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Unschooling Our Dog

Unschooling Our Dog
By Nathanael Schildbach

The first day of school. The thrill and anxiety of meeting other students and the teacher. New things to learn. Pulling on your leash and barking.

The last one only really applies to my dog and his first day of obedience school. Except for a brief stint in pre-school for my oldest and meetings with the local principal and the homeschool liaison, my sons have avoided time in a school. It seems funny then, in retrospect, that we would insist on taking our dog to a class.

We toyed with the idea of getting a DVD or a book and doing it ourselves, but it just didn’t seem like that would be enough. The little corgi in our lives needed to go to school.

So, my younger son and I took him. My son was clearly bored and, I have to admit, despite my interest in having a well-trained pup, so was I. My dog was over stimulated with all the other dogs to play with and all of them having to stand in a circle while the teacher talked. It was 6:30 at night, I was getting tired. For my dog, who joins me for an early morning walk, it was the end of the day too. When the teacher took our dog into the center of the class circle to demonstrate to the class the “sit” command, he didn’t listen to her and nipped at her heel like she was a cow in Wales (corgis were bred to herd cattle, and our dog sees two groups of living things in the world, those in his “pack” – basically anyone in our family and those included in our lives – and cows.) It was not a stellar first day of school.

It didn’t get better the next week. I was flummoxed – just why wasn’t my dog doing well? Why wasn’t he learning? I sought out the knowledge of the trainer, the “expert” who was running the class. She insisted he should be able to chill out in class, and that I should walk him before class to take the edge off his energy. Don’t feed him before class so that he was hungry and more responsive to the treats I offered. Do feed him before class since this didn’t work.

She wanted to know how he did on a walk. Fine. She wanted to know if I was practicing with him at home and seemed suspicious of my affirmative answer.

Next, she wanted to know how he did at home. At home? At home he did these things fine, especially with my wife who wasn’t even coming to class and was just doing training how she felt like doing it. However, I remembered, the teacher had said that it was important that the dog learn how to behave in a classroom like this, since if the dog did well here, he’d do well elsewhere. So, I became more rigorous in my training, sterner. I practiced and practiced with him and was still flummoxed when he did no better in class. He should be able to behave and learn in that classroom setting.

One morning as I walked the little pup, this scenario was going through my mind. The dog listened to my wife and was clearly bonded with her. He ignored the teacher and had decided she was a cow worthy of nothing more than herding. As I became sterner with him, he started to ignore me. I saw myself morphing into a cow.

The teacher insisted that if he could behave in that class then he could behave anywhere. That this applied to all dogs as one monolithic group.

This is when I realized how much like a human school this dog school was. As I thought about the dogs there, many who were distracted and excited as mine, it occurred to me that it wasn’t about them at all.

The class was scheduled at a bad time. The classroom design wasn’t friendly for the students. It in no way replicated the real world where they would have to apply what they learned. The teacher designed it based on what she felt the dogs should know and her vision of the ideal dog. Failure to learn was attributed to flaws in the student not the instruction. And of course, my all time favorite illogical rationalization for all of schools’ flaws, “If your dog (kid) can’t handle school they won’t be able to make it in the real world.” The teacher even promoted the idea that this class was an important, vital piece of a dog’s socialization. This reminded me of why we educate our kids at home.

The situation was not really surprising; a human constructed the class, probably pulling from her own schooling experience. And she is a fine person, and like most educators, I think she really thinks she has the best interest of the student at heart. It’s just a lot harder to think of the needs of the student and really structure everything around that than it is to say the words and still do what feels most comfortable and familiar. I struggle with this as I consider my own children’s education. What do they “need” to learn? Can I really trust them with their own education? Those other kids do fine with situation/environment/topic X, why don’t mine?

This is where my part in this came along, regardless of the school. I need to trust that we could “school” our own dog, not rely on someone else. I had to trust that it was better to work on it on our own, learning as we went along, than to relinquish our ability to train our dog and stay beholden and powerless in the shadows. I also had to trust that the dog wanted to learn to be a functioning dog just as we as humans want to learn to be functioning humans. We all come wired to succeed, just sometimes things, even with the best of intentions, get in the way.

My family and I decided that this school wasn’t for the dog or for us. We decided what we wanted our dog to learn however he would learn it, and that the dog, although he can’t verbalize it in English, wanted to be considered as part of the equation and not treated like, well, like a dog. Now that truly took a shift in thinking.

Nathanael Schildbach, M.Ed., is a writer, educational technology designer, and life learning dad living in Western Massachusetts.

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