Tears streamed down my face and I whooped for joy when the text came in. I had spent the morning alternating between busyness and prayer, trying not to pester my husband about the results of our son’s American Kennel Club Junior Hunt Test. Accustomed to achievement falling just out of our son’s reach, my heart longed for a win. Then at last the photo came: a beaming smile flanked by two happy judges and a dog boasting a large orange ribbon. They had passed. Hallelujah!
The path to this milestone began several years ago, when I came across the story of a family that started a leather handiwork business with a thought for the future of their adopted daughters. These daughters
suffered from severe vision impairments, and their parents wanted to gift them with skill development and confidence that could serve them for years to come. Their story served as a catalyst for numerous conversations in our home about how w e might think creatively to provide a similar outlet for our struggling learner. Our prayer for all of our children has always been that they would grow as Jesus grew, “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” How could w e find something good that our son loved and turn it into an opportunity for intellectual, physical, spiritual, and social growth?
The answer came in the form of a puppy. One sunny Saturday in February, my husband loaded our boys into the van and headed to Kansas to pick up the dog who would be named “Osborne’s Regis Pippa’s Song.” Bursting with joy, our son was smitten from the moment he laid eyes on this little German Shorthaired Pointer. He snuggled and fed her with great care, and we watched with anticipation to see how she would grow. By late spring both puppy and handler were ready to begin training sessions. Mornings before school and evenings after dinner found my husband and son out in the backyard, bonding with the puppy and repeating simple commands, time after time. Watching from the kitchen window, I couldn’t help but notice how these short training sessions were developing character and skill in my son: He was developing attentiveness, confidence, and perseverance with every step. He learned to listen to instruction and follow multi-step directions. He discovered how to be assertive and speak with a confident voice. He began to sense the importance of timing. He failed—and he learned from his mistakes. And all of these gains were made possible because of his singular passion for working dogs.
Over the years, we’ve watched our son’s passion for hunting dogs affect numerous areas of his development. He is a struggling reader, but he will read books about the German Shorthaired Pointer breed. Memory work is an arduous task for him, but he can list—in order—the various parts of NAVHDA’s Natural Ability Test for hunting dogs. Public performance and independent work often induce anxiety for our son, but this past Saturday, he led his dog out into a field full of adult participants with independence and confidence. Our son’s vocabulary has broadened, and his understanding of the natural world has grown. He is figuring out how to leverage his strengths to compensate for his weaknesses. He is stronger and tougher; he has grown in myriad ways.
This budding independence, confidence, and assertiveness have already borne fruit in our son’s academic life. He recently brought home a lengthy Scripture passage to practice for solo recitation in front of his class.
Admittedly unsure about whether this was a feasible goal, my husband and I talked about the assignment with our child, hoping to develop a reasonable alternative plan. Expecting uncertainty and fear from him, we were met instead with optimism and a readiness to tackle this new challenge. I pictured my son standing in a huddle of dog handlers, trainers, and judges when he replied: “I’ll try it. If I need help, someone will help me.”
Despite the excitement of newfound achievement, our son has also experienced the test of failure— both in the classroom and on the field. Sometimes the mistakes have been his own; other times environmental factors or questionable assessments have played a role. Regardless of the context, those challenging times have prompted numerous conversations about attitude, gratitude, and diligence. We’re quick to point out to all of our children that hard work is not always rewarded (and certainly not always with a large orange ribbon). Sometimes joy is to be found in the journey itself— working hard as unto the Lord and not unto men. Still, waiting at home that morning I prayed fervently for my son’s first Junior Hunt Test. I pleaded for the Lord to help my child overcome numerous obstacles and remember the skill she had practiced so many times. I yearned for him to experience the pleasure of achieving a long anticipated goal. What a joy it was for me to see him standing tall in that photo of his accomplishment—proud, determined, and grateful. It’s enough to keep us going amidst days of discouragement, when a group of math problems feels like an impassable field, or a page of text looms ahead like a thicket of briars. The groundwork for our son’s motivation, determination, and confidence has been strengthened, and we will lean on those gains as we pursue every new academic lesson.
Finding a way for struggling students to plan for, execute, and achieve any goal can provide a valuable foundation for character formation, skill development, and academic success. It can also provide an unconventional environment for practicing important social skills and developing true friendship. When our puppy-son duo travels to hunt tests, they are surrounded by handlers, trainers, and hunters who share our son’s passion for pointing dogs. Most of his test companions are adults, and many of them have been working with hunting dogs for years—characteristics that might normally be intimidating to a young boy with learning challenges. However, as the months and tests have passed, our son has solidified a place in this group. Many of the faces he sees at hunt tests now are familiar (as are many of the dogs). Numerous judges and handlers have patiently guided our son along the test route. They don’t exclude him because of his age or abilities. In fact, he has earned their respect. Our child has not only developed character and skill; he has gained friendship and community.
Classical education seeks to promote the growth of the child in every way. We’re asking students to come with us to the mountaintops of human thought and experience, and to ask how God might use the know ledge they gain to serve their fellow man. We invite them to struggle with difficult ideas, to engage with great works of art and literature, to wonder at the marvels of the natural world and the God who made it. We offer them an excellent education, but one that often requires a creative approach for students with special needs. Struggling learners often lack the motivation, confidence, and independence to tackle academic challenges, yet parents and teachers have the opportunity to cultivate these qualities if we look for what brings joy to the heart of each child. What does your child love? What does he talk about? What makes her glow? What brings him delight? Identifying a struggling learner’s passion for an activity outside of the classroom may serve her academic progress in ways you can’t yet imagine. Running after something he loves could open doors to newfound motivation, character formation, and social development. Such strengths collectively form an invaluable foundation for a student’s future learning—and an avenue for lifelong wonder and joy.