Equity & Diversity Opinion

What Training My Pit Bull Taught Me About Teaching

By John T. McCrann — April 25, 2016 4 min read
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I know that the human brain is significantly different from other animal species. I also know that we have huge gaps in our understanding of how all minds work, and that there is some evidence (here for example) showing that human brains have similarities with those of our non-human cousins.

Almost exactly two years ago, my wife and I adopted a Pit Bull* named Jax. The journey that we’ve been going through since then seems to be one that is in the zeitgeist right now: a book about training hawks is on the NY Times Bestseller list, a film about the problems and perils of trying to train Orca won an Oscar and continues to influence policy, a “celebrity” dog trainer whose TV show ended took his act on the road to do live shows. These works are all grappling with questions about the ways we shape the behavior of other living things. They not only examine “how to” (which is complicated enough on its own) but also why we impose our wills on others and how this process might change both the trainee and trainer.

These are the big questions that lay beneath every conversation about student behavior and classroom culture, but they are not always explicitly addressed.

Allow me to share some reflections from my experience with Jax as a way of gaining insight into the way we shape our students’ choices and behavior.

1. I need to speak Jax’s language: An inappropriate behavior that we have tried to extinguish in Jax is jumping up when he meets

someone new. This has been difficult since people’s response to this behavior often sends him the wrong message. Instead of “saying no” in dog language, many people back away and say things like “nooooooooooo” or “ohhhhhhhhh.” I understand this initial reaction to a 60lb mass hurdling through the air; however, Jax recognizes these behaviors as an in invitation to play, not a warning against the invasion of personal space. In order to stop his jumping on me, I had to learn about the ways in which he could “hear” that his behavior was bad and shift my own reaction to one that he could understand.

Possible classroom implication: I wonder the extent to which I commit an analogous miscommunication with my students. Too often, I respond
to attention-seeking behaviors by giving attention. Communicating “keep it up” when I should find a way to say “your decision to do this is keeping you and your classmates from learning as much as you could be.” Historically, school systems have frequently implemented zero-tolerance policies which (if we assume best intentions of the implementers) were meant to communicate respect through high-standards, but instead sent the message that certain students were unwelcome or unwanted.

2. Jax has things he wants: One of the things that I love about Jax is that he is engaged in the world around him. He is genuinely excited by things around us that seem mundane to me: a passing bus, a buzzing bee, a bag of trash. His excitement makes me more interested and is a friendly slobbering reminder of what an incredible world we inhabit. When I first walked Jax after his adoption, I could almost hear him saying “Oooo, what’s that? Let’s go check that out! This seems cool let’s see about it!”

Of course, uncontrolled excitement can lead to very dangerous situations — the danger of a bus is not something we want him to learn experientially. Constant pulling on his leash made walks hard for my wife and I, and his tendency to run up to other dogs made them feel uncomfortable.

My wife and I, as his caregivers, had to help Jax manage his excitement. We provide positive and negative reinforcements to reign in his desire to explore everything. Doing so has lowered his anxiety while making him be a better family member and K9 citizen. Today, Jax walks beside or behind us on a leash and stops only occasionally for deeper investigation of a sight or smell that he finds intriguing.

We have struck a balance between his desires and our needs.

Possible classroom implication: I wrote a few weeks ago about how I think a necessary first step in thinking about students at school is to understand that they have a perspective which may be different from their teachers. Clearly, like Jax, my students have things they are interested in which don’t exactly fit with my lesson plan. I like that my dog and my students are interested and want to cultivate that interest.

But the conversation around school culture cannot stop there.

There are times (as with the bus) when something that causes in-the-moment excitement can also cause long-term harm. Those of us who are responsible for “giving care” to our young people cannot ignore this reality, it is up to us to set limits and enforce boundaries that make sense.

In order to create positive school cultures, students must have some autonomy to explore that which excites them and some boundaries to keep them safe in that exploration. Zero tolerance goes too far one direction. Plans that remove meaningful consequences (such as suspension) without a viable alternative go too far in the other.

*Jax’s breed connotes different things for different people. I include this detail of his identity here and in the title because I think Pit Bulls get a bad rap and it’s important to me that you know that Pit Bulls, like all other breeds, can be good K9 citizens.

Photo 1: //pixabay.com/en/falcon-uae-desert-hunter-claws-1264605/ by neildodhia

Photo 2: Jax photo by Kelly McCrann

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