I read somewhere, of course I can’t find the source now, that dog trainers make the best educators. Good dog trainers set clear expectations, consistently correct undesired behavior, and lavish praise. Good educators essentially do the same thing.
When we got our new puppy, Zoey, we knew that one of our first calls would be to our trainer. Julia has worked with all of our dogs. She trained Mic when we thought it was hopeless. When Mad-Dog had us in a state of panic, Julia helped us get her under control. With Maddie, I first discovered her secret: correct and redirect. Early on, when the dogs exhibited an unwanted behavior, we gave a correction and then immediately redirected the dog to a positive behavior that could be rewarded. I took a similar approach with a 4th grader years ago. First, I yelled at him to stop. Then, I put him in a sit/stay on the grass. Finally, I praised him for sitting on the ground and discussed the negative behavior that had sparked the whole thing in the first place. Genius! As dogs, and children, get older, you can then preempt negative behavior. At that stage, you redirect and then correct. Even my sister is taking a similar approach with my nephew. She has started this 1-2-3 magic technique which seems to be working. She calls it stop behavior. Looks a lot like correct and redirect to me.
So, back to Zoey. Before starting training, Julia came by the house to meet her. Mic had been a drama queen. Mad-Dog had been, well, mad-dog. Despite what most people think of us, with Zoey, we actually found a sweet, happy, very intelligent, good-natured puppy. Julia promptly picked Zoey up, played with her paws, opened her mouth, covered her eyes, and a whole bunch of other things. Zoey licked her face and wiggled.
When Zoey tried to eat the coffee table, I told her “leave it,” and when she jumped, I said, “Off.” Julia looked at me like I was a bit nuts.
“Just say, no.” She told me. “This puppy doesn’t have a vocabulary. Keep it simple.”
Correct and redirect, I thought. At the end of an hour, Julia told me that we would start when Zoey hit 16 weeks and that she would be trained in 10 days. After three days of dropping Zoey at school in the morning and picking her up in the afternoon, I realized that 10 days of puppy training equated to about 10 years of school.
Day 1 – Pre School
Zoey learned that it was ok to be away from mom for the day. She made new friends on her own and learned to share. When I got her back that afternoon, she collapsed in the dog bed and slept for two hours. I had to wake her up for dinner. With this new schedule, she had not napped as much.
Day 2 – Pre Kindergarten
Rules came into play on day 2. Zoey learned that actions have consequences, and negative ones would be corrected (like the aforementioned chewing on the coffee table). We had a little bit of homework that night, too.
Days 3, 4 & 5 – Kindergarten, 1st & 2nd Grade
Structure. Zoey learned to come when called, to sit when told, and to heel on the leash. Though scaffolds were put in place to facilitate her learning, clear expectations were set, accompanied by consistent correction and praise. We took her with us to a friend’s, parents’ ski house that weekend that contained 7 people and 5 dogs. Zoey came when called, sat when told, and didn’t chew or break anything. My mother once told me and my sister that my grandmother always said, “people should be glad to see your children.” This rule should certainly also apply to your dog.
Days 6-10+ – Lower and Middle School
As an educator, I hate seeing students suffer because parents don’t help with their homework. However, as we moved into this final stage of training, it rained, snowed, rained, and then froze. The streets of Newport took on the delightful characteristics of an ice rink, and working Zoey after a day of teaching left little to be desired. Yet, despite the cold, we worked on stay, heel, and come to the best of our abilities.
Because it is fairly unreasonable for a puppy to hold a heel while skidding across ice, Zoey took a few extra days to fine tune her skills. When Julia announced that she was ready to go, Zoey bounded out of the yard and into the car – without a leash. We continue to work on our basics – just because you finish middle school doesn’t mean you don’t have to review certain skills – and Zoey continues to improve.
As I write this, shards of toys litter the floor around me. While Zoey hasn’t touched a table in weeks, the can’t be said for what remains of our stuffed toy collection. We have successfully moved from correct and redirect to redirect and correct. Zoey will hold a heel as we walk past the Pointers who like to charge their invisible fence, and a down-stay as squirrels flee to the trees. I even think she would meet my grandmother’s approval.
Across the country, educators, politicians, and parents lament the state of our school system. Teachers consistently receive the bulk of the criticism, and I won’t comment one way or the other on this debate. However, if parents, teachers, and administrators could apply the lessons from those 10 days, then we may have a recipe for success.
- Set clear expectations.
- Consistently correct negative behaviors.
- Lavish praise when it is earned.
In other words, we all have to be willing to redirect and correct.