Education lessons from the dog trainer

We recently booked our youngest cavoodle, Lola, into dog school to help her learn some manners (being cute isn’t enough in this world!). Before Lola could attend any classes however, we (the humans) were required to attend a 90 minute information session introducing us to the world of dogs and learning. Right from the first slide in the presentation I found myself madly scribbling down the connections between what the dog trainer was telling us about how to handle dogs and their learning and what I know to be true about effective education of children.

 “Everything we do is based on research about how dogs learn best.”

The trainer opened the information session assuring us that everything they do is based on research and best practice into how dogs learn. WOW! I wonder how many of us, as educators, can say the same? Which (if any) research about how children learn do we base our classroom and whole school practices on? (This was one of the things that struck me when I visited Google HQ in San Francisco- everything they put in place in the work environment was based on the research about the conditions that make workers more creative and more productive. This had me asking serious questions about the way we approach education in schools.)

We might have research behind our Literacy program or our Maths program, but what is the overarching research on which we base our general approach, beliefs and attitudes towards student learning? When you reflect critically on this question, you can see how it underpins every action and decision that takes place in a school. For example: if we believe due to studies such as “high impact running improves learning” (Winter et al., 2007) that students learn best when they are physically active, we will structure our timetable to ensure students have more time to engage in physical activity throughout the day.

What do we know about how children do learn best? How is this impacting what you do in your school/setting?

 

“We keep up to date with new research about how dogs learn so we can respect our dogs.”

Having strong beliefs about trauma-informed practice being implemented as a fundamental non-negotiable in all schools, I have found that the word ‘respect’ needs to be clearly defined within school communities. “The kids of today need to show more respect,” “children need to respect their elders” etc.

I believe the dog school’s definition is one all schools should use as a model for their own definition: “Respect means you do not expect your dog to do what you say because you are a human and they are a dog.” There is a very clear power shift from traditional roles when you swap the word ‘dog’ with ‘child’ and ‘human’ with adult: “Respect means you do not expect your/a child to do what you say because you are an adult and they are a child.” Having this clearly defined for all members of the school community in this way sets a clear expectation for the way relationships are established and conducted between adults and children in the school. It automatically sets the precedent for the development of a respect-based approach to working with children (this underpins the Victorian Department of Education and Training’s ’setting expectations and promoting inclusion dimension of the Framework for Improvement Student Outcomes).

‘No dog will ever learn when they are stressed, anxious or disengaged.’

The dog trainer explained that the dogs in their school were grouped by skill level rather than age as it doesn’t make any sense to group dogs together by age, when some dogs come with loads of training and positive experiences and some come with none. (This had me thinking of Sir Ken Robinson’s popular TED talk about creativity in schools) The trainer explained that putting a 7-year-old dog with no training in a class with a 7-year-old dog with loads of training would only induce anxiety and stress in the one with no training and no dog will ever learn when they are stressed, anxious or disengaged.

No child will ever learn when they are stressed, anxious or disengaged; this is the essential underpinning for all trauma-informed practice. This is the very statement that should underpin everything we do in schools, particularly when it comes to our approach to behaviour management. Just as the dog owners need to take responsibility for putting their dogs in situations in which they can achieve success, we, as the adults, have an obligation to ensure we don’t knowingly put our students in situations that will induce excessive stress and/or anxiety. (We certainly don’t have the right, as I have far too many times witnessed, to put students in these situations and then question why they either aren’t learning or are being disruptive to the learning of others around them.)

Your dog associates people/environments with how they are feeling and develops expectations. What’s the balance of your Relationship Bank Account?

I’d never thought of the concept of an emotional bank account applying to dogs as well as humans. Well of course it does, it applies to any circumstance in which a relationship exists!

