I hated high school. Throughout my school career, I always got excellent grades. I never caused trouble. My teachers mostly liked me. I had wonderful friends (many of whom I still keep up with today). I was miserable.
I felt bored and frustrated in class, and missed school as often as possible. I never cut school – I wasn’t going to get in trouble – but stayed home “sick” as often as I could get away with it. I was later diagnosed with a legitimate autoimmune disease, but quite honestly quite a few of my “sick days” in high school were really just “can’t stand to sit in a desk and be bored” days. I would miss whole weeks of school. I never fell behind in my schoolwork. I would spend a couple hours studying, writing papers, and filling out worksheets, then spend the rest of the day reading, surfing the internet, or playing video games. I would do anything to avoid feeling trapped in that desk, listening to the same material repeated over and over again.
Looking back at my high school career, a few bright spots stand out. Most notable were a small handful of teachers who made a profound difference.
Mr. Behrens, my sixth-grade teacher, listened to my ideas and assigned me different books to read when he found out that I’d already read the book the class was studying.
Mr. Snyder, my band teacher, wrote special passes to get me out of study hall so I could practice my flute in the tiny, echoey rooms behind his office (and looked the other way when my friends, who also had practice passes, would all cram into one little room together to play occasional cut-throat games of Scrabble).
Mrs. Dix, who came after him, kept up the practice passes and never flinched when I told her I wanted to play an incredibly complicated piece of music with 64th and 128th notes in it for competition.
Mrs. Gehrking, an A.P. English teacher, continued to expand my literary horizons with exciting and challenging work, keeping the class to a fast pace that encouraged me to attend class in order not to fall behind.
Most teachers, however, stuck to the established worksheets, rote learning, and tests. They expressed frustration at my poor attendance and seemed insulted that I didn’t participate more than half-heartedly in class. When I asked to earn extra credits towards graduation for very complicated work I had done (and documented) with color genetics in dwarf hamsters, I was told that such a thing probably wasn’t possible and given empty praise by a teacher who didn’t care to look further into the issue. In 7th grade, my English teacher told me that she would have cast me in the lead role of Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” since my audition was one of the best, but decided against it due to my poor attendance (I was instead given the role of Philostrate, who has 2 lines in the entire play).
So, how does this relate to dog training? I believe that the same characteristics that make me remember certain teachers with fondness or frustration are the characteristics that shape our dogs’ training relationships with us.
When I look back at my school career, the teachers who became my favorites were those who both valued and challenged me. They never gave me challenges I couldn’t succeed at, but always pushed me slightly past my comfort zone. They paid attention to my interests and skills, and nurtured those abilities. They were honestly interested in me and in what I could do, and because of this I was willing to work much, much harder for them. Even when they gave me much more work than I was given in other classes, I didn’t mind because it was work I enjoyed and was excited to complete.
When I look at my students’ dogs, I notice the same trend. Those students who support their dogs, who play to their natural strengths, who listen to and adjust to their dogs’ individual personalities: these are the students who have happy, willing dogs. Students who challenge their dogs, setting them up for success in training but always pushing slightly, these are the students whose dogs are the most excited to work. By taking note of their dogs’ interests and inserting them into a training program, these people develop a true partnership with their pets that others can only grasp at.
Clicker training is a partnership. It can’t be done with an unwilling dog. Sometimes though, this is what ends up happening. By relying on formulaic training plans (“first you do X, then Y”) or pre-conceived notions (“all dogs love to work for hot dogs” or “all agility dogs must play tug”), we can forget to listen to what our dog is telling us. We can lose sight of what makes the dog in front of us special.
When we forget to look for brilliance, we see only mediocrity.
Every dog is an individual. Just because your last dog enjoyed working for food doesn’t mean that this one wouldn’t prefer to play. While the channel method may have worked brilliantly to teach your last dog to weave, this dog may do better with 2×2’s. Dobby was initially too frightened to follow a lure, but learned to sit and down within a week by capturing these behaviors. Layla enjoys heeling practice where I stride out and make her work hard to keep up; Dobby still goes over the top if I move this quickly. Dobby does better with very light, cheerful verbal corrections if he’s starting to make a mistake, while the same feedback would make Layla anxious (and thus, more likely to repeat the mistake).
My parents and I didn’t know about other options, such as an alternative art school or Post Secondary education, when I was in high school, and the overworked guidance counselor certainly wasn’t concerned about looking too closely at a student who was passing all her classes. I sometimes wonder how I would be different had I had a more supportive environment where I was free to engage in self-paced study and explore my interests. Just because that may have been a good fit for me doesn’t mean that my old school should change their curriculum though. Every student is different, and my recipe for success could very well have been another student’s worst nightmare.
I’m reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Are you judging your dog by his ability to climb a tree when you could be focusing on how well he can swim? Time to change perspectives. Everybody is a genius. We just need to focus on their brilliance and help their light shine through.