So life is full of lessons, and as a dog trainer and sports dog coach, I have had many!
I have been involved in this ‘game’ for close to 30yrs, achieving success at the top level of dog sport, with various dogs, of various breeds, in various disciplines… so its fair to say, I’ve picked up a thing or two along the way… BUT being a new parent is a totally different skill set… or is it!
Last week, my daughter, Neave returned from school in an absolute state… she was hysterical! Crying her eyes out, and clearly distressed about something.
On speaking to her teachers, it transpires Neave had ‘not listened’ when asked, and as a result not received a gold star.
To many readers this may seem trivial, and now in hindsight, I can see things with more clarity.
BUT at the time, my initial response was mixed.
The first cause for concern was the though of my child, my baby girl in a state of distress. This instantly caused the papa bear to kick in, and ask ‘who needs to be shot?’… ‘would I be able to kidnap a teacher and hold them ransom until I get a gold star for Neave?…
Slightly disproportionate? Just a tad.
Secondly, was the ‘consequence’ my baby experienced for ‘not listening’.
As a dog trainer and professional sports dog coach, my preferred option is always to reinforce. Create a way for the dog to be ‘right’ and reinforce appropriate responses. Whilst, I am happy to have a ‘consequence’, and my dog not being reinforced, I will ensure that they absolutely understand what I want first.
She had effectively been punished for ‘not listening’. This made my clicker twitch!
The talk of ‘punishment’ or consequences in teaching and training can divide a crowd, like a skunk in an elevator… and most def this dad! I just didn’t know how I felt about Neave being ‘punished’ for something that I am not truly sure she understood, and is largely out of character. Neave absolutely loves school and loves engaging, so I found it odd that she didn’t listen.
On further conversation, it transpires that Neave was one of 3 children who didn’t receive a ‘golden star’ for not listening… and it was no coincidence that the other 2 girls are her friends.
Neave goes to school with her cousin who she adores! However they are in different classes, and on this occasion the two groups were brought together to read a story. I expect Neave and her cousin were so overjoyed and excited to see each other, they probably got over excited and lost focus.
So essentially, she had both a ‘distraction’ and was in a heightened state of arousal. Two complexities in one.
Now, as a reinforcement based dog trainer, I could think of a 100 alternative set ups to resolve this situation, and create an environment where Neave succeeding. But none the less, she didn’t get a sticker for good behaviour. She didn’t get reinforcement. She was punished.
Now there is so many emotions and responses I felt in that moment, and discussed it with friends and family. The responses were varied as you can imagine.
What should we do as Neave’s parents? Do we talk to the school? Do we intervene? Do we take her from that situation, as they don’t follow the principles of how we wish for Neave to be taught and raised? Do we get irate and defensive?
These are all options. Granted, some a bit of an over reaction, but still options.
As it happened, Neave had her ballet class the following day. She again, loves to go and gets excited about the prospect. After class, as always I asked how she got on, and to my great approval, Neave had been the child chosen to get a ‘Gold star’ for great listening! I asked if the teacher knew about what had happened, and she didn’t. Neave had been engaged and took instruction and guidance so well, she received a gold star to acknowledge her behaviour.
It was just coincidence that this happened the day after she had been punished for ‘not listening’.
So the question is, did she learn from the punishment? Did she change her behaviour as a result of the ‘lesson’ the day before?
To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if the school experience had an impact on her, trying to glean the details of a situation from a 3yr old isn’t easy, as most conversations dwindle down to ‘pepper pig’ and peanut butter sandwiches. What I do know is, Neave had largely forgotten ’no-sticker gate’… she bounded into class the next time she was in nursery, happy and excited as always. She hadn’t held anything from that experience, even though I may have done, potentially more than she had.
But there were lesson to be taken from this, for me.
We can’t always predict or control the experiences our children will have in life, as much as we would want to. We want to protect them from harm and ensure that every experience is positive, well thought out and productive. However sometimes that just isn’t what will happen. Sometimes, it will go badly, sometimes something will happen you absolutely didn’t want, and sometimes there may even be a few tears. As a parent, it hurt me to see her upset. It cut straight throw the core to think of her being tearful. My response was normal and totally natural. Slightly disproportionate, but ‘normal’. We can’t help but be protective with these little people. But we need to balance over zealous ‘protection’ with allowing life to unfold.
Now think of this, and the similarities between our dogs. It may not be that your dog has had a negative experience at ‘school’, but it may be that they have had an experience that you would rather they didn’t. It may be your young dog, being ‘attacked’, art may be that you had a poor training session, it may be that you trained something poorly…. But ask yourself, how did you respond? This is where the real lesson will be.
Being vigilant in your training and making great decisions is the standard we should all aspire to, but sometimes ‘stuff happens’, and it’s ok. It may not be ideal, but it’s ok. Reacting right is a skill set to develop, and it can be learned. Stay calm, think rather than react and you may just get a gold star!