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  • Francesca degli Espinosa

When you wish your athletic daughter did ballet, but all she wants to do is play soccer



My parents were not pushy, quite the opposite in fact. I wasn’t even told I had to get good grades in school. Possibly as a result of their parenting style, I have not been, at least until now, a pushy parent. My children seem to navigate the world of a teenager in a very typical way, rotating between school, the fridge and a screen. Like many women my age with semi- grownup children who see their mother as a bottomless vending machine, I toyed with the thought of having one last (fourth) baby. Realising almost immediately what a bad idea that would be, a dog seemed the next best thing…


In my imaginary world my dog would love training. I had dreams of long off-leash beach walks into the sunset and of learning a new sport together…


Through years of practising behavioural science, I thought I had developed strong immunity to anthropomorphism, explanatory fictions and viewing the learner as the sole agent of control. Yet, when presented with the contrast between the learner in front of me and who I wished him to be, I shamelessly succumbed to the temptation of engaging in the kind of faulty verbal behaviour I drum out of my master ABA students.


1) It didn’t matter what I tried, anything else was far more interesting than interacting with me. Darwin did not love me.

2) He was extremely distracted by everything, inside and out of the house. I wondered whether attention deficit disorder was a possible diagnosis in dogs.

3) Darwin had selective hearing. Once his nose was on ground or another dog was visible, nothing else registered.


My last instance of maladaptive verbal behaviour was generated last week. Darwin is pretty athletic for his breed. He is tall and slim and can keep up with his whippet friend in a game of chase (at least for the first 300 meters). He is fast. In my attempt to find something to do together that may capitalize on his physical strengths and interest in movement, I enrolled us in foundation one-to-one agility classes. I see no point in doing anything half-heartedly, so, I naturally proceeded to learn as much as I could. I studied basic handling techniques. I watched videos. I read books. I practised moving my feet and arms in relation to a large stuffed dog on make-shift obstacles in my living room. I had visions of going to Crufts (one of the largest dog shows) within 3 years. Of course, Darwin would be the only non-border collie in the final...


After 3 months, the instructor told me quite bluntly, “I don’t think you should continue with agility. The dog needs to be enthusiastic. He’s not. You are both beginners and it’s not working”. Suddenly I was that parent: The proud parent to whom the coach says their child is not good enough for the sport they are passionate about. I experienced a whirlwind of private events I was not entirely familiar with.


Denial. It’s not true.

Blame. The teacher is not good enough.

Grief. For the dream I had lost.


After 24 hours of such verbal behaviour, I heard another voice, that of the great behavioural educator, Fred Keller: “The student is always right. He is not asleep, not unmotivated, not sick, and he can learn a great deal if we provide the right contingencies of reinforcement. But if we don’t provide them, and provide them soon, he too may be inspired to say, “Good-bye!” to formal education.”


My error was to believe that because Darwin is a dog, he could be shaped to be exactly the dog I wanted him to be. To some extent this may be true, and certainly with effective reinforcement and better mechanical skills on my part, I could probably bring a lot of behaviour under stimulus control. While I remained committed to strengthening the value of manageable reinforcers (e.g., food and a ball) through operant procedures, I reminded myself to look at my individual learner and his current preferences.


Access to some of his natural reinforcers has to be controlled. Period. That’s just part of living in the human world with social rules and regulations. No, you can’t run off to meet every dog. Sorry mate! That kind of freedom will be available when I have taught you to come when called anytime, anywhere. No, you can’t sniff every woman’s crotch and bottom (with a preference for the nursing home women across the road and their walking frames). This is not dissimilar from teaching some of my clients that no, it is not appropriate to barge into every food shop and grab what you fancy from the shelves, regardless of how much you may want it. Nor is it appropriate to sit on strangers’ laps on the bus, touch their hair and smell their necks to fulfill a sensory need.


Thanks to Keller dragging me out of the unproductive verbal behaviour loop, the question I realised I needed to ask was not “How do I make you more interested in what I want to do with you?” but rather, “How can I engage us in an activity that uses some of your natural strengths and interests?” At the end of the day, we all love doing and keep doing what we are good at. It’s true, I would really love you to do ballet, but you are really good at soccer and, most importantly, that is what you are passionate about. Ballet is my reinforcer, not yours. Again, I needed to remind myself to teach the learner in front of me, not the one I wished he was.

Being a dog, Darwin, is really good at using his nose. He can track and find his friends from one side of the city park to the other if I say "go and find Samson or Obi!". He can find my dirty underwear anywhere in the house (yes, I do play the occasional game of giving him a quick whiff of it, to then hide it and sending him to find it from the most unlikely places). Even his kibble becomes incredibly interesting if he has to search for it around the house or garden. The very blunt instructor, who I assessed as loving dogs more than people, after delivering the agility death sentence, followed it with “… but he really likes to use his nose, we should try some basic scent work”. As he pulled on a tight leash to his heart’s content with his nose stuck to the ground and me trailing behind him, Darwin became, instantly, the perfect student. Attentive, focused, on task and most importantly, eager to hear the magic words “find it!” Here was the true reward (for both of us)!





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