Why You Should Train Your Child Like a Dog

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I was surprised, and a little perturbed, one day to learn that a parenting technique I was having such success with was a dog training trick! I was describing this new-found success to an animal-loving friend, the owner of many a cat and dog, when she said, casually, ‘Oh, that’s what you do with dogs.”

You do?

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my primary care doctor once about the many parents she spoke using similar practices with their kids as they do with their dogs! It slightly appalled me.

The need for parents to be alpha dogs

But I can see the similarities. Parents do need to establish themselves as the alphas in a family. Kids fight, sometimes to a frenzy, like dogs. They need to have their youthful exuberance moulded and focused into behavior that’s tolerable and productive.

I found the following parenting technique in a book called ‘The Manipulative Child.’ Like the idea that dog owners should be leaders of the pack, the book was clear about the necessity for establishing parental authority.  Overall the text was pretty brutal and rough. But embedded in its pages was a technique so easy and effective, I wondered why it hadn’t caught on.

It was also doable without needing to disrupt the activity at hand in any big way, at home or away, a crucial point because so many techniques don’t transport well to the public arena.

Stop. Pause. Redirect.

There are three simple steps to this technique:

1. Have your child stop the unacceptable behavior.

2. Have her stand quietly by you for thirty seconds with no interaction. (I had my kids stand up still, no eye contact, arms by sides while they were doing this and the thirty seconds only started when they were still and quiet.)

3. After the time is up, send your child off to do what she should be doing. ‘Go play.’

You can explain at this point why you stopped the earlier behavior but in my case my kids knew why, it didn’t need spelling out, so I would just give them a signal – a hand on the shoulder – and off they would run and play, the reason for the pause forgotten.

Effortless compliance

This technique seemed to work well in public because it wasn’t intrusive, there was no shaming and most people didn’t even notice. And, once we’d done it a couple of times, because the boys knew it was a just a pause and they would soon get back to playing, they had no trouble complying.

No words, no stimulation, a quick interrupt and a reboot. And you can do it anywhere. A great trick for your parenting toolbox.

And perhaps for your dog. ;-)

Are you a dog owner and a parent? Are there similarities between the two roles? Let us know in the comments!

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Suz March 20, 2012 at 1:11 am

Actually yes, I do this with my dog! I think with her, it’s all about reminding her who’s boss – I guess that’s the outcome you want with children too!
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Alison Golden March 20, 2012 at 7:12 am

That’s so interesting, Suz. I didn’t know what to think. But the more I asked around, the more dog owners said, yes, they did similar things with their kids as their children! Thanks for commenting. And I wish I still lived in Oz. :-)
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Karen Howes March 20, 2012 at 8:46 am

I certainly found that the lessons in consistency I learned with the children were very useful for the dog too. They needed to know that I meant what I said, and that the rules didn’t change day by day. You may not hit your brother today, and you may not hit your brother tomorrow, even if I am tired or making dinner. For the dog, you may not get on the sofa today, and you may not get on the sofa tomorrow, even if I am out of the room. The hierarchy thing is useful too!

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Alison Golden March 20, 2012 at 8:57 am

Karen, it would appear you applied parenting to dog training, right? It is funny that many dog owners just shrug ‘of course’ when I mention the parallel between training children and dogs while I am rather squeamish about putting them together. Maybe because I see children more cuddly than dogs. Hmmm…once again comments make me analyze my own thought process. ;-)
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Karen Howes March 20, 2012 at 9:31 am

Yes, I guess it was that way round! But I deffo see dogs as more cuddly than children . . . :) Maybe I shouldn’t admit that on a public forum!

