Wednesday, September 25, 2013

If You Were a Puppy Just Coming to Your New Home

I teach classes about dogs to kids K-3 and 4th-8th grades. Right now I'm teach a class I named Paging Dr. Dolittle. I'm pretty sure if I'd called it "Introduction to Animal Behavior" or "Beginning Behaviorism" my classroom would be empty but give it a fun sounding name and you can teach introductory animal behavior and beginning behaviorism in a full classroom. My goal in this class is to have kids think about the way we treat dogs and about how we interact with our dogs. It's my small contribution to improving the lot of pet dogs.

In class today we did what I found to be a really fascinating exercise. I asked my students, 9, 10, and 11 year olds for the most part, to imagine they were new puppies I'd just adopted and brought home. We repeated this exercise three times with three different scenarios.

In the first exercise I welcomed them in a neutral manner, provided no direction and ignored them for the next several minutes. Some students tried to engage me with questions, some sat quietly waiting for me to pay attention to them, some engaged each other in conversation and ignored me. At the conclusion I asked them how they'd feel about joining a house like that. The response was that it's very unsettling not to know what's expected, that they didn't like the complete lack of feedback.

In the second exercise I welcomed them in a brusque manner ordering them into their seats and giving them a firm "no" and rattle of the pencil box for any noise or wiggling. Some students froze, some leaned back in their chairs away from me and a few leaned forward across the table and misbehaved more and more. One girl, that I know to be extremely bright and confident, cowered in a corner. At the end of the exercise the students all told me how much they didn't like the noise and being corrected all the time. The ones that had escalated their misbehavior told me they'd wanted to push me into stopping what I was doing and that if I was going to correct them all the time they were going to fight back.

For the third exercise I welcomed the students in a friendly manner and encouraged them to sit in their seats. Sitting quietly and giving me eye contact was marked with a clicker and rewarded with an M&M. All the students sat quietly, leaning slightly forward in eager engagement. At the end of the exercise most of the students didn't know the entire criteria for what I was rewarding but they all knew sitting quietly was part of it. They all enjoyed the experience and liked that they were given positive, enjoyable feedback to help them figure out what to do.

I don't think anyone will be surprised to learn that the students unanimously preferred the third exercise. I love working with kids these ages. They're young enough that playing let's pretend is still interesting and old enough not to become too identified with who they are pretending to be. My bright, confident, young lady who cowered in the corner articulated her choice as "If I was a puppy and kept getting scolded, I'd feel like hiding in a corner and never doing anything."

It was an interesting class, in addition to the exercises we talked a lot about dog behavior, how to politely meet a dog, and what motivates dogs. We covered why dogs are often more leery of men, taller, looming, weight carried forward, and deep (growly) voices. We touched on why dogs bark, and jump on people--because it works they get what they want. And the kids were fascinated by the idea that I'd learned something new recently about dogs. When I explained that I'd learned that you have to ask both the person with the dog and the dog for permission the kids immediately grasped the idea. People don't always know how their dog is feeling or remember that the dog might not be feeling social right then so you ask the person and if they say it's OK you ask the dog by turning to the side and crouching down. If the dog wants to socialize with you the dog will approach if the dog doesn't want to socialize or be petted the dog will not approach. And over and over again we discussed the fact that dogs are going to repeat behavior that worked. The Chihuahua that jumps up on people to get attention is going to continue to jump on people. The St. Bernard that barks until he gets dinner is going to keep barking for his dinner. If it works the dog will keep doing it.

I'm going to really enjoy teaching this class.

Finna has finally learned how to cuddle. Here I am on the futon petting both dogs.

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