What I Learned about Teaching Students from Working with Dogs

dogblogI often joke that in addition to being a high school English teacher, I am also a professional dog stalker. The only problem is, I am totally not joking. If there is a dog around, chances are I am making a beeline for it. I often forget to talk to the human that may be accompanying any dog I encounter. I will also remember your dog’s name before I remember yours. Our local tennis courts share a fence with our local dog park, and my tennis partner knows how to make me miss a swing at the tennis ball by simply gasping and saying, “Oh my gosh, look at that dog.” Yes, I am a dog person, a dogaholic, that crazy dog lady!

I also happen to know a lot about dogs.  I am a dog mom to six (yes, 6) rescue mutts. I also currently have a seventh dog at my house because I rescued a stray who was roaming around our neighborhood for days. I could bore you with useless analogies likening my relationship to dogs to that of peanut butter and jelly, but I think you get the point – I am obsessed with dogs. So obsessed that I actually work part time on the weekends for a premium dog food company as a Blue Buffalo sales rep. I get the fancy title of being called a Pet Detective, because I am interacting with pet parents and talking about their beloved furry friends, and I am listening for clues as to what I can recommend from our exceptional line of products.

Dogs add so much to our lives. I love interacting with dogs and my students.
Dogs add so much to our lives. I love interacting with dogs and my students.

While I am advocating for my brand and interacting with the pet parents, I quite often have the opportunity to observe the dog training classes. While I listen to the dog trainer with her clients, and while I interact with my own dogs, I can’t help but see the correlations between dog training and teaching in my own classroom. As silly as it sounds, if you think about it, the goals of dog training and teaching our beloved students are one in the same: we are both teaching our “clients” valuable and necessary skills in order for them to lead more productive and successful lives. PetSmart says this about their trainers, “Trained in canine behavior, learning theory and problem solving, our skilled Accredited Dog Trainers use a positive approach to help get great results at each stage.” Let’s swap some words out of that and see how we can apply that to teachers in education: “Trained in student behavior, learning theory, and problem solving, our skilled certified teachers use a positive approach to help get great results in each grade.” So now that I have just written a stellar mission statement for a new charter school, who would like to come teach at this fabulous new school of mine?

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Our furry friends can add some insight into how to best teach our beloved students.

All humor aside, once you get past the preposterous notion that puppies and students have more in common than we might initially admit, the similarities between dog training and teaching human students are actually quite striking. Just the other day I overheard the dog trainer tell her puppy kindergarten class that, “a lack of physical and mental stimulation leads to undesired behavior.” Now, think about that for a minute as it pertains to teaching. Couldn’t that easily be from a chapter on classroom management in a leading education textbook too? We all know how important it is to engage our students in the classroom – most definitely mentally and if possible, physically. If a child is not adequately stimulated and challenged, poor behavior can occur. While we won’t experience the barking, chewing, and property destruction that a bored puppy might produce, we can certainly see the repercussions of a non-engaged, non-stimulated student in our classroom. A bored student can and will act out in your classroom, as we all have observed and experienced. But, believe it or not, the similarities between puppies and students don’t end there.

Yes, you can teach an old dogs new tricks - the same way you teach students!
Yes, you can teach an old dogs new tricks – the same way you teach students!

Watching dog training classes is very much like witnessing what would occur in an actual classroom with human students. While observing the puppies in class, it isn’t hard to identify the different types of students who are attending. The similarities between the different types of puppies and the students in our own classrooms are striking and uncanny. Take for example that one superstar puppy already behaving and doing what it should be doing. You know, that one student who is almost too perfect? The one who really probably doesn’t even need to take your class because he/she is really that smart and gifted. But the student attends the class just to jump through the hoops and is on to bigger and better things like becoming an astrophysicist and your class was just merely a necessary stepping stone in the grand scheme of things. This is the same student who is wise and mature beyond his/her years and has no time for the shenanigans of immature peers. You almost feel sorry for this student, because you can just sense that there is a constant level of annoyance with this student having to put up with the others in the classroom.

This is Jacob. He may look innocent, but he is a talker, and he will take the whole class down with him!
This is Jacob. He may look innocent, but he is a talker, and he will take the whole class down with him!

Next up, there is that one puppy who loves to hear himself bark/talk and can be quite the social butterfly. This is the puppy who barks, and barks, and barks! Oh how we love those students in our class who are clearly there to socialize and how dare we interrupt their social hour with our teaching? It’s that kid who you have to strategically place in a seating chart because he will talk to EVERYONE. It’s that student who you wish you could just look straight in the eye and say, “SHUT UP!” (but you would never do that, because you are a professional… but we won’t judge you for your own private thoughts and fantasies). This is the same one who would literally talk to the wall if you placed him there in an effort to thwart his undying dedication to talking non-stop… You are smiling because you are picturing that student, and he has name. It’s Jacob, isn’t it?  Dammit Jacob, I am trying to teach!

