Training: Dog vs PhD

One of my most popular SGSAH blog posts was not in fact written by me, but by my crazy dog, Birdie. I’m trying not to take this too personally, and as this is my last week on the job, I thought I’d give the people what they want. *Passes laptop to scruffy terrier*

Hello! So as you all know from reading my last post, I am extremely cute but not particularly helpful. As some of you will know, I am also incredibly hard work. I am scared of a lot of things (windows, skateboard, bikes, washing lines), I have very strong chase instincts, I am stubborn, determined, and all about the bluster. Most significantly, I have a (loud) voice and I like to use it. This has made life a little interesting for my owners this past two and a bit years. They have been to three group training classes and done one-on-one sessions with two different trainers. They have learned clicker training, attempted to understand my psychology, and tried drugging me with various (legal) herbal remedies. What does any of this have to do with PhD life, you ask? Well, I have been told that in many ways, dog training is a lot like training a PhD student.

Birdie post 1.jpg

My owner has done lots of PhD training AND puppy training in the last three years! 

The Puppy Phase 

The fundamentals of training your puppy include socialising, basic commands, and toilet training. Think of this as the first 6 months of your PhD.

Basic commands are sort of like your PhD 101. You’ll learn to sit at your desk and you’ll slowly build up the amount of time you are able to concentrate on any one task. At first you might feel a bit clingy with your supervisors, but you’ll eventually feel more comfortable working on your own for short periods and checking in regularly. Don’t worry, everyone gets a little separation anxiety at first. The basic commands period requires a lot of snacks for gentle and consistent reinforcement. Its all about becoming comfortable in your environment.

Birdie post 2

Mastering some puppy basics, walking on the lead, and sitting for photos. Man I was cute.

Socialising as a puppy, I’m told, is a lot like networking as a new PhD student. You’re going to be thrown into really scary scenarios where everyone and everything is new and you’re supposed to act all cool and calm and not freak out. For puppies the first couple of months is really important for socialising, and it is probably the same for PhDs. You need to get used to seeing your peers, scary professors, librarians, archivists and anyone else that may be able to help you later on. Sometimes you will go to special events just for socialising/networking, and it is ok to leave if it all gets too much. Barking and biting are generally frowned upon.

Toilet training (I couldn’t think of an appropriate parallel for this one. Just don’t pee on the floor ok?)

The Teenage Dog Phase

When you get to be a teenage dog, you go through ‘fear periods’ (I’ve had a lot of these). Apparently, this is comparable to something known as the second year slump. Ways my owners tried to overcome this included:

Motivations and distractions. If you get really scared of something (for example, the scariest invention known to man or dog, the Deliveroo bike) try first to motivate yourself through the fear. For me, this usually involved sausages or squeaky tennis balls. If you’re going through a fear period (or PhD slump) you could try a system of self rewards, like for reaching a certain word count or attending an event. You could also try working in really short bursts with fun distractions in between, like a phone call with a friend or some peanut butter (another of my favourite rewards).

Clicker training. My owners started clicker training when I was a teenage dog and starting to get more badly behaved and unpredictable. I hear the second year of a PhD is very unpredictable too. Clicker training is all about anticipating positive feedback. My owners taught me that when they click the clicker I always get a reward, like a tiny piece of cheese. So now, I try and do the things they like BEFORE they ask, so that I get the click and the good things. If you are getting into trouble (I am always in trouble) maybe try thinking really hard about what got you good feedback (whether from others or yourself!) in the past.

– More socialising. Yup, I still had to do this when I was a teenage dog. It was still scary, but it was when I got to be a teenage dog that I made some of my really good friends. They keep me on my toes, but they are also helping me to be a better, calmer pup.

Birdie post 3

Hanging with pals as a teenage dog 

The Grown-up Doggo Phase 

I’m not really an adult dog yet, but I’m told I should have finished my fear periods, focus on advanced skills like agility, and start ‘settling down’.

– ‘Look at it’. Because I am still scared of lots of things, my owners having been doing ‘look at it’ training with me. Basically, it means facing my fears. Instead of screaming at every bike I see, I am supposed to look at it and then look away, and if I do that I get biscuits. I hear that the final year of a PhD can be really scary, especially when people start asking you about your Viva and what you are going to do afterwards. Instead of screaming at those scary things you should tackle them head on, because you’ve got all that other training to help through it. They won’t be too scary if you’ve ‘looked at it’ beforehand and prepared yourself for what is coming!

– Agility classes. At the end of your PhD you’ll have to prepare for your Viva. You’ve learned everything there is to know about your PhD subject and now it is time to show off in public. I’ll be honest, I find all the parts that go into dog agility courses really scary so I haven’t attempted this bit yet. See you on the other side….


These dogs are braver than me. Photos via Wikimedia Commons. 

– Settle. Every grown up doggo should be able to perfect the settle. It means chilling out, quietly, by yourself, without help. (I’m…. getting there, but it is not my strong point.) At some point, every PhD student also needs to learn to relax (because you finished a thesis – yey!) and to make it on their own, without the support of their supervisors or funders. Of course you have lots of people wishing you well and they’ll always be there to answer your questions or reassure you with biscuits, but there are some things only you can do.

Birdie post 4

Working on my ‘settle’

I don’t really see very much difference in the training I’ve had to do and that my owner has had to do. Yes, I made more noise and ate more sausages while doing mine, but we’ve learned lots of the same things. Maybe, by the time she finishes her thesis, I’ll be a chilled out, well behaved, helpful dog?! Then we can attempt the viva-agility prep together….


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