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  • Rachel Meadows

Let the teacher become the student!


language and its application to the way we live with dogs, matters.


The world of science is nothing less than an art. As we know, to create ART we need to be brave and not be afraid to paint what we see in whatever colour formation we see it. I had written this article 3 weeks ago, but there has been a recent eruption of beautiful conversation that is creating a masterpiece of ideas that I wanted to offer my own thoughts on. So I’ve made some changes inspired from some of the greatest people I know in the canine world.


Canine science has come such a long way, especially when it comes to the understanding of behaviour. One thing dog practitioners will agree on is that rarely do we agree on anything. In fact even those on the same side are arguing for and about the same things. Social media is full of a spectrum of theories and training techniques that professionals scrutinise each other over. Whilst dog professionals are busy disagreeing on terminology or methodology it’s easy to forget the single most important thing and that is the Dog. Make no mistake, the correct use of terminology is important when we are learning the science of behaviour. But there comes a point when we need to move past that and see beyond in particular, methodology and phraseology. With a deep, strong foundation in science, we need to be abstract and holistic when approaching the individual that stands before us.


Phraseology, terminology or methodology will only serve us to a point. When we look past subscriptions to methods and theories and start to see the dog rather than the method by which we want to impose on them, the attachment to outcome becomes obsolete. When we see the world through the dog’s experience and have compassion for how the dog processes his surroundings, we can start to shift the focus away from the language that’s used to categorize and judge the behaviour and observe it objectively.


Seeing the dog or the ‘problem’ behaviour as ‘good or bad’ achieves little in the way of understanding the internal physical environment of the dog or emotional platform that may be, in part, responsible for driving said behaviour. It stops us asking more questions and seeking the dog’s truth with objective discernment. It’s a humbling experience to see past our own judgements of a dog and our attachments to changing behaviour which can blind us to the present. We have the great opportunity to help that dog on a much deeper level if we stop, for just one moment and reflect on one simple phrase: Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.


Regardless of which camp you sit in as a canine professional, whether you use this word or that word to describe which method you choose when working with dogs, none of it actually matters because if our focus is on the method or the words that pigeonhole’s us into a practitioner category, then once again, we miss the entire point.


Language is the tool we use to communicate. But perhaps it also shapes the way we see things and society as a whole. We know in gang culture, for example, there is a language synonymous with street crime and violence. Perhaps growing up surrounded by a use of language that denigrates, separates, isolates, incites violence and despair, desensitising society to the true horrors of the implications of that language, can inform and shape part of the fabric that perpetuates the culture of societal disrepair. I wonder how influential the use of language is on the actions we are prepared to take. Do commonly used phrases, words or colloquialisms influence or desensitise us to behaviours that may be unacceptable in other micro-cultures throughout different aspects of society?


This brings me to speaking about the way we use language and communication in the world of parenting. Be it a dog or a child, we are, without a doubt, a caregiver of both. Yet we like to think that we speak quite differently, to and about both and have very different expectations of both. But do we? What always baffled me in the world of ‘parenting’ and indeed in the world of training and behaviour, is this emphasis on control. The use of certain language can form a very comfortable foundation, that supports the way in which the parent or ordinary dog guardian and indeed some canine professionals, use it to exercise and justify that control. The word ‘training’ comes up in the parenting world as it does in dog world and I believe when we use these words they can affect the way in which we see our relationship to the being we are engaging with and thus it influences our actions towards the dog or child. If we start to examine and change the commonly used words and phrases relating to the parenting world of both dogs and children such as, owner, pet, training, aggressive, dominant, naughty, etc we might build a momentum of much needed scrutiny and reflection upon the way we usurp control over those with less power then us.


If compassionate language is in our day to day use or our internal dialogue, we are far more likely to, not only see, but treat others with compassion. Whether we use force to change behaviour or treats and rewards, we are still focused on the change and not exploration and acknowledgement of the animals experience. (See Andrew Hale for more on this.) With children when we use threats and suppressive language and words or phrases such as, ‘Because I said so’, ‘AH AH’ or ‘NO’, to toddlers, we often get back resistance, mimicry or shut-down and perhaps, not without a price to pay, at a later stage. A lot of us can relate to the ‘melt down’ in a supermarket. We’ve been there! For most of us, our initial reaction is, damage limitation, Right? Supress, bribe, threaten. But why? What are we afraid of? Judgement? Feelings of shame? Feelings of overwhelm? Exhaustion? ‘What will people think?’ ‘I can’t even control my own child’!


Now look at the same situation with our dogs, or perhaps think of a time when you have witnessed a dog ‘lose it’ in the park or on the street, at another dog. You may yourself have be on the receiving end of a statement such as, ‘Control that dog’. ‘You need to Train that dog’. ‘You should show that dog who’s Boss’. ‘Don’t let that dog walk all over you’. What has your reaction been to your dog? I have witnessed more time than I care to remember, dog guardians thrashing their dog for perceived ‘bad behaviour’. Perhaps it might be closer to the truth that our reactions to our dog’s behaviour is coming from feelings of shame and embarrassment about being judged. What we are doing within that self-judgement, is also, judging the dog.


When we lash out at a child, dog or anyone dependent upon our care, in that situation and apply so called training methods of suppression and or threat, they are more to do with our own feelings of shame, anger, fear or embarrassment and little or nothing to do with how the dog or child is coping in that situation. What has happened to the empathy for each other and for the sentient being that is struggling in that moment in time that we, as their care giver, feel the need to stop the behaviour at any cost?


