Many years ago, when I was a high school English teacher, I was given an M class to teach.  M stood for modified, if I remember correctly, meaning a modified program for kids who did very poorly.  But it was really a place to dump kids no one could reach, passing them along at the end of the term to the next new teacher who didn’t know enough to try to change her schedule.

To start with, many of the kids, poor kids who showed up in the same clothes every day, would not talk to me, not even to answer roll call.  For the first few days, I marked lots of kids absent who were sitting right in front of me.  Then, it turned out, though the kids ranged from around 14 to around 20, in the 9th grade, most of them couldn’t read.  Well, they could read things they’d seen spray painted on walls, but not much of anything else.  Some, I suspected, could not spell their own last names.

I could have coasted, which, sadly, many of the teachers did.  But something in me wanted to reach these kids and so I fought for permission to let them read Catcher in the Rye.  Knowing they couldn’t and wouldn’t read it at home, we read it in class.  I took turns with them, gently helping them along, not allowing anyone to scoff at mistakes.  The very first time I read, hoping they would follow along in their books, something funny happened.  They did not want their teacher to say the words they could read, the words that were spray painted on walls.  So we now had some powerful motivation going.  Every student followed along, excited to see what I would say instead of the words that clearly made them uncomfortable in a classroom setting.  There’d be wonderful, knowing laughter when banana replaced bastard, so I knew they were reading, difficult as it was for them.

When we finished the book, the most surprising thing happened.  On their own, with no suggestion from me or anyone else, the kids wrote me letters.  They were the most misspelled, illiterate and best letters I’ve ever gotten in my life.  Each one thanked me for helping them to read the first book they’d ever read in their lives.

You won’t get any such letter from any dog you are training.  But you have the same choice I did in my second year of teaching.  You can expect little, and get it.  Or you can expect the world, and get that.

When teaching humans and when teaching dogs, your attitude carries a lot of weight.  In both cases, it is as easy to read as those unsaid words that were written on walls were for my kids at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn.  In fact, often, when I would show up at someone’s house for the first private dog training lesson, within minutes of my arrival, an owner would say sit, the dog would remain standing and the owner would look at me, shrug and say, “See.  He’d dumb.”

A lot of what I had to do was show owners how trainable their dogs were.  And then, which took somewhat longer, work on changing their attitudes.  Attitude was no problem for the dog.  The great majority adore communicating with us.  They love having their minds addressed, sometimes trembling not with fear but with pleasure that someone finally knows there’s someone in there.

Not every dog will go all the way.  Not every dog will be off leash reliable in the larger world away from home.  Not every dog will become a Search and Rescue dog or a Service Dog.  No matter.  Every dog can become his best self.  With the right attitude on the part of his human partner, and a little patience, every dog can get to see what’s he’s made of and how far he can go.  And while he won’t write you a misspelled note to tell you so, you will see his pleasure at learning clearly when your two eyes look into his.

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