10 Teaching Facts I Learned From My Dog



I don’t mean to say that my students are animals.  That would be disrespectful, demeaning, and completely untrue.  What I definitely will say, though, is that there are certain things about having a dog that prepare you for working with large groups of hormonally unstable adolescents.  Forgive me if my list blurs the distinctions between canine and teenager.


1) Almost everyone will work much harder when incentivized with snacks.  This might seem trivial at first, but snacks make things exciting, fun, and delicious.

2) Sometimes you need to pause the teaching to give a little love.  Obviously high standards are important and we want to push our students outside their comfort zones to optimize learning.  But there comes a point where everybody needs a pat on the head and to hear that you think they are awesome and like hanging out with them.  Learning can resume with much more success after this.

3) If the skill or material you are trying to teach seems irrational, disconnected from reality, or totally pointless, no one is going to be very motivated to do it.  However, if you can explain or demonstrate how this skill or material is relevant and how it might be used in day-to-day life, interest levels skyrocket.

4) If you can make learning a game, everyone learns approximately 10,367 times faster.  This is a scientific fact.

5) Real learning does not happen overnight.  It is a slow, painstaking process with lots of mini successes, failures, and relapses.  If my dog miraculously excels at a particular task I just showed her, I should not be disappointed or surprised when she struggles with it the next day.  I should just be grateful for the positive learning opportunity we started out on.

6)  Sometimes you have a student that will always struggle with a particular behavior or skill.  This does not mean that they cannot have great success in related tasks.  99.2% of the time, if I drop a piece of food on the floor in front of my dog, she will not eat it without permission.  That number will never be 100% and it does not mean that she can’t be trusted to hang out in the kitchen with me while I make dinner.  Perfection is a fool’s errand.

7) You will undoubtedly be cleaning up crap at some point.  Learning is hard and students are messy, both literally and figuratively.  These are the facts.  At some point, someone is going to have an accident on the living room rug and we are just going to have to clean that up and move on.  Be ready for the crap.

8) You have to know your students.  I can read my dog’s expressions and moods like an open book.  I know when she’s distracted, hungry, focused, or excited.  I know what things make her nervous, what environments jazz her up beyond recognition, and what snacks she will jump through flames for.  I use this information to design a teaching plan that is effective for her.  I am much less effective when teaching a dog that I am unfamiliar with.

9)  It is important to set everyone up for success.  Don’t assess or test a new skill in a scenario where you think failure is likely.  Practice and challenges are great, but I don’t take my dog out to a new place she has never been and try out a command that she doesn’t know particularly well just to see what happens.  I don’t want her to get used to failure or feeling overwhelmed.  I only test a skill when I know that, given appropriate focus on her part, she can absolutely succeed in the task I set.

10) A good teacher is clear, fair, and consistent.  Don’t be confusing or unpredictable.  Show up as the teacher they know and trust every time, every day.


In conclusion, if I love my students as much as I love my dog, we’re all in a good place.


8 thoughts on “10 Teaching Facts I Learned From My Dog

  1. Anne says:

    This post is great! 1. I am 100% now picturing you rationalizing what your teaching to you dog, and it is a hilarious image. 2. This sounds a lot like applied behavior analysis, which I use working with autistic children (but that should be the basis of teaching anyone)!


  2. Megan says:

    As somebody who has spent the past few years working at various animal shelters and veterinary hospitals, I. LOVE. THIS. And the comparison has definitely crossed my mind more than once since I’ve started this journey to change careers.

    P.S. Your discussion of poop on the rug totally reminded me of this moment from How I Met Your Mother: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TGxlimfECk (start at :34)


  3. Jingwen says:

    Danah, do I have your permission to repost your article on a Chinese social media called Wechat where I connect with my other teacher friends in China? It’s such a fun piece to read and informative!


  4. Julia says:

    Tip #2 is a definite must for any writing tutor, especially if the student is very self-conscious and afraid of making mistakes. For every flaw I point out in a paper, I try to name something positive. Maybe the organization needs work, but the writer has an excellent, expressive voice. Maybe grammar is lacking, but organization is flawless. And whenever a writer is struggling to fix/reword something or understand a concept, I try to stop every once in a while and say, “Hey, you’re doing just fine.” It makes all the difference in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Danah Rae says:

    Well said. I like the ‘Hey, you’re doing just fine.’ I think that’s just about right. And you are also so right in pointing out that there is always something to praise! It’s good for us to make sure we are always looking for it!


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