My Dog Makes Me a Better Teacher

23 Feb

Finn's Crazy EyeI love mutts. I love all dogs, regardless of pedigree, but I have always favored the scrappy, intelligent mash-up that is a pound puppy. Every dog with which I have shared my life has been a rescue, and until my wife and I adopted Finn, an Australian Cattle Dog/Poodle mix so intelligent she could probably crack a safe, every dog I have welcomed into my life has been relatively easy work. Finn, however, is another story.

A cute but neurotic pup with a skull-rattling bark, Finn has required more training, patience, and “accommodations” in order to adjust to our lifestyle. And, more than any other dog for which I’ve cared, she has forced me to adjust my lifestyle to her. In just one year we were her third family, and I do not think many people would have the time or resources to help her in the way that we can. Of course, she helps me, too.

In both the classroom and my personal life, I expect things to work. I believe with enough thought and hard work, I can solve any problem. Yet, I have come to accept I will ever really “fix” Finn. I can help her become a calmer, more predictable, more relaxed dog, but I don’t know if she’ll ever be the “perfect” dog that I’ve had in the past. Accepting this fact is an ongoing process but one that teaches me quite a bit about myself.

I know she has made me a better teacher. As I change my mindset to better work with my dog, I realize I am bringing these positive attributes into my classroom as well.

 A good teacher (of dogs or humans) must…

Finn and Robin…be PATIENT. I use positive training methods, which require more time to be effective. In the long run, these methods lead to a happier, more confident dog that follows commands because it wants to and not out of fear. Yet, as Finn screams for the 20th time in an hour at the front door, defending home and hearth against a silent but sinister leaf blowing by, I try not to lose my cool and yell.

Of course, I do. (Her bark is so bleeping annoying). Yet, my screams do no good. They reinforce the bad behavior.

More effective, then, is a calm voice that calls her into the next room, distracts her with a series of commands, and rewards her with a stinky cheese or bacon when she is quiet.

In the classroom the same holds true. Yelling never solves a problem. I can’t honestly write that I never yell at a student. I can (usually once a school year) raise my voice, but I always feel instantly guilty. A far more effective classroom management strategy is to stay calm but direct, rewarding good behavior.

…ooze LOVE. I am not the world’s most touchy-feely guy, but I am also not some stoic cowboy who believes real men don’t cry. In every classroom I’ve ever taught in, I’ve hung a quote by Leo Roskin that crystallizes my teaching philosophy:

“It is the weak that are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.”

With my dog and my students (trust me…I’m not making a direct parallel here!), I seek out opportunities to let them know they are loved. Showing a dog love is very simple. Some extra tasty treats or a good belly rub does the trick. Students, of course, require different rewards.

One that works every time, however, is telling each student, in front of everyone else, something I like about him or her. Once a term, I take 30 minutes out of the day to do this, and the transformation that occurs in our class culture is palpable. The students don’t hear specific, positive praise from the adults in their lives nearly often enough, and they need us to model such behavior to make it part of their own lives.

Finn E Neal…keep RECORDS. Once I started keeping a log of Finn’s problem behaviors and my daily training exercises with her, my teaching improved greatly. It sounds borderline neurotic, I know, to keep a daily diary of my dog’s behavior, but her behavior was so erratic and difficult to control that there were many times I considered giving her up. I tried all the methods that had worked with my previous dogs, but Finn needed something else. I still haven’t found a panacea for her laundry list of weirdness, but since keeping records I have been able to target specific problem behaviors and significantly decrease their frequency.

This week’s triumph…she can get in the backseat of the car without melting into a stress-induced fit of biblical vomiting! Next week, we take the car to the end of the driveway and back (about ten feet). Without my records, such seemingly small moments would get lost in the all-too-frequent barrage of bad behavior.

In a similar way, a letter grade or percentage in a grade book is a fairly myopic view of a student’s abilities. Instead, changing my grade book into a record of skills gives me a much more accurate view of students’ understanding. In the upcoming term I will experiment with a new approach to record keeping in regard to writing and blog about the changes I observe in student learning as a result.

As I type these words, my furry friend sleeps curled at my feet, a model of canine loyalty and decorum. I am sure at any moment she could lose her mind and switch into Berserker mode, but I am ready. An attractive slice of Kraft singles sits next to the keyboard, and I’ll stuff it in her mouth whole if she ignores the imminent distraction lurking outside the front door. In many ways, this level of preparedness and calm marks the main difference between my teaching in year sixteen versus year two. I am much better at staying alert and observant, armed with a variety of materials at the ready that will help me clearly mark good behavior and reward it, before any problems arise.

One Response to “My Dog Makes Me a Better Teacher”


  1. Landing an International Teaching Job | Robin Neal - May 11, 2013

    […] We have accepted jobs at Frankfurt International School, a wonderful international school in post-card perfect Oberursel. In July we will arrive in Germany with an obscene amount of clothes, a few favorite books, kitchen gadgets Julia Child would envy, and one loving-but-psychotic Australian Shepherd mixed breed. […]

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