Monday, November 15, 2010

Motivation Impacts Learning

One of the interesting things about the fact that I'm both a dog trainer and a humane educator is how many times things that apply to dogs is also relevant when trying to teach people.

My Lad Lake program this semester has been more challenging than the previous 2 semesters. For one thing the students are younger. Last school year the kids ranged in age from 13 to 18 years of age, while this semester I'm working with kids between the ages of 11 and 14. Also -- with the exception of one, this particular group of students really don't have a background with dogs. They don't have dogs, don't have a passion for dogs, and most have cats at home and are very much cat lovers.

I've struggled with getting the current group of boys motivated to work with HAWS dogs, and show the enthusiasm for training and canine behavior that the other two groups had. And I've had to apply a principle that dog trainers use all the time -- if the dog isn't learning and doesn't appear to be motivated try something else.

My original format consisted of a 20 minute PowerPoint with the remainder of the hour having the boys split up into two groups -- each working with their own designated adoptable dog. A few weeks I knew I was in trouble when I heard a couple of the boys complain that they were bored and didn't want to work with dogs. Part of it was frustration, and part of it was just that the program as it was set up was not working.

So I've changed a few things. I had them doing a competition to see who could get the most sits out of Mystic in a minutes time. I won at 25 sits - while each of the boys was able to do only 9 or 10 sits. And I used that as an opportunity to show the boys how to keep the dog engaged in training by holding his attention. Then they worked with their dogs and did the sit competition again, and really seemed enthusiastic about interacting with the dogs.

Another thing I did was to put together a case history for a dog named Jenna. Jenna is at HAWS, but currently isn't adoptable because she needs some training before she'll be ready for adoption. She is a very young dog who gets mouthy when she's frustrated or overly excited. HAWS Mod Squad -- a group of dedicated volunteers who have been trained to do behavior modification with HAWS shelter dogs, has been working with Jenna, but I also wanted to get the boys involved in her training.

I video taped her behavior and did a case history presentation. Then I asked the boys to brainstorm with me and talk about what her behavior problems were. I was amazed that all the boys were raising their hands and participating -- normally only one of the boys is eager to participate. And even better they made very valid contributions as to what her inappropriate behaviors were.

Then I asked them what we could do with training to improve her behavior. And again I was floored at the wonderful suggestions each of them came up with. They suggested that we train her to sit when people approach, work with her to be calm when petted, and teach her to be calm when her harness is being put on or taken off -- among other things.

The last few weeks we've still had a PowerPoint presentation, but then as a group we work with Jenna on those items for 10 or 15 minutes, and then they work in the two groups with their own dogs. And this seems to have made a huge difference in their attitudes towards the program. Not only are they seeing a tremendous difference in Jenna's behavior, but they are much more interested in working with the other dogs as well. And I even caught them working as a team and complimenting one another.

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