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Alison Golden March 21, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Yeah, I’d be careful about that if I were you! :-)
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Lauren March 20, 2012 at 9:41 am

We had a family dog, and I say if you can train a dog and live with a cat, you know most of what you’ll need for a toddler (we’re not past that age here yet). I figure my job is to make the world 1mm bigger than those I’m responsible for can handle, and equip them ahead of time for that 1mm gap. For kids it’s a question of age-appropriateness, and for dogs, species-appropriate challenge. (Some would say that’s one in the same :) )
I agree with Karen that the consistency of rules, and also the simplicity with which they’re framed, is important in both cases. The parents I know who struggle with discipline or house rules are often uncomfortable with the idea of being in the alpha role. I think the time out thing is maybe less about the parent being the meanie (establishing leadership by sanctioning the pack) but rather the calm voice of reason reiterating the rules (re-establishing order by enforcing group rules that were comprehensibly laid out at a low-stress time) and giving the child the regrouping time they need to follow them. That’s the kind of stability that all of us crave – it’s so much easier to be reminded how to follow than to forge blindly ahead!
Here’s the part that makes *me* squirm: some of this heirarchy/obedience language comes up on religious parenting blogs. The idea is that the child answers to the parent and the parent answers to God, so obedience is modelled and the source of the rules cannot be questioned. As a humanist, I struggle with the distinction between compliance and obedience. What do you think?

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Alison Golden March 21, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I can’t even begin to answer your question because, as an atheist, I so disagree with the pretext. The adults are the alphas in our house because we have the experience to be so.

The challenge I have had in the past refers to your comment about making the world 1mm larger than a child can handle. I found that sometimes life experiences that we had to undertake were more than 1mm larger and I couldn’t always keep the gap that small despite getting totally conservative about the activities we undertook. That resolved in time with a *lot* of work and trauma but as a parent, I spent a decade trying to control something I often couldn’t. That’s a challenging place to be.
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Lauren March 22, 2012 at 12:52 am

We’ve been fortunate not to face that kind of challenge (yet – I hold no illusions). I can imagine that it must be terribly dispiriting as a parent to see what’s happening and not be able to prevent it.
I agree with your heirarchy based on experience; that sounds so calmly sensible that I will happily use it should anyone ever try the religious line with me! (Though as Karen says, it’s not as prevalent here, far away from the US Bible Belt.)

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Karen Howes March 20, 2012 at 10:33 am

Hope it’s OK for me to reply when it’s not my blog!! But yes, I agree with Lauren that the simplicity of the framing and the fact that rules are (generally) being reiterated rather than established are both important. When the boys were younger we would talk about the behaviour expected from them at, say, a family wedding, or even a friend’s birthday party. It got to the point where I would say ‘Do we need to talk about the behaviour I expect?’ and the boys would go through the rules themselves! And for the compliance/obedience distinction, I would explain *why* a certain rule was important and (at some point) extract from them agreement that the rule (no hitting, or speaking nicely) was desirable — then they were effectively being reminded that they had complied, not just told ‘I’m the adult so you have to do what I say’. Not that it always worked!!! But I felt that my grounds were defensible. The religious hierarchy talk is not so common here in Britain, as opposed to Virginia where I grew up — thank goodness (for me anyway). Others will of course have different views on that :)

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Alison Golden March 21, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Of course it’s OK to respond. I encourage it. Thank you! :-)
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Nancy Aingworth March 20, 2012 at 10:38 am

My daughter used to get really annoyed with me when I’d casually mention that many parenting techniques (like the ones I used to use with her, or she used on her kids) worked quite well with dogs, too, which is where I probably learned them. I should have just kept my mouth shut, of course! But yes, many principles are the same — especially positive reinforcement. Training is training.

In fact, in Karen Pryor’s book on clicker training (using positive reinforcement), “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” she told how her mother watched her use the clicker successfully with her kids, and they all made a game of it (and it worked!). When Karen mentioned using the clicker on the dog, the mother snorted, “Well, of course it works with CHILDREN, but do you actually think it would work with DOGS?”

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Alison Golden March 21, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Oh interesting. perhaps I should get used to this idea of training dogs/children. I was expecting to get a ton of flack!
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Melissa Fritcher March 20, 2012 at 11:01 am

Yes! I love this idea. I’m so tired of *noise* and loud and “NO!” and counting and crap, especially in public. I have to try this. It will go well with the techniques we picked up from the Dog Whisperer. Hubby and I died laughing at the South Park episode where he helped Eric Cartman.
This and the ear twist.
I think we should turn this around, though. These are techniques we should have been using forever. They just happen to work with animals, too. Parents need to regain control of their out of control kids. Paleo and Alpha-parenting, together at last.
<3
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Alison Golden March 21, 2012 at 7:19 pm

