Teaching a New Dog Old Tricks

by Dr. Kirk Brumels, professor and chair, Hope College Kinesiology Department

Providing unabashed love in exchange for food and shelter, my dog Dixie’s devotion and friendship is a commonplace canine occurrence. Yet, as an English Setter from hunting bloodlines, she is genetically wired for more. So when Dixie became part of our family two years ago, it became my responsibility to help her satisfy her natural desire to pursue grouse and woodcock within Michigan’s upland forests.

Learning how to train Dixie caused me focus a bit more on sequential development and guiding correction involved in teaching a new skill or concept. The beauty in this lesson is that it impacted my role as an educator.

Never having owned or trained an upland bird-hunting dog before, I discovered quickly that Dixie and I were newbies who needed to acquire some old tricks. Learning how to train Dixie caused me to focus a bit more on sequential development and guiding correction involved in teaching a new skill or concept. The beauty in this lesson is that it impacted my role as an educator.

Now, let me be the first to say that I don’t treat my students like I treat my dog as a belly rub, a scratch behind the ear, or cut-up hot dog pieces as performance rewards may be considered inappropriate! But I believe the principles of training a dog can be applied to my teaching…let me explain.

The basic idea behind hunting with a pointing dog like Dixie, is that her natural scenting ability is used to locate and “point” out desired game birds. Once found, she should hold still (point) in close proximity to the bird until I can arrive on scene. Opportunities are lost if Dixie gets too close or chases the birds. Dogs like Dixie must be trained how to respond when birds are found. She needed to be educated on how to apply specialized, skilled behavior with her natural instincts. Dixie instinctively knows that smelling and locating birds is fun; however, she needed to be shown that keeping such birds on the ground and in front of her provided a greater reward.

Teaching and educating often involves an explanation, a demonstration, or both. I remember being asked in a college education course to teach someone to tie shoelaces by either words or actions alone. It was difficult. Obviously, a better teaching strategy was to simultaneously explain and show the sequential tasks that would lead to the end result. I learned then and, now more recently through training Dixie, that becoming skilled at either explaining or demonstrating the sequential steps improves my teaching when I actually combine the two.

A better teaching strategy was to simultaneously explain and show the sequential tasks that would lead to the end result.

This concept of intentional and sequential instruction was amplified while training Dixie.  Verbal explanations were not an option during our training (dogs understand limited English!) so I was required to show, reinforce, and reward a series of behaviors built upon those that preceded it. Dr. Steven Smith, professor of kinesiology and head men’s soccer coach, explains this “chaining instruction” to his pedagogy students and players on a daily basis. The model, according to Smith, is to “teach the individual parts and then chain them together like links of a chain.” This form of instruction links one activity or task to another until an end goal is reached, and it was a critical component of Dixie’s training program.

Likewise, with students whom we can extensively speak to, it is important for our verbal explanations to be progressive in nature. Smith likens this spoken instruction to motor skill development where “there are mature and immature behaviors or understanding and it is our job as educators to seek ways of moving our students step by step through the maturational and instructional process.”

Whether tying shoes, hunting upland game, or teaching skills and concepts, ultimate success relies on breaking down the end goal into sequential steps. We must start at the beginning and progress toward a goal. But, it does not end there. We cannot simply “get the ball rolling” and hope it ends up where we want it. We must also provide continued correction and reinforcement along the way.

That brings me to my second point.

In addition to “chaining instruction,” the value of positive reinforcement became exceedingly clear during Dixie’s training process. The extrinsic rewards of effusive praise or food treats are a critical component of training a dog in the early stages, but eventually they are replaced by obedience to expectation. The satisfaction of a job well done eventually becomes the intrinsic reward.

Laszlo Block of Google in his book titled Work Rules! states that “simple practice, without feedback and experimentation, is insufficient” when it comes to skill acquisition. Referring to the work of K. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University professor of psychology, Laszlo mentions that in order to gain mastery, an individual must break down the desired goal into “tiny actions” and then “repeat them relentlessly” with “immediate feedback, correction, and experimentation.”

As we worked on performing desired skills, certain undesired responses inevitably happened. These moments of correction were necessary and expected, but they were not where emphasis was placed.

Correcting aberrant behavior and reinforcing appropriate actions were both critical for teaching Dixie the desired skills and behaviors that make a successful bird-dog. It all seemed more effective, though, when I positively reinforced a desired behavior than when I attempted to correct a negative one. As we worked on performing desired skills, certain undesired responses inevitably happened. These moments of correction were necessary and expected, but they were not where emphasis was placed. The focus was our desired end goal and the corrections served only as a way to redirect momentum toward positive responses that could be rewarded. By not over-reacting to deviant behavior, but instead by re-directing expectations and rewards toward positive behavior, I reduced the requirement for and time spent on correction and “constructive criticism.”