The idea of an emotional bank account again reinforces the expectation of a positive approach to behaviour management in schools. For us to have a difficult (but effective) conversation with a student (a ‘withdrawal’), we need to have built up a healthy emotional bank account with that student prior to the ‘withdrawal.’ The requirement to establish this positive bank account balance is the very reason a school’s behaviour management plan cannot be solely reliant on sending students to another staff member/space to be ‘dealt’ with when they are misbehaving. Sending disruptive students to a welfare worker for example only strengthens the relationship the student has with the welfare worker. It will not help to build the relationship between the teacher and the student. This becomes a problem as the student will come to associate the teacher with negative feelings and develop expectations for what will happen when they are in that teacher’s class (setting up a negative spiral of bad behaviour in that class). This is the same for dogs.

In dog classes, the dog owner cannot simply send their misbehaving dog to the trainer to be ‘fixed.’ There are a few reasons for this, including: 1) the problem is likely to exist between the owner and the dog and possibly centres around the lack of respect in their relationship- therefore sending the dog to the trainer will not address the heart of the problem and 2) it is not long term sustainable to offload the problem to another person -when the dog and the owner go home, the trainer will not be there to rescue them.

 

Reinforcement over punishment

It has to be said, by this stage of the dog training information session I was practically on the floor hailing the dog trainer for their wisdom. Just when I thought the messages couldn’t be any more pertinent for education, out comes this research-backed golden statement: Reinforcement over punishment. Reinforce all behaviour you like, even the behaviours you take for granted (eg. sitting on their bed quietly).

Have you ever heard frustrated educators/parents demand ‘why should they get a reward for doing the right thing? They should be doing it anyway!’

Why? Because reinforcement builds a positive relationship between you and your child/dog, it is more pleasant for you and your child/dog and it actually explicitly teaches your child/dog what to do. The punishment cycle on the other hand can establish negative associations with environment/people, doesn’t build up behaviour we like and, most importantly, teaches your child/dog ‘safe’ vs ‘not safe’ rather than ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ As educators, we are in the business of teaching students; therefore, we need to teach them how to behave, rather than simply focusing on how NOT to behave. Could you imagine teaching maths in the same way that some people teach behaviour? We would tell a student every time they were wrong when working out a problem, without giving them any guidance or coaching on how they should or could go about working through it successfully- sounds like a very long winded and ineffective approach to me! (Not to mention the fact that I haven’t found any research that backs it up as effective).

 

The final message for the day:

Dog body language- learn to understand what your dog is telling you

Understanding the body language of our dog can give us strong clues as to how they are feeling in a situation. Ears back, yawning and lip licking can all be signs of stress or anxiousness for example. Just as humans do, dogs ‘level up’ the communication of the stress until the cause of the stress is removed. When a child pulls a dog’s tale for example, the dog may start with lip licking to show their stress, before progressing to head turning and eventually growling. If this final indicator is ignored, they may have no option but to snap at the child who is pulling their tail. As a good friend of mine always says ‘challenging behaviour is communication of a need unmet.’ When working with students we need to become adept at learning the signs and symptoms (including body language) of aroused states of stress in our students and work to intervene before these escalate into snapping. The beauty of working with humans is that we can have conversations around escalation and self-regulation to empower them to learn to take control of this themselves. (This is what teaching the ‘whole child’ is about: it may not be on the NAPLAN test, but it will be critically important in the test of life.)

 

So, there you have it, some education related pearls of wisdom from the Boroondara Dog Training school.

Now to start teaching Lola before her lesson so we impress the trainer on her first day. (We must make it fun though as they said they won’t move dogs up to the next level if they are not having fun- yet another pearl for teachers!)

We’ve got this Lola!

 

For more resources on trauma informed practice visit these sites:

Making Space for Learning (from the Australian Childhood Foundation)

Calmer Classrooms (from the Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services, Department of Education, Training and Employment)

Berry Street Education Model

 

References:

Winter, B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F., Voelker, K., Fobker, M., Lechtermann, A., Krueger, K., Fromme, A., Korsukewitz, C., Floel, A. and Knecht, S. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 87(4), pp.597-609.

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