Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Power to Teach

One of my biggest stumbling blocks in working with animals and pet owners is that I often feel useless as a teacher. I've always struggled with sharing knowledge, not because I want to keep it to myself -- on the contrary! -- but because the greatest powers I have are all locked up in my intuitive side and defy my attempts to translate them rationally to other people. That last sentence probably did a good job of underscoring my point. I know how to do stuff, but I don't always know how to instruct others. Ever try to teach someone to whistle? I feel that other people already know the answer and just need to hear the right combination of words coming from me in order to unlock their own power to simply accomplish whatever it is they're trying to accomplish. I talk to them, I demonstrate, but when they try to do it, it just doesn't work out. But I can't exactly give them bullet points on why that is. How to speak to be understood?

I ran into this phenomenon from the opposite side, as a student, at a riding lesson last weekend. I haven't been riding in years but I enjoyed the lessons I took in college and decided I would like to get back up on a horse. The instructor put me on a bouncy, eager horse named Lana and by the end of the lesson I had walked, trotted, cantered, and jumped. But I was struggling -- and these were struggles I remembered from my lessons in college -- with balance and body position throughout. "Keep her slow by leaning back," the instructor kept saying. I would pull myself back and start bouncing hard on the saddle. And the horse didn't slow down. "Move your hands forward," she would say, "Keep your fingers together." All the while I'm listening to my back scream at me, "THIS IS NOT A GOOD POSITION!" I know if the instructor were in my body, she would feel what I felt and be able to adjust automatically, intuitively. And I know that once I happen upon the perfect posture, my intuition will remember it and it will be a part of me. I won't do it wrong anymore and my back will thank me. But I haven't found that position.

Until then, I know I just have to keep riding and adjusting and trying to convince my body parts to cooperate with a moving horse. But even though I know that's how most learning works and that's how it has to be with my clients who are frustrated with dog training issues in particular, I still can't help but feel that there has to be a better way. I love the Wii balance board for its scientific simplicity -- move your body around until the dot is in the center and that's what it feels like when your balance is perfect. How fantastic! But most physical learning does not happen that way.

Instead the teacher interprets what the student says or does and makes suggestions to improve. Then the student first interprets those suggestions and then tries to follow them. And then the student decides if it feels like it's getting better or not. And the teacher agrees or disagrees. It's convoluted, confusing, necessary. I can show a client a training technique and say, "Do this" and I can tell them, "Feel this"... But it's such a complicated matter. It's about the relationship we build with the dog. It's about their history and their patterns. It's about our emotional states and reactions. It's about distractions and levels of distractions and biological needs and methods of communication and levels of understanding. There are many variables! And so much of working with animals has to do with timing. But once we get a handle on it, it seems so effortless, so easy. I've been working with animals all of my life and learned as a young child, through trial and error. I do it without thought, it's so easy for me. So why is it so difficult to communicate? Why does it take so long, with so much effort, with so many words, to teach someone how to train a dog to heel, for example? Why can't I just condense and express the information and have it speak directly to someone else's intuition?

I guess in this case the major complicating factor is the different personalities involved -- there's a teacher, a student, and an animal, who is essentially the student's non-English-speaking student. Next week, my riding instructor is going to put me on a horse with a "less pingy" canter. The relationship between my body and the horse will be less complicated and I'll have more concentration available to think about the finer points of balance because it won't be quite so painful to make a mistake. I'll be able to compare the experience of riding a quieter horse and find the place where my posture could work on either horse. The same can be said of dog training -- while there are rules and structures and techniques, it all boils down to flexibility and consistency. Dogs are different and the same approach exactly won't give the same exact results in every dog. Even if you have a very concrete system, there is a huge degree of variability in the time frame and the level of intensity required to teach an animal a new behavior or eliminate an old one. I guess, as a teacher, the role can only be to make suggestions that help keep the ultimate goal in sight. A teacher cannot get inside you and move around like a puppet so that you can experience and absorb the knowledge directly. A teacher can only communicate with a student, try to pinpoint errors, suggest adjustments, and then let you try and see how that works out. And all the while -- hopefully! -- learning to become a better, faster, more efficient teacher in the process.

It's worth mentioning, worth mulling over, that the words themselves are only one tool in the teaching process. Perhaps by pursuing the perfect words I limit myself. Perhaps part of our design as interactive beings is that we are incapable of directly absorbing words and translating them into physical knowledge (unless we are savants!). Maybe it's part of our checks and balances system that guarantees that human beings will continue to move, to interact, to communicate, and to practice collectively. Otherwise we might all be stuck in books and learning without ever striving or struggling or asking for help. But my intuition still believes there are perfect words for every situation. I'll keep trying!

1 comment:

  1. Boy, did this resonate with me! "the role can only be to make suggestions that help keep the ultimate goal in sight" - what a wonderful description of what is often the best that we, as trainers, can do. I am always knocking myself for getting less than perfect results with owners. This thought helps keep me on track for what I CAN do for people, since grabbing the dog and doing it myself isn't exactly fruitful.
    Carol Visser, NCMG, CPDT