The Night is Long and Full of Terriers

What my dogs have taught me about students, teaching and being human – Part 1: The Night is Long and Full of Terriers

There is a reason why many fields of science use animal models.  How animals behave and react to a given situation often gives us insights into how people will.  My dogs are companion animals, but from our time together I have learned many things, which, I believe, have allowed me to better understand my students and to become a better teacher. 

Pokey at age of 4 joined our pack in August of ’08 and from the beginning we knew he was different from our other two dogs. He was not eager to please.  He did not immediately throw his butt to the floor when dinner was presented to him.  He liked tug and liked to chase balls that were thrown, but he was not a fan of bringing them back.   He did not like to cuddle.  He did not want to sit on the couch with the whole crew.  In fact he would growl when we or the other dogs started to sit near him and when we did sit he would immediately get up and walk away.  If we knew his personality better his name would never have stayed Pokey.  There were two names that better suited his personality, Francis, ala the movie Stripes, or even more appropriate was Steve McQueen’s character from The Great EscapeCaptain Virgil Hilts, the cooler king.

Pokey on a walk

Pokey’s greatest pleasure was escaping.  The wild freedom that comes from running down the block as fast as his legs could carry him.  At first sight you would not expect the speed that came bursting out of this dog.  According to his paperwork he is a basset-terrier mix, and like a basset he is a stocky, long-backed, short-legged dog, but the terrier in him made him fast.  His back would flex, his feet would fly and the only thing that would slow him down was an interesting smell.  I would chase him, but my two legs were never fast enough to catch up to him.  He ran and ran and ran toward the busy street at the end of my block.  My heart in my throat, I would cross to the other side of the street so that he did not see me, which was the only way to approach him. If he saw me chase him he would have to run.

Working on a kong toyPokey is basset hound smart, which for those of you not in the know is like cat smart, “I’ll do what you want human, but only if there is something in it for me.” Give him a dog puzzle full of food and its solved, give him a locked fence and it is opened.  So my husband and I began a rigorous training regimen which involved a long training lead, opening the front door and treats.  Look how great it is staying inside when the door opens? You get cookies!  Look what happens when you come when I call for you? You get cookies!  But alas cookies were not enough to overcome the joy of running free.

The turning point came when I saw a Sunday morning dog training show.  The solution is counter intuitive, but it works.  When a dog is running away, wait until they stop, get their attention and then …run away from them.  You see we missed one of the points of running.  It was not just the freedom, it was also the chase.  Once we more fully understood the game and the motivation we were able to use the game to our advantage.  Pokey stopped being the chasee and became the chaser, and he would run with the same level of joy toward the house as he had once run toward the busy street.

Pokey Lying flatPokey is not a bad dog.  He was a young dog that loved to run.  I, with my greater knowledge of the world, saw how dangerous his passion could be.  A free running dog is a recipe for pain and heart break.  It is my job as the human, my job as the teacher to recognize the game and the motivation and do my best to use my skills to control the situation to the best advantage for all.

We all teach students who do not conform to the ideal.  They are not easy people to teach because they are students who do not learn the way we are trying to teach or who are not motivated using the methods we employ.  Just as Pokey is not a bad dog, these are not bad children.  They are students who take skill, artistry and just plain luck to reach.  Being open to see the motivation behind unwanted behavior is the first step to understanding why someone is not performing up to expectations.  Understanding a person’s motivation is a powerful thing, and a person who can do that and harness it can guide any class towards learning. They are not ham-handed teachers, pushing, pushing, pushing, but rather can steer a class with a push here, a tug there and the occasional … I bet you can’t catch me.

Pokey sharing a couch

Seven years later Pokey now happily shares a couch.

All images taken by Wm Schwartz or myself.

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.

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