Monday, May 9, 2011

My Dog's Formative Assessment

As my blog title suggests, in addition to education, I am also interested in dogs.  My wife and I breed, raise, train, test, and hunt German Versatile hunting dogs.  The versatile hunting dog world is interesting from the perspective of a teacher.  The dogs are asked to do a variety of tasks, and as a breeder, trainer, or hunter, you need to be able to assess the quality of the work on these tasks for a variety of reasons.  Very similar to teaching!

One thing that helps us in this assessment is the use of hunting tests.  These are standardized performance tests.  Dogs run in the test and are “graded” against a pre-determined standard.  This means that the dogs are not measured against each other.  It is entirely possible for every dog to be awarded a maximum score on a given day. 

We are currently training for the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) Utility Test.  We will be running this test during the first weekend in June.  This is a test for a versatile hunting dog that is finished with its training.  As the word “versatile” suggests, these dogs are expected to do a variety of things.  Many other breeds of dogs are specialists.  A Labrador retriever is an example of a specialist.  These dogs are supposed to retrieve game and other objects back to their owners.  As our test is assessing the versatility of the hunting dog, this upcoming test actually has the dogs complete several different tasks.  I will briefly explain. 

First, they have to search an upland field to find game.  Typically, birds are released into the field for the dog to locate.  When they find the birds, they point them.  This is when the dog stands still after the game is located by scent.  At that time, the dog’s handler as well as a couple of “gunners” move in on the bird, flush is, and dispatch the bird.  The dog is to remain still during this time.  After the bird has been shot, the handler releases the dog to retrieve the bird, which means the dog goes and gets the bird and brings it back to the handler.

Next, the dog has to do some another upland retrieve.  Here, a judge drags a dead game bird about 150 yards and leaves it.  The dog tracks the dragged bird, finds it, picks it up and returns it to the handler.

In addition, the dogs have to do some different work in the water.  First, they have to stay steady while a bunch of shooting goes on.  A judge and the dog handler shoot several times over the water.  Gun dogs typically get excited when gunfire is present, but it is important for the versatile dog to remain calm and collected during this time.  Also, a dead duck is thrown into the water at this time, and the dog has to swim out and retrieve the duck and return it to the handler.

Lastly, the dog has to search a marsh to look for wounded waterfowl.  To do this, the dog and handler stand on one side of a marsh.  A blank shot is fired across the marsh, and the dog is directed to search.  For this test, the dog is supposed to cross any open water and search the emergent vegetation for about 10 minutes without any help from the handler.

In addition to these tasks, the dogs are also asked to walk at heel and show a high level of obedience, desire to work, stamina, and cooperation throughout the day.

The reason I listed everything here is because when you look at this, it is similar to what we ask our students to do in class.  Very few, if any, classes are students expected to do one thing.  We have a variety of tasks, learnings, understandings, concepts, or whatever we want students to be able to do.  This is the time of year where I get very frustrated with education.  You see, this past weekend, my wife and I took our 18 month old dog, Ellie, out for a training session.  Basically, we were running her through a formative assessment.  We know what the test looks like.  We set us scenarios similar to what we would see on test day.  She did pretty well, but we did find a few areas where some improvements could be made.  That is exactly what a formative assessment should do…inform of strong and weak areas. 

My frustration comes in that in a 2 hour training session, I was able to get more information on my dogs performance in relation to a set of standards than what I think any of my students would be able to do.  Why is that?  The reason is because the standards in which my dog is judged are clear, concise, and relevant.  I have a hunting dog, I want her to hunt, this organization defines what a trained hunting dog should be able to do.

This weekend allowed me to think of the weaknesses of my own classroom assessments.  It is so nice to know as a dog trainer what is expected of me during a test.  Because of this knowledge, I am able to prepare my dogs, as well as myself, accordingly.  I think of what it would be like if these tests were run like assessments in my classroom.  I “hint” as to what I will want students to do.  They have a “general” idea.  I lay out learning targets and “I can” statements.  Even with all of these things, my assessments are nowhere near as clear as what my dogs get. 

My question to anyone still reading…What would an assessment look like that is fair, clear, concise, and relevant.  I’m curious what others do to.  I suspect a sort of performance assessment will be at hand.  Does anyone want to share?


  1. I made it to the aren't the only sci person with dog training as a side life. I dialogue with my students.. asking them near the end of a term...what can you do? They respond with what they know...I restate my question...'Okay, what can you DO with that?' Eventually we come up with a list of achievements that they feel it fair to demonstrate/evaluate.

  2. berrendsci,

    I like that idea. I like how it puts the student into that meta-cognition realm. Thanks!