Two weeks ago, my boyfriend and I adopted this adorable 6 month old puppy from PAWS. We were initially thinking of getting an older dog, but Louie stole our heart from the moment we met him. Since then, I have learned a lot about puppies, and have made some connections to my role as a teacher. Here are my major findings.
Puppies can learn a lot in a short amount of time - as long as you have a healthy supply of patience
We live in an apartment building, which makes potty training a particularly difficult problem, especially when neither one of us had ever trained a dog on our own. Our first problem was that Louie was peeing in the lobby of our building, so we decided to take him out a different way. Louie, however, did not want to go out the back, and so I spent a lot of time on the hallway, elevator, and lobby floor trying to coaxh
im out of the building. It was immensely tiring for me, and about a week into this I had a breakdown and cried after a particularly difficult walk. I
knew that getting a puppy was tiring, but I was unprepared for just how mentally exhausting it could be. However, through persistence and a form of positive training called clicker training, Louie is now walking through the lobby without any accidents!
The implications for teaching is twofold. One is that we need to have patience when our students are learning new things. Louie doesn't always understand what we want him to do at first, which means that some skills come easily to him (like "sit"), while others are painstakingly slow (like "watch me" when there are other dogs around). If we want to be successful with him, however, we need to stay patient and remember that he is a puppy and it is our job to train him. The second implication is the power of positivity. Louie LOVES his treats and is very motivated to earn his way towards a snack. Using positive rewards not only makes him happy, but makes me happier because I'm not constantly angry with him. He's certainly not a perfect puppy, but clicker training forces us to focus on what he's doing well, instead of punishing every bad thing he does. Imagine how the climate of a classroom can shift if we focus on all the great things students are doing, instead of the negative.
People have low expectations for the behavior of puppies
The second thing I learned with a puppy is that people do not expect puppies to behave well. One of the issues we are working on with Louie is him jumping on dogs when he passes them in the street. We have a lot of little dogs in the area and 42 lb Louie doesn't always know his size. Whenever he starts to jump after meeting a dog and I grab his harness to stop him, in almost 100% of the cases the owner of the other dog says something like "Oh, don't worry about it, he's just a puppy and all puppies jump." Although I usually smile and nod, I always think afterwards about the implications of what that means. Essentially they are saying that training Louie not to jump is useless, because that's what all puppies do.
If we have low expectations for our puppies or our students, they will always meet them. Because I have been working with Louie on not jumping, he has significantly decreased the amount that he jumps on other dogs. If I had just assumed he couldn't be trained not to jump, he would have made no progress. This makes me think about the assumptions I have about my own students - especially the ones who struggle the most. If I keep my expectations low, I am reinforcing the idea that my students can't learn certain things, just as people believe that puppies can't learn not to jump.
People hold strong biases against certain breeds of dogs
PAWS labeled Louie as a Boxer mix, and while he looks like he has some Boxer in him, he also looks like a pit bull. Pit bulls are one of the most misunderstood dog breeds because of their use in dog fighting. This topic is is very close to my heart because Louie is one of the friendliest dogs I have ever met. However, there are people who have literally jumped backwards to get away from him in the street because of a preconceived idea of what his breed is. In reality, pit bulls are known to be terrible guard dogs because they are more likely to lick a stranger than bite him/her, yet entire buildings, cities, and even countries have banned them (e.g. the U.K.) based on misinformation and fear.
What does this mean in my classroom? Every year, I hear about several students who are the "ones to watch out for". Previous teachers tremble in fear of their name, and severe warnings of who they absolutely cannot work with are passed around with the seriousness of a bad medical diagnosis. While I certainly appreciate that the teachers are trying to give us some background information and help us out for the beginning of the year, I try my best not to have preconceived ideas of my students before they arrive. These students are the "pit bulls" of the world - they are judged before teachers get to know them. If we take the time to make our own decisions instead of having these pre-judgements about students, then we are giving our "pit bulls" the opportunity to start the year on a positive note, instead of having to fight to get past of the negative ideas their teachers already hold about them.
So my question to you is, who are your "pit bulls" and how will you make sure they get the chance they deserve next year?
P.S. My dog isn't always adorable. Sometimes he looks like this. We still love him, though.