Violence comes often from our inability to feel feelings and feel safe. Aggression and violence can be used as a way to escape from those feelings, giving us temporary relief. The more relief we get from our displays of aggression or violence the more we use it as a coping strategy for a wider variety of feelings, such as frustration, fear, shame, jealousy and so on. Our dogs are not that different.


Perhaps the repertoire of language we use when we are teaching and educating dogs and their guardians is unhelpful and even harmful. Perhaps it’s residual from the way in which we treat children in our society. Imagine we shifted the focus away from tightening the reins and shortening the leads to gain control and instead, loosen the grip and allow them to develop and learn without expectations and restraints. Expectations are resentments lying in waiting and will only ever end badly. If we begin to examine what’s behind the limiting words and language we use when referring to the education of the dogs in our lives, I believe this will impact the way in which we develop companionship in the future and raise welfare standards in the canine world of education while actually saving lives in many cases.


Remember no one dog chooses their family. They have zero control or autonomy over the food they eat, where they sleep, when they walk, where they walk, how they are treated, when they are allowed to play and when they are touched and by who.


Removing the very idea that the dog we share our life with is not owned by us, or even our pet, (See Kim Brophy, Ted Talks) will unravel the deep rooted language that influences our view on dogs and the role they play within our lives.


Do we need to take some responsibility for this as a profession and start to change the way in which we market to our client base? I believe we do. Marketing slogans such as ‘Get your dog to do X or Y ‘ or ‘Stop your dog from doing X or Y’ using forceful, balanced or fear free methods are, as Kathy Murphy puts it: ‘Two sides of the same coin’. Its operant focused and sentience dismissive.


The world’s school and education system is modelled in exactly the same way. Its focus is always on the outcome. It’s modelled with the sole purpose of providing generations that enter into the economic market place. With Covid a year in the fabric of our society, I hear day in and day out how children are missing out on the most important years of their life while the schools are shut. Really though? I hear parents stressed out trying to take on the teaching role, fearful their child will fall behind. I hear the pressure teachers are under to provide an inhouse education to front line worker’s children and online education to those at home. I hear about poverty stricken households suffering from the illusion that their child wont thrive because they don’t have the inhouse technology so that their child can ‘learn’. You see we are blindsided by the idealism of institutional learning. Have we forgotten that we are not robots that need to be plugged into a socket to learn. We can’t predict the future so we can’t possibly know what one individual needs to learn and for what reason. We are not the learner in this instance.


Do we have this all wrong? What comes to mind when we use words such as school and education? Have these words taken on a systematic meaning for which they were never meant? Do we see 4 walls, a desk and a chair when we think of the word education? This is not how humans thrive in all their glory. Children spend up to 75% of their day away from their parents and sat in a square box in the name of education. Is this what we expect of dogs? Just as we might use the word ‘Training’, or refer to the four quadrants of operant conditioning theory, do we risk minimising the beautiful and complex emotional systems or a dog to build a prison wall with a quadrant theory to capitalise on outcomes? The word education, from the Latin “educare” means to draw out, that which lies within. How can we begin to honour this without first understanding what it is that the learner has to offer us. I’d go as far to say that perhaps the teacher is in fact the learner if we are humble enough to see past the limiting language we use to justify our bias to outcome and succumb to the expectation of others to teach or chance behaviours that are ‘less desirable’ or fit the preconceived mould.


I have worked with many clients who have raised their hand to their dogs, or forced their dog’s body into a position with the use of food or otherwise because the dog was unable to ‘comply’ for whatever reason and the carer had an expectation that needed filling. For many, they were following orders. On the other hand, some people share with shame, for what they describe as, ‘spoiling’ the dog by ‘allowing’ the dog on the bed or the sofa. It’s as if they have failed to comply with the code of ‘domination’ they think they ought to subscribe to, to be a good dog parent, treating the dog as some sort of subservient rather than friend.


As an industry, both locally and internationally, on media outlets or big TV networks we have a responsibility to change the narrative. I believe the language we use and the accompanying connotations is deeply engrained in us. The subtle intricate tributaries of the force free movement is losing the battle through the focus of energy on outcomes. I believe we need to go a step further and question the language we use and examine how that impacts on our own attachment to outcome and the way in which we communicate with an animal or indeed a child. Perhaps we can bring about change by simply being that change.


Instead of asking what we think we can teach our dogs, lets stand back and ask what can our dogs teach us. One thing we all need more of, is compassion. Kindness and compassion never killed a dog, but control, aggression and so called assertiveness has, many times over, lead to their demise and destruction. Remember, the words we use, carry great responsibility. Every word has the power to mean something different to each individual. For those without words we need to step back and listen to what they are saying. For the wordless do not carry less importance or are less deserving of our respect. ‘The biggest enemy to the learner is the talking teacher’ John Holt


There seems to be ripples in the pond and its creating some interesting waves where the language used to describe the education of dogs is slowly beginning to change among some practitioners I have the great privilege of working with or studying under, such as, Andrew Hale, Kathy Murphy, Gemma Hodson and Sarah Fisher, but to name a few.


Thank you to my community of compassionate, incredible colleagues that keep me wise, sharing their amazing knowledge and creating a collaborative approach for the dogs we meet along the way, in many cases, saving the lives. Let the teacher become the student!

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