Oh sweet shy puppy... It's a crazy world out there.
Oh sweet shy puppy… It’s a crazy world out there.

The next type of puppy is the one who is shy and reserved and totally freaked out by all of the fussing/barking going on in the class. It’s that student who you try so hard to draw out of her shell and draw into the class discussion. But alas, no amount of coaxing can convince her to outwardly participate. But when that student is with you one on one, she totally opens up to you and shows you how much she really is learning and getting out of your teaching, it’s just that she is painfully shy and the thought of speaking up around her peers is overwhelming and terrifying.

How about the puppy who cannot pay attention no matter what? This is the puppy who is way too concerned about what every other puppy is doing in class, so this puppy has a very hard time focusing on the trainer. This is the same puppy who is all too eager to distract his classmates and deter them from paying attention. This puppy slowly but surely lures his classmates one by one into the sordid world of off-task behavior. He is the pied piper of inattentiveness and tomfoolery! If this sounds all too familiar, that’s because we usually have multiple students who struggle in the attention department in our classroom. Isn’t it amazing how the one child who cannot pay attention can so easily persuade his classmates to join him? It’s like a terrible game of distraction dominoes, and that is a game you do not want to lose when playing with your classroom management methods. Dog training classes focus on impulse-control, and much of my Freshman English course does too.

It's a good thing that dogs are so lovable! Same goes for my students!
It’s a good thing that dogs are so lovable! Same goes for my students!

Often, we need to use different types of positive reinforcements to help with issues such as impulse control. What if I told you that the same types of positive reinforcements used in puppy classes work on human students too? Puppies respond very well to verbal praise. I can attest to the fact that my students also enjoy verbal praise (and I love giving it out quite freely and often). Puppies also like to have a treat for a job well done, and I have been known to dole out a Blow Pop or two for an extra reward or incentive. The bottom line is this – puppies and students enjoy knowing when they are doing something pleasing and good! In order to make sure that our little learners are keeping up the good work, we need to keep up the positive reinforcements. A thoughtful, handwritten note to a student for a job done well can have a lasting impression on our precious pupils. A positive phone call home praising a student’s hard work in your classroom can set the stage for further success. Positive reinforcements are so much more valuable and helpful to a puppy and/or student compared to punitive actions in most situations.

We need to throw our students a bone now and then and praise them for their efforts.
We need to throw our students a bone now and then and praise them for their efforts.

At the end of classes, the dog trainer always tells the pet parent what the homework is for the week. Just like dogs, our human students need to practice and refine their skills. Learning is not a one shot deal. We need to pay homage to the old adage about “practice makes perfect.” Although I am certainly not looking for perfection as an indicator of success, I am looking for growth in my classroom. I don’t measure the success of my students solely on formative and summative assessments – students need to practice tasks before it comes to any test or assessment. We cannot teach a dog to sit, stay, or roll over just once and expect it to know how to do it. That’s why homework is an important part of any instruction. Pet parents need to work with their dogs on their skills to develop and master those desired behaviors. Teachers need to work with their students on their skills to develop and master the curriculum. And here you thought I was crazy for comparing puppies to students; it’s all starting to make sense now, isn’t it?

Sometimes dogs and students need a little more practice at something.
Sometimes dogs and students need a little more practice at something.

Most dogs and students are eager to please and want to impress you with their skills and knowledge. Most dogs and students also just want to be told they are doing a good job and may need some gentle reminders about what is appropriate behavior. Then the trainer or teacher chooses what needs corrective action and how to appropriately counteract any negative or undesired behaviors. Most dogs are highly trainable, just as most students are highly teachable. It’s all about finding what works best for our students. After all, we all want tail wags from our doggies and those incredible aha moments from our students in our classrooms. PetSmart touts its training efforts as fun, effective, and focused on success; the same can be said about my efforts in my classroom.

Well, there you have it, my semi-serious, semi-comical comparison between puppies and students. Although this blog post is not necessarily meant to be taken seriously, I do believe there is some wisdom to be gleaned from relating our teaching to other parts of our lives. What comparisons can you make between other areas of your life and your efforts in your classroom? Comment below!

Author: Maya

Teacher, mom, wife, dog lover, amateur blogger, experienced sweeper.

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