Teaching with a Dog at My Feet (Part One)

I returned to academe with a dog by my side. Entering a class at Ohio State students observed us with wonder. It was hard to know if they were surprised by a blind professor or by the sight of a dog, or both. “Oh!” cried three women in the front row. “Oh, I miss my dog,” said a boy.

“The only perk to being blind is you can take your dog anywhere,” I said.

Teaching with a dog at my feet was wonderful. All dogs radiate comfort and make the space around them congenial. They’ve been sharing this with humans for 30,000 years.

One afternoon when discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—one of the bloodier sections, Corky began moaning in her sleep.

“This even disturbs the dogs,” I said. There was nervous laughter.

Over time I saw how having a dog in the classroom changed teaching for me. It wasn’t just the shtick of the thing—as when students were silent and I’d say, “Well Corky knows the answer…”

It was a shy, unanticipated gracefulness as for the first time in my academic life I felt even-tempered and unflustered. Silence was good. I didn’t have to fill every gap in conversation but could afford to wait for a a shy student to offer up a Socratic answer.

And if a student was distressed he or she could have a dog petting session. Education is painful, steeped in competitions, often without evident maps or rules. “Dogs. Another natural place for dogs,” I thought.

We do our best learning when we’ve bonded, when we’re safe, when we experience intimacy with thought. We don’t learn well by arbitrary pressure and force. Dogs bond with us when they stare into our eyes, releasing in us oxytocin, the bonding hormone—lord knows it works, our pulse rates drop, our breathing steadies.

My own as well. When the teacher’s breathing is steady the whole room changes for the better. It wasn’t zazen, formal Zen Buddhist breathing, but still a slower more invitational mode of breath.

When a man or woman is breathing well, they like themselves better. Running. Sitting. Dog’s eyes. Even the fluorescent lights in a cheap university classroom won’t bother you.