how my dog learned fear, and how i’m driving it back

I have a dog.  His name is Doppler.  I can actually see him right now chilling on the back lawn just looking around his domain and keeping an eye on the painters working on the house.  The Dop took to training well and loves to go hiking and sleep in tents (or hammocks!).  I started jogging last winter and his joy on our outings has been a large factor in my sticking with it through the less enjoyable ‘I have never done land-based exercising and now I remember why’ phase.  Now I’m jogging for sheer enjoyment, but between last winter and now my dog has become a very different beast on our outings.

Doppler has always been fearless in his approach to life.  He bounds over tall fields of grass, climbs up mountains, and approaches all people as though they will pet him with a wagging tail.  Jogging with him was easy even though he seemed to think I was going very slowly.  And then when leaving my grandma’s house one day he hit a car.

No, the car did not hit him, he hit it.  I was letting him walk off leash (normal, though stupid on my part as he was riled up by my grandma’s dog) and called him to get into the back of the car when he runs past me toward the street and hits the back end of a red sedan that was driving past at 25mph and bounces off with a loud thud before immediately running back my direction.  I had to grab him mid-stride as he was attempting to shoot past me and just hold on until he calmed down.  He was moving alright and looked spooked so I brought him home.  By the time we were home he was acting completely normal and greeting the cats and my husband the same way as usual (attempting to body-hug/slam the first, bringing a tug toy to the latter).  I chided myself to be more mindful of his moods and that he is still a puppy (only a year old at the time), but didn’t think too much more about it.

A few days later the Dop and I headed out for a jog and he kept doing a weird front-to-back-to-front movement around me.  I thought he was just being a nut, but then I realized that whenever he did this his tail was down between his legs (something I had NEVER seen him do) and that he was moving that way to keep me between passing cars and himself.  He was terrified, but trying his best to keep jogging with me.  I almost broke down crying on the side of the street seeing him afraid for the first time.  I immediately altered my route to get away from cars and took a less-traveled path home through a park and fed him treats every time a car would come by.

Fast forward to yesterday evening went my husband and I took the Dop out on a long jog (almost three miles, woo!).  Given our schedules, the spouse and I rarely get a chance to do this together and it was nice to tag-team phrase/treat Dop’s good jogging behavior.  I realized that even though it has been over 5 months, Doppler is still carefully placing his people in between himself and the cars that go by.  He’s a bit sneaky about it; suddenly a plant or patch of ground becomes fascinating and he’ll slow down and then speed up again once the car is gone.  His tail no longer lowers to the ground, but it does stop wagging.  Five months and he still flinches.  I know that if we keep working at it and are consistent he’ll eventually get over the fear (though I can’t say I mind my dog being wary about cars), but for such a small incident the impact on his psyche has been huge.  One momentary slip on my part as his person was all it took.

I was left wondering during last night’s jog how many of my students have hit cars.  You know the ones.  They say they’ll come in, but never do even though you see them in English class in the morning (tripped over a motorcycle).  Some of them have parents who talk about how much they struggled in math and that their child has the same ‘math gene’ deficiency while the kid is in the room (bumped a VW Bug).  Others talk about how math used to make sense but then they had a teacher that treated them like idiots and now they just don’t enjoy it (SUV hit-and-run).

I know many different ways to teach specific mathematical skills, but sometimes I get so into the math (something I love and no longer have any fear of), that I miss the signs telling me this kid has their tail between their legs.  Other kids are just really good at deflecting, e.g., being socialites, class clowns, or class delinquents instead of doing the math.  How much of a student acting out in class is from a fear of the subject they picked up somewhere else along the way?  How do I make sure I remember this when I go to work with a student?  How do I remember to not be the car with off-hand remarks that I don’t think all the way through?

All of this goes back to my drive toward building mathematical self-efficacy in my students.  I see SBG in the same way I view treats for my dog–as immediate, positive feedback.  Car coming close, Dop?  Have something small and tasty to focus on and take your brain off the OMGCARRUNAWAY! reflex I know you are currently feeling.  Trigonometry making your head spin, Student-of-mine?  Let’s work on this little skill together for a whi–oh, you know how to do that?  Awesome!  How about you show me so I can update your skill-score in the gradebook and then we can move onto the next skill-n-bits for this topic?

Sure, sure, SBG helps teachers get a clearer view of what their students know (and in the process of making the skills lists a clearer view of what they need to know according to curriculum), but it’s also a way to re-acclimate students to mathematical proficiency and remembering that math isn’t out to run them over or block their way.  That they were not always afraid of cars.

So what do you do to push back the fear?

3 thoughts on “how my dog learned fear, and how i’m driving it back

  1. This is a very insightful post. It is heartbreaking to see the students who have hit the math car in the past. I definitely still have much to learn to be more effective helping to push back the fear, but one thing I try to do is bring in problems and topics that lend themselves to multiple approaches so that students genuinely can be successful and build confidence. I think a crucial part to that is making sure that the problems are still meaty – it’s counterproductive if the problems are trivial.

    I also think that student presentations are a huge part of pushing back the fear. When students can see others genuinely presenting a clever approach and experiencing success, it’s contagious. It takes a lot to build up to this, so I have students do a lot of work and talking together in their groups. That way, they get practice verbalizing techincal thinking and get a chance to hear others’ thinking. It’s great when they start encouraging each other to present.


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