The decision was a delicate one. But after the grueling process of comparing the cost of tuition, proximity to home, teacher-student ratios, and reading alumni success stories, we found just the right fit. Our terrier, Leonardo, was going off to obedience school. We were elated. As proud parents typically do, my wife and I bought him plenty of new gear, reviewed all of the recommended pre-enrollment homework with him, and made him pose for pictures in front of EVERYTHING. We were so excited for him to start.
We never imagined that he wouldn’t finish.
Leo seemed destined for success. He was very bright, showing off his academic potential with skills like “sit” and “lay down” before he even started school. Despite starting his life as an orphan, he came from a place of considerable privilege. He had a supportive and loving home, with parents who were both able and eager to pay the cost of attendance. Leo was also a very personable extrovert who made friends easily. Graduation seemed to be a given; we only wondered if he would graduate with honors, or eventually pursue his PawD.
When Leo passed the first three weeks with flying colors, we weren’t surprised. Quickly mastering new skills like targeting, heeling, and coming on command, his teacher exclaimed that he was far more advanced than his peers. She wasn’t telling us anything that we didn’t know, but we tried to maintain a facade of gracious humility.
So when his teacher started rescheduling or canceling Leo’s classes so that she could tend to other dogs who needed more training, we weren’t bothered. As a student affairs professional, I knew that some students struggle more than others in the classroom. Surely the other dogs needed more of her attention. Leo was a strong student. It wouldn’t hurt for him to skip one week of class… or even two weeks, or three. He would be just fine.
Confident that his natural talent would continue to carry him, we also began to pay less attention at home. Daily training exercises began taking place every other day, and eventually dwindled to once per week. Before long, we stopped training altogether. He soon began to regress: ignoring directives on our walks, treating the couches like trampolines, and massacring one flip-flop after another. All of the warning signs were there, but we failed to recognize them. We had already written his success story in our minds. We kept telling ourselves that he would be fine as soon as we started training again.
But Leo never returned to school.
Each passing day brought more reasons to delay re-enrollment. New financial responsibilities made the monthly tuition cost prohibitive for our family. Leo also had a new little sister, whose own future needed planning and preparation. And at the ripe, old age of 18 months, Leo was set in his ways. My wife and I became masters at changing the subject when other dog parents asked how Leo was doing. No one wants to admit that their dog didn’t finish school.
We wanted those other dogs to get the training and attention that they needed to succeed. We really did. But while Leo didn’t need the same type of attention as those students, he still needed some degree of guidance. Maybe he just needed us to check in with a review session once in awhile. Perhaps he needed us to challenge him, pushing him to continue ahead of the curriculum. But regardless of what he needed, we now wish that we hadn’t neglected him simply because he demonstrated all of the early signs of success. Because as soon as we looked away, we learned that high-achieving super students can slip through the cracks too.