What I Learned in Puppy Kindergarten

Instructional Design Tips
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My partner Brian and I recently brought home a new puppy. It was an unexpected acquisition. When this cute puppy showed up at the rescue group where we volunteer, it was just too hard to say no. While I’ve had a few adult dogs, this is my first puppy, and I now find myself spending my Saturday mornings in puppy kindergarten with my new dog Stevie in tow.

As a training provider and consultant for a top corporate training company, it’s hard to go into any new learning situation and not pay attention to the instructional strategies that are being used. In that vein, here are four things that I’ve learned in puppy kindergarten and how they apply to eLearning.

The instructional blend is important.
Puppy kindergarten is different from classes for adult dogs. Puppies have a very short attention span. Focusing for five minutes is a challenge; forget keeping them engaged in practicing their sits and downs for 45 minutes. Because of this, our class is organized around the following segments:

  • The instructor talks for five to ten minutes about the exercise we’ll be doing or things we need to do in the future.
  • We practice the exercise or work with our dogs on something we’ve learned before for several minutes.
  • After successfully completing the exercise, we let all the dogs go and play for ten minutes.
  • Repeat as time allows for the next hour.

It reminds me a bit of the instructional blend that we develop in our courses. Even for an adult, an endless stream of presentation pages will quickly become a bore. It’s important to mix in knowledge checks, realistic scenarios, and other activities to reinforce key points and keep learners engaged.

For me, my favorite part of puppy class is the playing. Someday I’d like to figure out a way to strategically incorporate Cute Overload videos into our courses. It would certainly keep me engaged.

It’s not about what you do in class; it’s about what you do at home (or on the job).
A puppy spends an hour in class every week and 167 hours not in class. No matter how fantastic the instructor, he or she will never be able to teach the puppy and owner everything they need to know in that one hour. Instead, the instructor demonstrates training techniques in class and then sends us home with handouts and homework. Our instructor emphasizes the importance of why we need to continue this work at home. If this isn’t enough to motivate us, there’s always class the following week when we’ll have to demonstrate our progress.

It’s similar to an eLearning course. Most of the courses I work on are only a few hours long, and I’ve worked on courses as short as 15 minutes. To affect change in learners, these courses need to motivate learners by reinforcing why the change is important and how it’s relevant to them. It also helps if there’s ongoing support and follow-up in the form of job aids, mentoring, reviews, online resources, etc.

You can develop a course in a vacuum, but it ultimately won’t help you house train your dog or encourage employees to follow a new procedure. If you really want training to be effective, it’s important to consider what motivates your audience and how you’ll follow up on results.

Carrots are more effective than sticks.
Puppies are more prone to shutting down in the face of stress than adult dogs. For that reason, it’s important to use positive rewards to motivate a puppy and reinforce positive behaviors. Instead of punishing a puppy when it does something wrong, it’s much more effective to withhold attention and ignore the bad behavior until it stops or, better yet, redirect the bad behavior to a behavior you want and then offer a reward.

With puppies, rewards include food, toys, and affection. The gold standard seems to be freeze-dried liver. With humans, it’s not so simple. It’s important to think about your audience and what motivates them. Perhaps you can simply speak to how using what they learn in the course will help them do their jobs better. Perhaps the corporate training needs to be tied to financial incentives. It all depends on your audience, but it’s important to consider.

The 508 version matters.
I’ve left out one key characteristic of my new puppy: he’s blind. For a lot of the activities we do in class, Stevie and I need modifications. We’re not the only ones. Most of the puppies in class don’t have disabilities like Stevie’s, but they do have individual differences and characteristics that affect how they learn. Some are younger than others and have shorter attention spans. Some are physically smaller and may not be able to do the same things as larger dog. Some are more prone to stress and need a calmer approach. This means that each of us needs a little personal attention from the instructor to figure out the best way to teach our dog.

Human learners also have individual differences, and it’s important to consider those differences in developing training. When I was in graduate school, we learned about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and the different ways people learn. In all of our projects, it was required that we address all eight of Gardner’s types of learners.

While it may not be possible to do that in all of the training courses I develop at Allen, it’s important to at least provide several different modes of accessing information. In an audio dependent course, it’s important to include a transcript. For visual learners, it’s important to provide clear diagrams and illustrations. Some learners may not be able to really internalize what they learn in a course until they have a chance to practice it on the job. For them, it’s important to provide resources they can come back to. Providing these additional resources and considering the individual differences ultimately helps our training company make a better course for all learners.

And because I think it’s a carrot, I’m ending with a picture of my pup:

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  1. Great puppy analogy! As a corporate trainer, I know that while these comparisons might be a tad embarrassing to reference, they are certainly practical and often quite accurate in the way they help us understand better ways to engage human beings. Good training becomes less and less about expertise alone and more about engaging your audience in a thoughtful way.

  2. This was a wonderful example of the way learing strategies can be used in a broad variety of participants from canine to human.
    Thank You