Teaching Barefoot#1-The deer leg incident

We have been having a bit of trouble with the dog. Normally, Holly is reasonably well behaved for a 16 month old spaniel/collie cross. Granted, she has her moments, but generally she is on an upwards trajectory. She is growing calmer and more responsive to commands. She has always been a friendly, good natured dog. Slowly, she is responding to training and showing signs of becoming an obedient dog.IMAG0795

But there is one major exception. On several occasions recently, during our daily walk down the disused railway line, she has found severed deer legs. Not the entire leg. Just the foot. The bottom bit. Hoof to first joint. Still, quite a prize as far as a young dog is concerned. She finds them somewhere in the fields adjacent to the old railway line. I presume that some poaching is going on. There are lots of deer in the surrounding woods. We often see them when out walking. I presume that the poachers are butchering on site and discarding the unwanted bits in the neighbouring fields. A heady find for Holly. Not one that she is inclined to give up lightly. Once she has one of these meaty treats between her teeth, she turns into a different dog. The wolf takes control. She refuses to come to heel. Guards her treasure aggressively. Ignores my commands. Runs away if I attempt to approach her. I have no option but to wait until she has eaten the entire thing. Once she has finished, she reverts to good dog and trots over to me as if nothing has happened. Expecting a treat for coming back to me.

Now, all the dog training literature says not to get angry. Remain calm. Reward good behaviour. If you tell the dog off when she returns to you, she will think that she is being punished for returning and will be less likely to return in the future. So, I smile through gritted teeth and think about re-homing!

But you can’t have a dog that ignores commands. As a dog owner, you have a responsibility to control your dog. It’s a matter of social responsibility. Not to mention public safety. So, my wife and I decided that we had to confront this behaviour head on and do something to break the pattern. Assert our position as pack leader and make Holly give up a deer leg to us.

The next morning, we set out together with Holly. It was damp and cold. Muddy. We set off down the railway line. Very muddy. Still damp. Still cold. We walked the entire length of the track. No sign of a deer leg whatsoever. We returned. Damp. Cold. Muddy. Unsuccessful. Holly enjoyed her walk.

That afternoon, I went off down the railway line again. This time I veered off to the right before we got to the place where Holly usually finds the deer legs. Over the wooden fence into the field that slopes down to the brook and the site of the old mill. It’s my favourite field. I IMAG0766love the view of the facing hill with the copse on top. The way it is always changing. Dependent on hour, season and weather.

I stopped halfway down the slope to take some photos. My attention being drawn away from her, Holly briefly disappeared. Reappeared with a deer leg in her mouth. “Come here,” I commanded with all the authority I could muster. True to form, Holly ignored me and trotted off towards a big pile of earth recently dredged from a pond during the landscaping of the garden of the house that stands on the site of the old mill. The dredged earth is soft, loose and easy to dig. So, Holly decided to bury the deer leg in it. Suddenly, I realised that here was the opportunity for my superior human intelligence to bring me victory over her doggy stubbornness. My human cunning would enable me finally to triumph and assert my dominance! I watched where she buried the leg. Once she had finished doing so, I called her back to me. She came. I gave her a treat. “Sit!” She sat. I put on her lead. I led her back over to her burial spot. I began to kick away aIMAG0783t the freshly tuIMAG0774rned soil. I felt a surge of panic. I couldn’t find the leg. But I was sure that she had buried it here. It must be here. Too cruel for victory to be snatched away from me now. Then, Holly began to sniff and dig too. I was in the right spot. One more kick and I spotted a hoof. Quickly I bent down and snatched the leg from its dirty grave. Holly was beside herself. Jumping up to try to grab the limb. But I had her on the lead. And I have long arms. The prize is mine!

