I’m a big believer in internal motivations—if I don’t care whether I succeed in a task or not, it won’t matter to me how many other people think it’s important. This lack of internal motivation frustrates me when my biology class nods off during very colorful and creative SmartBoard demonstrations of a double-gene cross on a Punnett Square—I mean really, I love this stuff! I can coax students to participate in a genetics Jeopardy review by offering rewards, but the promise of a Jolly Rancher or a Kit Kat bar is a pretty feeble motivator when it comes to understanding the photosynthesis and cellular respiration equations. Many students would rather have a Kit Kat than an A anyway, so you see my dilemma. I’m not afraid to use motivators; I just don’t trust their effectiveness when it comes to learning. This spring, however, I discovered an unexpected external motivator that has made me rethink their use as learning tools.
Her name is Bella. She’s a beagle-border collie mix, with an emphasis on the beagle. We adopted her from a nearby shelter in February, after having lost two long-time pets about a year apart: a 17-year-old beagle and a 15-year-old border collie. Like the two previous beagles we’ve owned, Bella’s got her nose to the ground and a penchant for roaming. She is also friendly with kids, cats, and other dogs, as beagles generally are. Nearly three months later, we are thoroughly smitten with our new girl. Besides being beautiful, she’s just a cuddly 36-pound ball of fur with a happy personality.
A few months before finding Bella, I lost some extra weight that had crept up on me over the past couple of years. As I neared my goal, I began to worry about relapse. Maintaining a healthy weight has always been a real struggle for me, and I’ve been around this particular block before. I’m a Weight Watcher Lifetime Member, for goodness sakes! I’ve got the pin to prove it. All those weigh-ins and group meetings are helpful, but success in dropping pounds for me hinges on my ability to develop the right level of mental determination. Nothing beats a healthy dose of internal motivation, and it paid off this winter in lost pounds. But could I keep it off?
Enter Bella. The girl loves her walks! I’ve been a regular walker for 20-25 years, and my walking companion for many of the most recent years was our border collie, before her death in October. I looked forward to having a new companion for my typical 1.5 – 2 mile morning walks, but I was unprepared for this dog’s level of enthusiasm! She pulls me along our morning route and barely breathes hard. My husband, a runner, will sometimes take her out for a 3-mile run after our walk to finally tire her out. Later in the day she pleads for more, with her chin resting on my knee and a deep longing in eyes that are locked on mine. I generally take her out for another mile. What else can I do? Who can resist those big brown eyes?
I’m not saying I’ve finally overcome my weakness for unhealthy foods—I still love potato chips and nachos. But for now, at least, I’ve got the motivation to keep moving and burn off last night’s slice of strawberry pie. Maybe sometimes my motivation needs a little external kick-start, whether it’s when I’m trying to tuck my gut into my favorite pair of jeans or staring into molten brown puppy eyes. I can’t deny the power of those eyes.
Maybe I should bring Bella to school with me and let her plead with my physical science class to pay attention to our lesson on measuring seismic waves. Maybe she can help me demonstrate the principles of classical conditioning to my biology class; it worked for Pavlov. Maybe those eyes can convince one of my students that she is a loved and lovely young woman. They’re like magic, those eyes. They’ve sure done a number on me.