Dear Professor

Last week, I wrote about how I learn the names of the students in my undergraduate class. This week, I’d like to share some thoughts with you about how my students learn my name.

This may seem like it should be pretty easy for the students. However, for some of my students, I’ve realized that learning my name is more complicated than it might seem initially.

At the beginning of the semester, I tell my students that they can call me “Mary.” (However, I also tell them that they can call me “Ms. Hunter” or “Professor Hunter” if they are more comfortable with one of those alternatives.)

But, I have a handful of students every semester who just call me “Professor.” They won’t address me by my actual name.

This used to annoy me. Don’t the students know I have a name?

However, I have realized that just calling me “professor” or avoiding calling me anything at all may be the “safe” answer for some students.

At my undergraduate institution, all of the professors went by their first names. However, at the university where I now teach, some of the professors ask students to call them by their first name, others want to only be called Dr. So-and-so, and others want something different, such as Professor, Mr., Mrs., or Ms.

Recently, I was looking through some syllabi from a different department. One professor had a whole list of threatening guidelines about how you were supposed to address him in exactly a certain way and address emails in a particular way.

This got me thinking.

In the past, some of my students may have been corrected for addressing a professor incorrectly. Or, they may have felt intimidated by a professor who demanded that she should be addressed a certain way. Or, they may have been unsure what to call a professor while at the same time feeling nervous about what might happen if they made the wrong choice.

Instead of trying to remember a different set of rules each semester for each professor, the safest answer may be to avoid addressing your professor at all!

So, how does this relate to animal training?

Sometimes, an animal may hesitate or refuse to do something for no apparent reason, even though we feel that the animal “should” know how to do the behavior. For example, how hard should it be for my students to remember my name?

In many situations, we do not know the animal’s entire history. Like my students, the animal may have been put in situations in the past where expectations were difficult to figure out and where making the wrong response could lead to an unpleasant consequence.

If we don’t understand the behavior, it’s often tempting to blame the animal. The animal gets labeled as stubborn or lazy or defiant or just not that bright.

However, an animal’s behavior always reflects the current environmental conditions and the animal’s history. The animal responds in the way that he feels makes the most sense, given his understanding of the situation.

If the animal is not responding in the way that you want, it’s up to you to set up a better environment and devise a better training plan so that the animal understands what you want, is motivated to perform the behavior, and feels confident and happy doing it.

So, the next time your animal refuses to do something, try not to be judgmental. Instead, see if you can figure out a way to change the situation so that the animal can be happy and confident performing the behavior.

Heads up: Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz will be doing another webinar with Alexandra Kurland this weekend. Recently, we’ve been talking some about poisoned cues in the webinar forum. So, I imagine some questions related to cues and poisoned cues may come up in the webinar. No matter what is discussed, it should be a great conversation. You can find out more on the Equiosity website.

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