Nika Starts School

by | May 23, 2023

There was great comfort for me once in working from someone else’s list of what to teach a puppy and how, but sadly too little flourishing for them. And as Nika grew, I realised that instead of merely addressing learning gaps, her curriculum was going to have to build on her natural skills and abilities, to allow her input into learning design, to adapt with her as she developed. And I wasn’t sure I was up to the task…

Busy Brain

An appetite for learning that would have bankrupted anyone who would have offered her a buffet of “all you can learn.” Greedily slurping information and knowledge from all situations, including those we’d prefer she didn’t. Making up her mind after a single trial that this was how things were going to be going forward.

This puppy was so hard to keep up with when it came to her desire to understand how her world worked I was almost intimidated to try.

Just Once

Just once was all it took for her to learn that “sprinkles” meant “food will be delivered to the floor and you can search for it using your nose.” Just once to learn that “let’s go shopping” meant I’d head to the reward reserve on top of the piano and offer her one of its treasures. Just once to learn that “thank you, bye” meant I was finishing a Zoom meeting and would soon be free for play or handling or any of the other useful functions that I served.

Imagine all the things that could possibly go wrong with “just once”…

From Fire-Fighting to Planning

In many ways, her early planned learning here was reactive, addressing skills gaps or showing her how the world operated. Such was the nature of the early days of living together: I was concerned with what didn’t have a future and determined to channel the flow of her learning in a direction that did. But when the vast weight of those priorities started to lighten, when our worlds adapted more easily to each other, and when our mutual knowledge and understanding increased, the possibilities of the future that there could be offered themselves before us as a menu so delectable that the thought of foregoing or postponing any possibility in favour of another seemed overwhelming. With this, or perhaps from this, or perhaps leading to this, came a shift in my perception and understanding of her. Not Nika the puppy whose learning was an urgent list of skills essential for moving through the world she inhabited, but Nika the dog with so much potential to unfold into her world and offer to our partnership, and so much that I wanted to help her discover.

Where to Begin?

 The question that kept me awake at night was question I had approached from the wrong direction. “What should I teach her?,” I wondered, stumped at all of the possibilities and being unable to make a decision.

The answer was never going to come.

Instead, the question began to shift: “who is she?,” “what does she want to learn?,” “what is she showing an appetite or an aptitude for?,” “can we build on this action from which she seems to derive so much pleasure?”

Ultimately, where to begin didn’t matter; what did was that what I was teaching her was for her benefit, had not only a future, and was in some way rooted in who she was and what she chose to do. What mattered was that her learning didn’t put her into conflict or cause discomfort, and was planned in a way that ensured her consistent success.

The Curriculum

And so she is learning to move her body into and out of various positions, to navigate a range of environments, to target or manipulate objects with her mouth and paws, and to chain actions to each other.

But this, in some ways, is merely incidental.

For her benefit, and therefore for the benefit of our future together, she is learning that learning itself is not only intrinsically pleasurable but also surrounded by extrinsic rewards – food, connection, touch, verbal praise, play.

She’s learning that “let’s begin” signals an opportunity to gain access to those rewards, and that she can draw on prior learning, guidance from me or the environment, or known cues to do so.

She’s learning that school is a wonderful place to be.

When the “let’s begin” bell rings, she’s right there in the front row, hand raised before I even finish asking the question, and enthusiastically suggesting what she’d like to learn next. For any teacher, this is the proverbial apple: her pleasure in learning, my reward.

I think – I hope – Nika’s going to be a lifelong learner.

I think – I’m sure – she’ll insist that I am too.

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