Raising a Puppy is Making Me a Better Teacher: 6 Takeaways for Your Classroom

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In this Post:

  • Decide to like the dog… even when it’s challenging!
  • Scaffold training to support their needs
  • Celebrate Positive Steps!
  • Learn to Spiral
  • Provide specific and meaningful feedback

Lesson 1: Decide to Like the Dog

The day after school let out, we drove from Seattle to Boise to pick up our new Wesslpointer puppy, Echo. I dreamed, schemed, and planned for her for years and was so thrilled that she was finally joining our family. Echo slept through the night with us in the tent on the way home and quickly settled into life at the house.

It’s amazing how quickly she learned to love her crate and to “sit to say please” for treats and scratches. She also loves chewing on rocks, shaking her crate door at 6:00AM, and chasing birds during potty breaks. I had heard that puppies, just like kids, can come into your home with a wide variety of skills and habits that you have to learn to love and work with. One piece of advice sticks with me in the wonderful and challenging moments:

The first step in training is to decide to like the animal.

Lesson 2: Set Her Up for Success

Echo is now thirteen weeks old and spends eighteen hours of her day sleeping. When she’s not sleeping she quickly cycles through four modes: hungry, playful, bite-y, and snuggly. During each of these modes she presents different behaviors that are inconvenient but totally developmentally appropriate.

Like with students, it’s my job to control her environment so that she’s safe and we can focus on learning.

  • Hungry Mode: I provide her with appropriate food and limit her access to unsafe things like plants, fabric, and the bunny poop in our yard.
  • Playful Mode: I focus her energy on learning to walk on leash and exploring the neighborhood, or learning to play appropriately.
  • Bite-y Mode: I provide her with appropriate chew toys and redirect her when she chomps her needle-y teeth into my arms.

Echo spends unsupervised time in an exercise pen attached to her crate. My friends call this “doggy prison” but we’ve found that she sees this as her safe space and it helps her have significantly more successes than failures throughout the day.

I’m not advocating for locking students up, but it is worth considering when distraction and temptation have become too great for our students.

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Lesson 3: +R – Positive Reinforcement Training

Hundreds of times throughout the day, Echo does things that are potentially dangerous (chewing on power cords), destructive (chewing on carpets), or inconvenient (whining while I’m on a call). Every one of those times, I have a choice of how to respond. Do I blame the dog and punish her with a reprimand, time-out, or nose flick? (No!) Or do I look to myself and try to improve her environment and skillset? We have this same choice with our students every day.

We can divisively choose to see mistakes and inappropriate behaviors as willful disobedience and look to punishment, or we can analyze the situation and look for better ways to support positive behavior. 

We can divisively choose to see mistakes and inappropriate behaviors as willful disobedience and look to punishment, or we can analyze the situation and look for better ways to support positive behavior. #TeachBetter Click To Tweet

“Capturing calm” is another great tenant from the +R school of training. With Echo, we try to surprise her with treats when she’s laying calmly, playing nicely, or choosing the right toys to chew on.

As a teacher, I can get so caught up in correcting mistakes that I forget to celebrate my students for the great things they’re doing every day!

Lesson 4: Learning is a Spiral Process

Helping Echo learn has been a fascinating experiment in operant and classical conditioning. Echo has been learning to fetch. This example of operant conditioning takes about a week to put together:

  1. Take the object out of my hand (“TAKE”), reward with treats.
  2. Take objects off the floor (“TAKE”), treats.
  3. Drop those objects into my hand (“GIVE”), treats.
  4. Slowly increase the distance from TAKE to GIVE– first a few inches and now across the house, treats.
  5. Attach the word “FETCH” and continue to praise success and reward with treats or a game of tug-of-war.

I thought that Echo had learned to fetch perfectly. She would sit, watch the toy being thrown, get it, bring it back, and drop it at my feet. But when we moved to the hallway, she would do all the first steps but return to the carpet where we had learned the skill! It turns out that she hadn’t learned to fetch back to me, but had instead learned that skill situationally. This was such a great reminder of the spiral nature of learning and the importance of frequent formative assessment.

Fetch also fell apart when we went outside. The distractions coupled with the new environment meant the skill totally disappear and we had to review all the basics again in this new environment. This is called “proofing the skill” and is a great example of how intentionally scaffolding in activities to support transfer and generalization of knowledge is vital to mastery.

Lesson 5: Give Specific, Immediate Feedback

We started clicker training with Echo about a month ago and it’s really accelerated her learning. The way it works is that you CLICK the exact moment that she executes the right behavior and something called the bridging effect helps her associate that exact behavior with the coming reward. With clicker training, she’s much quicker to pick up on new skills and exhibits fewer signs of frustration.

This reminds me so much of the importance of timely and specific feedback. By marking the exact instance where a student demonstrated the appropriate knowledge, skill, or behavior, we dramatically increase the likelihood that they’ll master it. (In fact, this is exactly why I helped create the feedback tool Floop to make it faster and easier to give spot annotated feedback on any assignment.)

Lesson 6: Find Their Motivation

Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation as I work with Echo. Echo is extremely food motivated and does anything for just a piece of her kibble. A friend of mine, who works at Seattle Humane, explained that some dogs aren’t motivated by food at all! In fact, any combination of food, praise, or toys and play can be motivating to dogs. It’s vital to match the right reward to the dog.

This has me questioning the role of grades in the classroom. Sure, some students are motivated by achieving ‘good’ grades. But what about the students who aren’t? Do I provide enough rewards of other types to keep all my students motivated? Next year, I’ll be looking for more opportunities to interject praise, celebration, play, free time, and choice into my classroom.

You can follow along with that experiment on my blog and you can follow Echo on Instagram @EchoTheNug.


Christine Witcher is a technology and innovation specialist for grades 5-12, teaches middle school science and manages a makerspace at an all-girls school in Bellevue, Wash. She is co-founder and product manager at Floop Edu, a feedback platform that helps teachers give meaningful feedback faster and teaches students to actively engage with feedback. Christine is passionate about using technology to solve problems and enhance learning in the classroom.

Check out the Floop Edu Blog at blog.floopedu.com   

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