Learning through dogs

My daughter was never a fan of busy playgrounds. For a couple of years, from when she was around three years old, she preferred the local dog park (we didn’t have a dog). This was essentially a dusty enclosure with a couple of benches and a water fountain, in the centre of the Spanish town where we lived. By late afternoon, there would always be a good gathering of dogs, delighted to have left the confines of their apartments to run wild with their canine buddies. Their owners would mostly stand around and chat as the dogs played.

My daughter knew the names of all the dogs, and all the owners knew her. They would greet her warmly and take time to explain how to interact with their dogs, and any particular idiosyncrasies she should be aware of. She mostly played with the dogs, but sometimes she would just sit on the bench, content in the company of these fellow dog lovers, with a favourite hound in her arms. When not at the dog park, we often took ‘dog walks’. These consisted of walking through the town and stopping to greet every dog we met along the way. Sometimes, with the owner’s permission, she’d take a photo of the dog with my phone, and we’d always ask the breed, age and name. 

As I reflect on this now, something that certainly encouraged her interest in dogs was the gentle respect with which she was treated by the many dog owners whose paths we would cross. Later, when she was six, we started volunteering for the local dog shelter, mostly taking dogs for walks, but occasionally helping to get puppies used to handling. Here again, she was treated as a fellow volunteer, an equal among equals, doing an important job just like everyone else. I have a photo of her from that time. She is wearing her volunteer t-shirt, and sitting on the floor with puppies scrambling all over her. Her face is lit up, like someone who’s living their dream. 

Unschooling is all about letting the learning unfold naturally through interests and curiosity. Different things make different people tick. My sons, who are now 13 and 15, have always been interested in naturally ‘academic’ subjects. I admit that in the early days, this made life easier. My sons’ vast general knowledge and insatiable curiosity for the world was my defence against any of those, “But how will they learn?” questions. A short conversation with either of them was enough to silence any sceptic, and you’ll often find me searching things on Google just to keep up with them. I have asked myself over the years how I would feel if they were not naturally interested in the world in this way. Would I feel just as assured in all of this if one loved carpentry and the other rock climbing? Would it still feel okay if this is what they chose to spend most of their time on?

Well, in all honesty, I probably would miss the easy evidence in my defence, but it would feel good nonetheless. I’ve seen and learned enough from my children to entirely shift my understanding of how we journey through life. I don’t believe there’s a certain amount of specific knowledge to be acquired by the age of 18. More importantly, they’ve shown me what children are naturally capable of when not stripped of their autonomy, and engaged in what is meaningful to them (which may well not be meaningful to me). There’s a commonly-held belief that if a child could choose what they did with no one instructing them, they would only do the easy stuff. They would relax, chill, never push themselves. Since most of us were never free to do whatever we wanted, we just assume this is true. But I’ve only seen the opposite. A child with a passion and freedom to pursue that passion is a force to be reckoned with. The things they want to do become things they need to do, and they are propelled forward by their own intrinsic motivation. They will willingly push themselves beyond their comfort zone, and engage in all sorts of difficult and frustrating things.

My daughter is almost nine now. We don’t have a dog yet – two cats and a busy life are keeping me from committing for now. But we regularly walk a beautiful cocker spaniel called Belle, who brings us all joy. My daughter often still prefers to play with dogs than with other children, with the exception of her best friend, who is seven, and who loves animals just as much as she does. Together, the two of them can spend hours making up imaginary worlds with their toy horses. Her friend also has a dog that her family borrows to walk, and their favourite afternoons are spent out and about in the company of these two little dogs. When not playing with their horses, or out with their dogs, they are just as likely to chill with a David Attenborough documentary as they are with Roblox. For whatever reason, these two young people have an intense connection with the non-human world, and when I look at them, I see two fierce custodians of this planet in the making. Could there be a better way to spend their time than nurturing this passion?

What I have also seen, is that animals are just as valid a route to learning about life and the world as history, economics or geography. C is a fluent reader, thanks to hours and hours spent poring over her dog breed book. She enjoys writing, mostly lists of animals she wants, or potential names for future dogs. In fact, her first written word was probably ‘dog’, which she would painstakingly add in big letters to the end of my shopping lists every time I went to the supermarket. Her knowledge of the world is mostly informed by David Attenborough and animals. She researches where different animals come from, and what their natural environments are like, she knows where the endangered species are, and where she would like to go on safari.

At the moment, C is spending a lot of time researching the best family dog for us. She has a shortlist of several different breeds, and she knows about everything from their diet, lifespan and exercise needs, to the price, and whether they are likely to get on with cats. She has been budgeting her pocket money to afford different dog grooming accessories, and wants to set up shop this summer in the garden, offering free dog washing for neighbours’ dogs. Like her brothers, she is filled with ideas about how she can put her knowledge into practice in the world. She has lots of animal-focused business ideas for the future, and she has been looking up opportunities to volunteer at local animal organisations.

Her love of animals has also made her push at some of her own boundaries. She doesn’t particularly enjoy big group activities or talking to people she doesn’t know well. But, when it comes to finding out more about an interesting dog she’s spotted, or taking part in an animal-related activity, she is willing to push out a little beyond her comfort zone. In fact, I think that animals, and dogs in particular, have given her many opportunities to explore how to be in the world whilst remaining true to herself.

My daughter is sitting next to me right now, playing with one of our cats. She has just remarked that if cats were humans, they would be very flexible humans. “What do you think the most flexible animal in the world is?”, she asks. I haven’t a clue so I hazard a guess. A snake? She doesn’t think so. “I’ll have to Google that”, she says. Turns out that it’s the octopus, and for some reason that seems quite funny. She redefines her search to include, “with four legs’, and thinks it might be the cheetah. But these facts have opened up a whole new set of questions. “What are octopuses made of?”, “What is the least flexible animal?”, “Which is the kindest animal”. A few minutes later and she is reading out a list of little-known animal facts, including that shrimps’ hearts are in their heads, that reindeers’ eyes turn blue in the winter to help them see when the light level is low, and that rhino horns are made of keratin, the same substance that hair is made of. And so it goes, an unstoppable force, always moving forward, always learning, whatever the starting point – dogs, history or rock climbing. Who knows where it will lead. I don’t feel any worry about that. I’ve no doubt at all that if my daughter is in charge, it will lead exactly to where it needs to go.

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