Tuesday, June 26, 2018


I'm learning some new things about teaching this week.
I'm learning them from my dog.
I've had dogs most of my adult life.
First there was Ramsey, then Maggie, Star, then Jack, and finally Boo.
All of them have taught me something.
But this week I'm learning some brand new lessons.

It all started about a year ago. I ran into Debbie, a friend who I taught with years ago. Debbie was accompanied by Shadow, a huge black lab she is training for Canine Partners of the Rockies. I told her I have always wanted to do something like that, and she invited me to come to class with her some Saturday morning. I've been going since about November and recently, I decided to step up my game and become a puppy sitter. I actually want to raise a puppy but there are several other obstacles in the way right now.

To be a puppy sitter, you have to have a home visit. They check to make sure that your house is safe, and that you have a good fence. They also check out the pets that already live in the home. Debbie has worked with CaPR for several years, so she can do the home visits. Star is not always really excited about other dogs, but her dog Shadow, is really mellow, and really good with other dogs, so the director of CaPR thought it might work to try with him.

It didn't go well at all.

Debbie and I went to class one Saturday and then brought Shadow back to my house. We brought him in through the front door and let the dogs sniff each other a little. That went ok. As soon as Debbie let Shadow off the leash, however, the action began. Shadow immediately trotted over to Star's food dish. It was empty (like it is two minutes after I put it down every morning) and I didn't think it would be a big deal.

Star did. She did not want Shadow checking out her food bowl. If there was a single morsel left in there, she wanted to be the one to find it. She growled at him and showed her teeth.

It went similarly when he picked up a toy. We have had that toy since Christmas and Star has never played with it, so again, I didn't think it was a big deal. Star evidently did, because she growled and bared her teeth again.

Debbie put Shadow back on the leash and they left shortly after that. She and I pretty much thought that was the end of it. If Star couldn't get along with other dogs, even a really mellow, well-trained almost service dog, we definitely didn't think she could get along with any of the younger dogs, who are much younger and not nearly as calm.

The trainers from CaPR didn't think that was necessarily true. They wanted to come over with Pete, another dog in advanced training. They thought they could work with Star. They came last Thursday. They set up the learning conditions very differently. For starters, Pete didn't come in the house right away. First one trainer walked him down one side of the street and the other trainer and I walked Star. It was fine. Then we tried crossing the street and passing each other, first with the dogs on the outside, and then with the dogs on the inside. Everything was still fine. We walked to a nearby school and practiced passing each other, then walking side by side. Everything was fine, but I still wasn't convinced.

We brought the dogs back to the house and took them through the gate into the backyard. Pete had to check every corner of the yard. Star watched, but didn't approach him. Soon he was ready to play and bounded up to her. Lo and behold, she wagged her tail. They circled each other and began a vigorous game of tag. He found a ball in one corner of the backyard and tried to get her to play. And she did. Occasionally Star would fuss a little, but the trainers assured me it was no big deal; Star was just asserting herself and reminding Pete that she was the Alpha Dog here. Pete was more than willing to acquiesce. The trainers told me that Star could communicate with Pete much better than any of us could

Finally we tried taking Pete into the house. Before we did that, however, the trainers made me check to make sure the conditions were ripe for success. I had to pick up the food bowls and all of the toys and bones. Star's food canister, usually in the corner of our dining room, went into the laundry room, with the door shut.

Star and Pete came inside and Star was the hostess with the mostest. Friendly, mannerly, playful. Pete ended up coming back for the night. This week Shadow is here for the entire week and it's going fine. The two dogs play with each other for awhile, then, because it's really hot, they collapse on the cool wood floors. After a little rest, they are ready to go again.

As I'm watching them, I can't help thinking about school. Star wasn't successful at all, the first time we brought Shadow over, but it was because I set her up for failure. We didn't start slowly. We left the toys and food dishes, known sources of conflict, out in the open. When the CaPR trainers came, they started slowly and gave Star ample opportunities to be successful in a controlled environment. When we brought Pete back to the house, they again made sure conditions were right, and that they dogs could be successful.

Even though I am a pretty good reading teacher, with lots of strategies in my boxI think I do the same thing to kids way too often. I take a kid that hasn't quite found her groove as a reader. I tell the kid to choose a book on the first day of school and offer lots of options. The child doesn't know how to make a good choice, or there are too many possibilities, and she fails miserably and thus I reinforce her conceptions of herself, or remind her of previous failures, and thus I start the cycle of failure all over again.

I wonder what it would be like if I adjusted the conditions just a little. What about if I made sure Reina Telgemeier's graphic novels were on her table? What about if I threw a couple of picture books into each table's basket? Or book talked a series I knew she could read that first day, and then casually left the book on her table? Might she be more successful not just that day, but for many days to come?

I'm going to be thinking about Star and Shadow a lot as I start this school year. They have reminded me that my choices, as the teacher, really do matter.


elsie said...

What an adventure in dog training! You are so smart to sit back and notice what made it easy for the dogs to get along, then think about students. We need to create those conditions of success, sometimes that takes longer than expected, but the pay off is worth it.

Kyle said...

I love reading your work. You inspire me. It is funny how we can learn from our four legged friends.

Tara said...

So much to think about here, Carol - about dogs, children, how to watch both, and how to think through setting both up for success. Great post!

Molly Hogan said...

I loved reading your reflections about your dog experiences and how they relate to teaching. Words to keep in mind heading into next year. Thanks!

Heidi Mordhorst said...

I am soooooo glad that I scrolled down to read this post, Carol. May I share with colleagues? May I tweet a link? It's just so graphic--and charming--a story.

Mary Lee said...

Important observations here. I love how you lead us into the classroom via the dogs, but I also really want to hear more dog stories!