easier for me to accomplish in the human classroom.  It's something I live by in that world.  Since there is no single correct way to write an essay or to interpret a text, I believe I have to teach students to make choices when completing those tasks.  For this reason, I never "edit" their papers; I never cross things out or rewrite sentences for them.  Instead, I pose questions and offer options for revising their papers.  For example, if I find a sentence fragment, I don't just write obscure symbols or abbreviations in the margins.  Instead, I write something like, "This is a fragment.  See if you can expand it or combine it with another idea to make it a complete sentence."  Then my students learn how to fix fragments on their own.  If I simply write in the words necessary for completing the sentence, they only learn to correct things in the way I would correct them.

With Barley, this is harder.  I have all the patience in the world with my human students and very little with my dog.  I had to learn that I couldn't just repeat a command 1000 times.  Instead, I had to let Barley make choices about what to do.  If I said "down" and she didn't do it immediately, I had to wait until she figured it out.  (Our first lesson involved a lot of waiting.)  I couldn't look at her while she figured it out, either, because according to our trainer eye contact is the biggest reward.
Not looking at your dog is really tough when your dog is as cute as mine.
Once Barley figured out what she was supposed to do, she'd get showered with treats.  Then she'd learn what she needed to do to get all of those treats again.  I'm happy to report that Barley is now choosing eye contact (and treats!) with me over snarling at other dogs.  And, in May, we passed the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test, part of which involves a meet and greet with a friendly dog.  
We got a certificate AND a ribbon!
Occasionally, she has a relapse and I end up apologizing profusely to other dog owners for my dog's rude behavior, and she still won't let another dog come up and sniff her, but we can finally have peaceful walks around the neighborhood (or on trails).

Good teachers (trainers) build confidence.
So often, my students come to me broken.  If I had a penny for every time I've heard "I can't write," I'd be a billionaire.  Almost every one of my students has a story about being told that they can't write--whether it's by a first grade teacher, a high school counselor, or a family member--and they believe that.  I don't.  I think everyone can write.  Sure, some people might write more eloquently, naturally, or fluently than others, but everyone can write well enough to express their ideas.  I found that the biggest part of job is often just being a cheerleader and teaching my students that they can write.  One day last fall, I handed back papers and overheard two students discussing their feedback.  One of them said, "I really like that she points out what we did well and not just what we did wrong."  If students have confidence, the above lessons are easy.

Last night, I saw what happens to a dog when they don't have confidence.  There was another border collie mix in our class making up a missed class from another session.  This dog looked like a skinny boy version of Barley without the eyebrows and with upright ears.  I loved him immediately.  As soon as we started class, though, it as apparent that this poor pup was nothing like my Barley in terms of confidence.  I'm not sure if this was because of the way his owners trained him or if it had something to do with his life before his owners, but this dog had no confidence.  He wanted to please his owner so badly, but he was so unsure of himself that he never got the commands right, which led to his owner becoming increasingly frustrated throughout the class.  When the pup would sit, he'd put his tail between his legs and tentatively sit down on his tail.  It broke my heart.  Barley probably has too much confidence, but I wouldn't have it any other way.  When I give her a command, if she's unsure of what I want, she runs through every command she knows (sit, down, stand, shake, wave, high five, turn, twirl, roll, unroll, bow, place, side, the list goes on . . .) until she gets it right; her tails wags the whole time and her eyes twinkle--she has no doubt that eventually she's going to get it right.  To see a dog as smart as a border collie as broken as this little boy dog was really opened my eyes to how easy it is for a dog (or a human student) to lose confidence.

The lessons I've learned from training Barley are so applicable to the teaching part of my life.  in addition to improving my relationship with my dog, training Barley has made me a better teacher.  I know Barley and I still have a long way to go, but I'm confident that our story won't end in the same heartbreak as Jon Katz's A Good Dog.  As I previously pointed out, Katz seemed to be the one person to get what I was going through.  This wasn't just in terms of energy and other border collie quirks.  He also had a reactive dog and went through extensive training (in his case, herding among other techniques).  SPOILER ALERT: Despite the training and medical investigations/treatments, Katz's first border collie, Orson, was put down for aggression.  These books made me think about the things no dog owner wants to think about, and I realized how important it was to train Barley immediately and consistently.  Of course, this was no guarantee that things would turn out well for us, but I knew that if we didn't work hard at training there was no way things could end positively.  


1 comment:

  1. Haha, I LOVE how you referenced Cool Dog, School dog in here. Annnd yes, we do a lot of party voicin' in my classroom, but sometimes even pretending it's fun makes it more fun ;-)

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