I led Holly back over the fence to the railway track. I made her sit. This was the point at which I took a risk. I had a master plan. If it went well, it would confirm my position as pack leader. I gave her the deer leg. I allowed her to carry it back most of the way home. But, as we reached the end of the track, I made her sit again. And give me the deer leg. And she did it! Without any fuss or complaint. My plan appeared to be working. She was giving up the deer leg on my command. I wrapped the leg in a plastic bag and hid it away in a pocket. We walked the rest of the way home without incident. She did not pull on the lead at all. But, there was one final act to complete my master plan. Once we had arrived home, washed her muddy feet clean and gone through the usual homecoming routine, I called her outside. I gave her the deer leg. Her expression sang sheer joy as she rushed off to bury it in the garden. My thinking? Well, I hope that she will remember that, if she gives up the next deer leg to me when I command her to, she will be rewarded in the end. So that the next time she finds a deer leg she will do as I command. Be an obedient dog.

In the act of writing this down, I realise that I am trying to teach deferred gratification to a dog. The essence of dog is NOW! Instant gratification. Glory in the moment. Dogs teach us to be fully in the present. So, maybe my master plan is doomed to failure. Only time will tell. It is hard to think with the mind of a dog.

IMAG0769The title of this piece is Teaching Barefoot. Most of my life I have been a teacher of one sort or another. Mainly a teacher of young people. A lot of people (some of them in Government. Some in the Media. Some of them teachers) seem to think that teaching young people is essentially like training a dog. Largely a matter of asserting dominance, ensuring obedience. If the students are well behaved, obedient, then the teachers can teach them something. So, we have TV programmes that feature young pupil behaving badly. Newspaper stories of teachers losing control. As if learning is largely about being well behaved. It is a model of learning with student as empty vessel to be filled with knowledge by the teacher. In this model the teacher owns all the knowledge, has all the answers. It is the traditional model of good teaching. Probably the dominant model in popular thought. If the student is behaving badly, not concentrating, not sitting still, then the teacher can not do his job. Which is to fill up the student with knowledge. It is a model that is rarely questioned in the Media.

Yet, consider the last time you learned to do something new. Perhaps you got a new mobile phone and had to figure out how to use it. Did you go to a classroom, sit at a desk and listen attentively as an expert told you how to use it? Or did you have a go yourself. Use a bit of trial and error. Make mistakes. Learn from them. Ask a friend. Maybe find a tutorial on youtube. And finally ask your son or daughter how to do it because they just seem to know about this stuff.

My point is that learning is a complicated and messy business. It is not a simple, one way transaction. And it certainly is not characterised by obedience. In fact, I would like to propose that true learning is more truthfully characterised by a measure of willful disobedience.

When you own a dog you have a duty to train the dog. You need obedience because that dog will always be your responsibility. It will never live independently. It will always depend upon the owner for food and shelter. It will give loyalty and love in return. That is the contract. You need to know that the dog will do as it is told so that it does not put other humans or animals or itself in danger.

You do not own a child. As a parent your desire is that your child will one day be able to live as independently as possible. You want them to flourish. Loyalty and love would be nice too, but the primary motivation is for them to move on, make their own way in the world, be successful, be happy. You do not need obedience. You aim for independence.

Train for obedience.

Teach for independence.

Why Barefoot? Well, it’s kind of symbolic. I intend this to be the first in a series of posts on the subject of education. I will explain the symbolism in my next post on this subject.


    • Thanks Elspeth. Positive feedback is really encouraging. Andy
      We’ll have to pop round and see you some time soon. Jo wants to buy some pottery. I’m more interested in canoes!


  1. Glad to read I’m not the only one struggling with a dog in puberty! 😉
    Ours has very selective hearing at times. A lot of times actually. I can yell in his ears at a foot distance and yet he will not respond in any way, but if I whisper and offer him a treat at 25 yards distance, he’ll come running!
    And so, by teaching him to be an obedient dog, which he’ll never be, because he is to pigheaded for that, he is teaching me to look at him, understanding him as an animal and above all…. patience!


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