How Teaching Dogs and Children Is Similar: Parts One and Two

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The topic of this article might have you wondering. First, let me be clear: Dogs are not children. However – many of the same teaching principles when working with children apply when you are playing with or teaching (not ‘training’), your dog. Drawing from interviews I’ve had with master dog trainers, animal behaviourists, and veterinarians, and informed by my own experiences teaching children as an elementary school teacher for ten years, I will be sharing seven secrets of how teaching and playing games with your dog is very similar to working with children.

1. First, the environment in which a child learns greatly impacts how and what a child is able to learn. Similarly, the environment in which a dog learns greatly impacts how and what a dog is able to learn.

During my ten years of teaching elementary school, I learned that a child who feels relaxed, happy, and safe is going to be much more receptive to learning than a child who feels unsure and nervous. Think back to your own school learning experiences. Were you able to think clearly when you were nervous about a test? Alternatively, is there a subject that you loved in school because a teacher made that class really enjoyable to go to?

It’s similar for dogs. Victoria Stillwell, star of the show “It’s Me or the Dog,” notes that modern behavioral science indicates that humans and dogs have far more commonalities than was originally perceived by dog trainers. She highlights how dogs do feel similar emotions to humans, including fear, anger, joy, excitement, social insecurity, and even love. Therefore, she emphasizes that many of the same principles we use when teaching children can be applied to teaching dogs. (See Victoria Stillwell, Welcome to Positively, Victoria’s Blog, January 20, 2010). As a result, ensuring that your dog is feeling happy, relaxed, and excited to learn will greatly impact how much your dog will be able to learn, just like children. Spending quality time playing games with your dog can create a fun, relaxed environment that is not only conducive to learning, but playing dog games will help to strengthen your bond with your pet.

2. Children learn best with a person they trust and whom they have bonded with. Similarly, dogs learn best with a person they trust and whom they have bonded with.

Master teachers know that relationships are at the heart of good teaching. Therefore, as educators, we take great care to get to know each child as well as we can, particularly during that first two weeks of the school year. We work hard to develop mutual care, respect, and trust. Think back to your own school experiences. I’ll bet there’s a teacher that just stands out for you because he or she really took the time to get to know you, made you laugh, made you feel that you are super special, and let you know how much he/she cared about you.

As emphasized by Camilla Gray-Nelson, dog trainer, in the same way, playing games with your dog should not be approached mechanically, but should be viewed as a way to nurture the development of your relationship with your pet. In fact, some trainers have spoken to the fact that women are often excellent trainers because of our natural inclination towards fostering an emotional and nurturing bond with our dogs, even before we begin training them. (Of course this is nothing against the men out there!)

Many dog trainers and veterinarians I’ve interviewed emphasize that your dog’s behaviour is closely connected to his or her emotional connection with you. They note that it requires genuine care and understanding of your dog to help a dog to not only develop self-confidence, but to learn to function in the human world. Through focused attention on working on your relationship with your dog, you can develop a mutually satisfying partnership characterized by trust, affection, and mutual respect. Here’s to learning all we can to give our dogs the very best life possible.

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Categories: Pets