So now I need to go look up the ear twist! :-) It is an excellent technique and so simple. And paleo and alpha-parenting go hand in hand. My kids are more calm, pleasant and polite since we got them on the paleo program.
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Mary E. Ulrich
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March 20, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Positive Behavior Support works for everyone. If only we can remember to pause before we do, say, or even think bad things. :)

Wait until the kids start using this technique on YOU:) :) :)
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Alison Golden March 21, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Ooh, Mary, will I be in my slippers and propped up by my zimmer frame or will it happen sooner do you think? ;-)
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Glynis
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March 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm

I guess I’m older than I thought. Although I agree with the non-emtional way of handling ‘bad’ behavior, I believe that it’s ALWAYS good to explain to the kid AND get a response for him/her so that everyone is clear about what is expected.
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Linda Esposito
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March 21, 2012 at 6:57 am

I’d say this is an effective parenting tool/mindset. And there’s really not that big a separation b/w man and dogs, IMO. I think some parents get tripped up with the semantics of ‘alpha dog,’ but it sure beats ‘alpha kid.’

Or this technique will run counter to those parents who feel it’s their job to be their children’s friend. There’s a reason that peer includes an age imperative, after all.

Also discipline does not always = punishment.

Do we need to train our kids to follow rules? Absolutely. Train/teach…it’s the same thing!
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Alison Golden March 21, 2012 at 7:22 pm

“It sure beats ‘alpha kid.’ It sure does, Linda. :-)
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KerryB April 14, 2012 at 2:44 pm

I LOVE IT! I remember the first time saying to my aunt:
I’m more or less treating my kids like my dogs, I know that sounds bad.
She replied, “no it doesn’t, I’ve never seen anyone who loves dogs like you do.” So it works. I am kind and loving to my dogs and they respect that in return.
Kids are much more demanding and trying than dogs are so I will try this technique. I have never actually used this one. LOVE IT!!!
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KerryB April 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm

sorry me again! One thing I did with my girls and the dogs was “inspect” them from the start. We rescue bully breeds which are strong dogs so from the start we make sure they are comfortable with us touching their hips, teeth, gums, tail etc so they are calm for the vet. with the girls we got them used to us wiping their gums with a washcloth in case they ever bumped their mouth and had to go to the dentist (before dentist years began), we looked in their ears, mouth, nose, so they wouldn’t think it was odd when we went to the dr. Little things like that I use on the kids that I learned from doing with the dogs.
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Alison Golden April 23, 2012 at 5:53 pm

I think that’s a great idea! I’m warming up to this idea that you can use dog techniques on kids. :-)

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jeannie May 7, 2012 at 1:45 am

You could also do the other way around, treating your dog like your child. I do that
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Carol Ellard May 9, 2012 at 11:18 pm

Like you, I found disciplining your child the way you do with your dog appalling and funny just the same. It hit me, I have a dog. When she was still a puppy, I would care for her like a baby and treat her really kindly. My actions took effect when she grew big because she was the most friendly dog in the neighborhood. One time, she nibbled on my newly bought slippers and I ignored her for a day just to show her she was wrong. Know what? She never repeated it. I think that’s also the same with kids. When you show them that what they did was wrong and not tolerate it, they know they made a mistake and that if it happens again, they’ll know what punishment they’re going to get.

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Hope August 21, 2012 at 7:37 am

That´s a great idea and I love it.
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Angela Ursery December 31, 2012 at 9:57 am

This is also an excellent technique for those of us who are trying to reparent parts of *ourselves*. The idea of bringing the child/self back to the present moment, and without shame, places the emphasis on reinforcing awareness (and responsibility for behavior). It isn’t about “wrong,” in my opinion, as much as not appropriate and/or beneficial to self or others.
Thank you.

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Shawn Ryan April 10, 2013 at 7:23 pm

This is awesome! My fiance and I have been talking about how we want to be parents after we are married. We have a dog together right now and we talk about how training our dog seems similar to training a child sometimes. It’s good to know that there are people willing to admit the similarities between the two.
Thanks for the post!

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