It’s not about obedience anymore


What do puppy training and teaching have in common? More than you might imagine.

A month ago, we adopted a new dog, Taffy, into our home. She’s two years old, a terrier-ish “rescue,” described by her foster family as “very high energy.” (We also have Star, another terrier-ish “rescue,” who is about five years old.)

Happy Tails Rescue required that we enroll our new dog in a training course – as a precaution to ensure that adopting families don’t give up too quickly and abandon unruly puppies. We’ve “raised” a few dogs (she’s our 4th), so we felt pretty confident in our ability to help Taffy adjust, but we signed up for the four-week course as required.

When we attended, we found out dog training has changed a lot since we last took a dog to school. What used to be called “obedience training” has been replaced by “mindfulness training”, aimed at raising a thoughtful, respectful dog — not merely a compliant rule-follower.

I was surprised to gather a few practical teaching tips from the trainer, who seemed to have a magical dog-whispering ability. So much of what she said relates to teaching humans as well.

#1 Body language. The trainer explained that we (adult humans) aren’t always attuned to our own body language, but our dogs are fluent at reading it. They pick up on our anxiety, our anger, and our nervousness, and they respond to it. Often their bad behavior is a reaction to the messages we don’t know we’re sending. When we speak in stern tones, they get agitated.

So true for our students as well! Teenagers are experts at reading body language, and they quickly sense when we are frustrated or flustered or emotionally distant. They often respond to our moods rather than our words, and when we’re stern, they get defensive. We’re more effective with our students when they know we are calm, confident and genuinely empathetic.

#2 Compliance v. learning. The trainer explained that getting a dog to sit on command isn’t the point. Getting the dog to learn how to calm herself (sitting, standing or lying down) and respect us and trust us is what matters. We won’t get there by enforcing commands.

Again, so relevant for our classrooms. We can force high school students to comply – to be quiet, sit still, and face forward – but that kind of obedience should not be our goal. We need our students to be deeply engaged, not just superficially compliant — and that only happens when we build a relationship of mutual respect and trust.

#3 Understanding the roots of behavior.  The trainer explained that misbehavior always happens for a reason. When Taffy was growling at another dog, she explained that Taffy thought she had to protect me, so I had to reassure her that I was fine and could take care of myself. I would never have interpreted it that way. If I would have yelled at her, it would have escalated the situation. Instead, I was able to quickly calm her.

How often do we misinterpret student behavior – and put it in a bad light? We too often interpret teenagers’ sadness or exhaustion or frustration as intentional defiance, and the way we respond to that has enormous consequences for our relationships with kids.

We still have some work to do in terms of helping Taffy become a calm, trusting dog, but already I feel like I understand her (and Star) so much better than I did before. I need to listen, not just talk, and I need to make sure my body language is consistent with my words.

And now I’ll be a lot more thoughtful about how my body language, my attempts to impose order, and my misinterpretations of behavior can impact my work with teenagers as well. If pet-trainers recognize that relationships trump obedience, we should be able to as well.