I bought a Border Collie pup recently and, at eight weeks, have just begun training her. I don’t want to sound disparaging but the experience has reminded me a lot of my teaching days…
I’ve christened my dog Meg in the sheep farmer’s tradition of using a mono-syllabic name that lends itself to constant repetition. Besides, I wanted a name I could holler around the village without being embarrassed – I’ve recently had to beckon our friend’s Shitzu, Buttons, and can still hear the echo of my neighbours’ laughter. The very first Border Collie, Old Hemp, had a mother called Meg so the name has a rich heritage. But it’s already wearing thin. I use her name so many times a day – a crescendo rising from loving come-hither to firm command to angry chastisement – that the sound of it is beginning to lose all meaning for me.
Meg is, as I say, a Border Collie – a breed well known for their social skills, eagerness to please, intelligence and boundless energy. But every coin has a flip-side and Meg’s propensity to be social also means she doesn’t like being left alone and cries through the night keeping me awake, her eagerness to please can translate as an over-zealous tendency to bite the children, chase the cats and herd the rabbits, her intelligence means she is quick-witted, often one step ahead of me as she sneaks into the food cupboard, and her boundless energy makes her tireless but me exhausted as I try to keep up.
Our training regime started by using Meg’s name as often as possible – always ‘Meg’, just ‘Meg’ (no silly nicknames like the rest of our pets and children acquire as soon as they leave the womb) and always enunciated clearly followed by a pregnant pause to gain her attention before a command is given.
Next, I taught her to ‘sit’ using a simple one-word command accompanied by a hand gesture, plus a treat as a reward the first few times she succeeded. The real secret to this obedience trick was repetition and then positive reinforcement. I kept doing it and whenever she got it right, I gave her a treat and made a fuss of her so she knew she’d done what I wanted her to do and to do it again the next time. It took patience and determination but it worked.
Being something of a control freak, I drafted a list of one-word commands and their accompanying hand gestures before Meg arrived and shared them with my family so we’d be consistent in the words and body language we used the moment our puppy crossed the threshold, thereby avoiding any confusion or mixed messages. Again, simplicity, consistency and repetition were key – plus plenty of praise.
On the morning of day two of our training she learnt to “sit”, “stay” and “come”. I was over the moon with her progress and considered myself the natural heir to Barbara Woodhouse.
On the afternoon of day two she learnt to wee on the carpet, chew the legs off the sofa, and bite the legs of my daughter. I considered myself the natural heir to Barbara Windsor, screaming: “Get outta my house!”
It was a game of two halves, shall we say.
And that is why training my dog reminds me of my teaching days: it is full of highs and lows. Sometimes the good advice I read in books and on the Internet works; sometimes it does not. Sometimes things go my way; sometimes they do not. Sometimes I am the very picture of patience and calm; sometimes I bop her on the nose and shout at her and then feel utterly remorseful when she stares at me with her puppy-dog eyes (never has that phrase meant so much). Sometimes Meg is obedient and attentive, quick to pick things up and respond; sometimes she is tired, hungry, naughty, bored, distracted, incontinent, and noisy. Sometimes I am the best teacher and she is the best student; sometimes we are neither of us these things.
Sound familiar? I think I may just have described life, love and teaching.
Meg and I live and breathe, we think and feel. We get tired and hungry, we get bored and irritable. (In defence of my weaker moments, it is hard to be magnanimous when you’ve been up since four scraping dog poo out of a cage.)
Thus is life. And that is what being a teacher is like. But the secret of great teaching is much the same as the secret of great dog training I shared above: simplicity, consistency and repetition – plus plenty of praise.
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