I was 20 weeks pregnant when I took a blanket, ice water, and a book outside on a beautiful April afternoon. The book was Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. In the middle of the first chapter, I felt my daughter move for the first time. For many reasons, I will never forget that moment.
Growing up, I was surrounded by rescue dogs. My Aunt Becky adopted her two puppies from the shelter where I would later adopt my first dog and get my first shelter job. She always spoke to me about the importance of spay and neutering and helping dogs like Ted and Molly. However, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a dog trainer. I wanted to be a vet, but I thought I was terrible at science and decided instead to work in the nonprofit world. Every choice led me back to another shelter, another rescue, another “project” dog. I figured maybe I should start listening to what I really love and do something about it.
I applied to the Karen Pryor Academy. I was accepted and would start the summer of 2013. What I learned not only taught me to be better dog trainer, it taught me how to be the kind of mother I want to be. My education as a dog training professional and in all things raising a daughter has just begun, but I believe they aren’t all that different. No matter who does the behavior – human or animal – applied behavior science tells us how we can address behavioral issues in an effective and humane way.
Looking into care for Maddy and thinking ahead for education, Montessori was a natural fit. The idea of intrinsic motivation, natural consequences, and setting up the environment for the skill set and success of the child is exactly what I do as a clicker trainer for dogs and my clients.
The traditional way of stopping an unwanted behavior is consequences or promises-if you do this then I will do that. I didn’t want to build my relationship with my dogs, my clients, or my daughter thinking like that. I have seen it “work,” the dog who can’t sit without being shown the food first, the child who can’t think through the set of math problems because all he can think about is that candy bar promised at the end, or those that are scared to do anything in fear of getting yelled at, or worse. A great dog trainer said at a seminar, “how can you get it right, if you can’t get it wrong.” Montessori gives Maddy the freedom to get it right by allowing her to make mistakes and I allow my dogs to try things out without reprimand-by setting up a safe environment for them to learn and grow.
Changing behavior doesn’t come through promises or consequences, but instead through understanding why a behavior is occurring and using a two-way relationship to change what occurs in the brain to make the behavior stop. Until we can change the brain, we can’t change behavior. Amazing research is coming out on collaborative problem solving. The general idea is instead of shaming, threatening, or promising, we sit down and talk through feelings and come up with a plan to address it together. This changes the brain to better problem solve in the future, instead of reacting through less-desirable behaviors.
A similar program is enacted when a dog comes to me with significant behavior problems, the first thing I do is make them feel safe and comfortable in their new space, then I change their emotional response to the scary stuff, and finally I teach them coping skills using positive reinforcement training.
Dr. Susan Freidman says we need to turn monologues into dialogs. So often we feel we know best because of the information we have. We know what are kids should be doing. We know how our dogs should act. We arm ourselves with information and just start talking, start doing, start implementing often without listening. Why are the dogs or children acting out, what are they trying to say?
So I challenge myself every day to listen to what my daughter is trying to tell me and have a conversation with her to address the problem. I do the same with my clients and with my husband. We become partners in figuring things out together, and that is a good feeling for all of us.
Connect with Heather Cole
Right now I am passionate about:
1. shelter dog enrichment programs
2. peaceful parenting and positive discipline to solve behavior problems
3. goat farming
Watch Heather’s interview here!