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Reflective Practice

Learning Shouldn’t Hurt, or How My Dog Made Me a Better Teacher

Sally, photograph by the author

By Ryan Donovan

In my second year of grad school, I came close to quitting to become a professional dog trainer. I became so excited by teaching my dog, understanding how dogs learn, and the ethical and pedagogical issues involved, that I completed a 6-month dog training certificate program while I was studying for my First Exam (I don’t recommend this!). While I ultimately stuck with getting the PhD, the lessons I learned from puppy play group took on a new life even when I stopped working with puppies and started working with people. 

“Learning shouldn’t hurt” is an adage among progressive dog training and animal behavior communities, and it’s the main idea I took from training dogs that informs my approach to pedagogy. This is because training dogs is relatively straightforward but the real skill comes in helping their humans to understand why we are teaching them something to begin with. Sound familiar?

What “learning shouldn’t hurt” suggests is that, as college professors, we need to interrogate the impact of our position and our pedagogy. This doesn’t mean that learning should always be easy, comfortable, or without risk. Nor does it mean that students should be coddled. If you reflect on your own education, you probably remember the way that certain teachers made you feel. I remember those who made me excited to learn and those who made it painful. “Learning shouldn’t hurt” prompts you to consider which systems of punishment you might be perpetuating in your pedagogy (starting with your syllabus) and whether this adds to or subtracts from learning. Pain is always already there in the classroom; and as such, my ethics of pedagogy mean that while in class we may interrogate that pain, I don’t want to add to it.  

But let’s get back to dogs for a minute.

Right around the time I found out I was accepted into grad school, my husband and I brought our dog Sally home from the shelter. We didn’t know what we didn’t know about dogs and quickly found ourselves immersed in separating truth from myth. Thanks to Cesar Milan, erroneous ideas about asserting “dominance” over your pet and being a “pack leader” have taken hold in the popular imagination. These concepts aren’t just wrong for our animal companions, they’re also not effective ways to motivate humans either. 

Do you see yourself as the enforcer in your classroom? Do you sometimes feel the need to assert dominance over your students? Does your syllabus include policies that set students up to fail? How do you deal with your frustration at the perennially late student? Have you lost your temper and raised your voice in anger? 

Most of us have had at least one of these experiences, to varying degrees, as we learn to teach. It can be really frustrating at times and it is easy to give into that frustration. I once found myself raising my voice in frustration because my students were being disrespectful to each other during their presentations. I remember how badly I felt in the moment that I realized I was perpetuating a kind of pedagogy I don’t believe in and that I know isn’t effective for the kind of learning environment I want to support. In the next class, I apologized for losing my temper and calmly discussed how as a class we could return to the ideas of a respectful classroom community that we had established earlier in the semester in our community agreement.

One of the most successful ways I’ve avoided situations like this is inspired by questions by renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson: what happens when the student gets it right? What happens when they get it wrong? Are there less invasive alternatives? These questions inform the community agreements my students and I co-create at the start of the semester. Involving students in the creation of classroom policies empowers them as collaborators in the course, as well as offers the chance to discuss how you will handle areas where students often feel policed, such as overly harsh lateness policies, unrealistic attendance requirements, vague assessment measures, etc. The pedagogical challenge is to find minimally invasive alternatives to the way things have always been done.

What I’m really talking about here are relationships. Canid researcher Dr. Simon Gadbois asks, “what kind of relationship do you want with your [student], one based on coercive and punitive interactions, or one based on friendship, communication and mutual understanding?” I’ve replaced “dog” with “student” in Gadbois’s question only in order to make the point that all learning is about relationships. What kinds of relationships is your pedagogy invested in building? How much do the policies you set in your syllabus or co-create with your students involve punishment? How much do they promote engagement, empathy, and empowerment?

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