What this old dog learned is not necessarily new, but thanks to Dixie, I have a new appreciation for these old tricks. I can only hope that through applying these lessons to my responsibilities as an educator, I equal Dixie’s ability to find birds.

More to Sweden than Ikea

By Erin Brophy ’18

Swedish ponies like selfies too!

Looking for the best summer of your life? Look no further, because Hope College Geology summer research is where you will find it. Ponies, Swedish farmers, ROCKS. What could be better? But before I get too far ahead of my story, let me explain.

Outcrop jackpot!

I am a geology major at Hope and also a member of the women’s soccer team (FIRE UP DUTCH!).  This summer, I was given the privileged opportunity to travel to Sweden to conduct research with Dr. Edward Hansen, professor of geological and environmental sciences and department chair, and fellow geology student, Max Huffman. This experience was unforgettable and formative too.

We traipsed through pebble and shrub-filled fields and many dense forests in search of square-meter-sized boulders. Often, we only found moss and lichen-covered hillsides. But that’s what makes being a geology researcher fun; each day is a chance for a new discovery.

In Sweden, we were investigating a particular type of rock that once made up a large mountain range formed during a tectonic event, the Sveconorwegian orogen that occurred roughly 1.14-0.9 billion years ago. During this event, tremendous amounts of pressure made portions of the rock melt. Our goal in Sweden was to find outcroppings of these rocks (now very eroded) to observe the portions we hypothesize were part of this melt.  So, a very large portion of our time was spent doing reconnaissance work, locating these outcroppings wherever they were scattered. This fieldwork was extraordinary but also very challenging. We traipsed through pebble and shrub-filled fields and many dense forests in search of square-meter-sized boulders. Often, we only found moss and lichen-covered hillsides. But that’s what makes being a geology researcher fun; each day is a chance for a new discovery. And on one of the best days, we discovered friendship with a farmer and his wife in their home.

On this particular day, we needed to use a rock drill to sample a low-lying outcrop in a farmer’s pasture. The day before, our Swedish colleague called ahead to make sure the owner was willing to let us sample (and cause quite a bit of noise pollution). With approval, the next day we started drilling. A couple hours into the drilling process, the farmer’s neighbor came over to ask us about our project. He spoke English very well and wanted to tell his non-English-speaking neighbor (the farm owner) a little bit about the geology we were investigating. After briefing him on our project and showing him how to use the rock drill, the farmer invited us to come into his house for “fica” (the Swedish version of teatime). Five energetic farm dogs and his wife — who had prepared coffee, tea, and pastries — greeted us at the door. She even had fresh milk from the cows who had been watching us drill.

It’s amazing that the experiences you never expect to have and the people you never expect to meet are the memories you know you’ll never forget.

For about an hour, we sat with the farmer and his family, and his neighbors’ family too, in their home, learning a few Swedish words and talking about geology, dogs, movies, and horse racing (the farmer’s daughter was a professional horse trainer). It turned out to be the best day of field work, ever. It’s amazing that the experiences you never expect to have and the people you never expect to meet are the memories you know you’ll never forget. Plus, I returned to the United States with a new favorite Swedish tradition – fica, a time of restful communion.

Rocks rock wherever you find them.

These highly educational experiences are not rare at Hope. The geology program here focuses heavily on hands-on learning so we often take trips afield. In my three years as a geology major, I have traveled to the Upper Peninsula, Colorado, northern Kentucky, the Smokies, Arizona, and California to study various terrains and rock types. But being abroad this summer was most amazing of all, affording me an opportunity that most undergraduate geology students don’t usually get. Each opportunity gave me invaluable lessons and memories about something I love: the Earth.

I’m not limited to one passion at Hope. I play soccer — a game I’ve loved since I was little — at a high level here, and I learn at a high level  here too.

So, what does all of this have to do with soccer at Hope? If there is one favorite thing I’ve learned through all of my Hope experiences, it is this: I’m not limited to one passion. I play soccer — a game I’ve loved since I was little — at a high level here, and I learn at a high level too. And, I am just one of many student-athletes who have been able to pursue their academic goals with gumption and not be limited by the demands of their sport. I have met so many other student-athletes who have been able to travel abroad for class work and/or research. In fact, my coach, Leigh Sears, wants us to take part academic  adventures like these as much as possible and encourages our team to do so.

Every place I’ve traveled to as a geology student and every game I’ve played as a soccer athlete has vividly shown me that Hope College and the Hope women’s soccer program are designed to create future leaders of tomorrow, not just talented students and soccer players of today. That’s a combination that’s made my Hope experience rock solid!