Children And Puppies

by kayris on April 14, 2010

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After some of the initial furor over an article published in Time regarding spanking as an indicator of aggressive behavior in children died down, I had some time to reflect not only on the article, but the response to it.

As an AP family, we don’t spank, and the reasons behind that decision are many. However, I don’t want to get into the specifics of if spanking does or does not cause aggressive behavior, nor do I want to touch on the debate of if spanking is or is not abuse. Instead, I’d like to talk about spanking in terms of effectiveness and what parents who don’t want to practice it can do instead.

When I’m not writing or being a mom, I’m a veterinary technician at a large practice in Baltimore. I’ve been doing this for the better part of 13 years. If pressed, I couldn’t even begin to estimate exactly how many hours I’ve spent with pet owners counseling them on the best way to approach their animal’s behavior. And when I thought about it, I realized there are some parallels between training a puppy and raising a well behaved child.

I’m not saying that children are dogs. I’m saying that many of the principles used by dog trainers also work great when applied to parenting.

People who adopt a puppy don’t expect that the animal will automatically know how to behave. Puppies need to be taught that they can’t jump on people, sniff crotches, sleep on the couch or chew shoes. Puppies aren’t born knowing that they can’t pee in the house or how to walk on a leash or how to control the urge to chase every squirrel they come across. People who get puppies usually go into it knowing there will be a certain amount of work, failure and frustration ahead of them before their pet gets it.

At my place of work, if an owner came in with a puppy and announced that he was teaching the dog to stay off the couch by hitting it, there would be an uproar. Allegations of animal abuse aside, this method of training is ineffective and, in the long run, the owner risks having a fearful animal that won’t get on the couch, but might bite the mailman.

An untrained dog is a menace, but it’s possible to effectively train a dog without raising your hand. The same can be said for children. Children need to be disciplined, but in my opinion it’s possible to do that effectively without using spanking as a means. For example:

  • Be consistent–Puppies get confused if every person in a household is using a different training technique. The same can be said for kids. Decide which rules are non-negotiable, set your consequences, and then stick to them. Every time. In my house, most of the rules with zero wiggle room have to do with manners and safety. Carseats and bike helmets are a must; name calling, being cruel or hurtful and hitting are not tolerated.
  • Be persistent–A puppy won’t learn after the first chewed shoe that only approved toys can be gnawed on. An owner can expect more episodes of destruction before the dog learns which items can be chewed and which need to be left alone. Likewise, you can’t realistically expect a toddler or preschooler to grasp that you mean it the first time they are scolded. Depending on the kid and the infraction, you might have to repeat yourself many, many times. My 5 year old knows he isn’t allowed to jump on the couch, but sometimes he has a hard time overcoming the impulse to do so. If I had a dollar for every time I said, “The couch is not a trampoline, please get down,” I’d have a fortune, but I’ve noticed that as he gets older, I say it less and less.
  • Use praise and positive reinforcement–Punishing a puppy after the fact is rarely helpful, particularly since very young dogs have short attention spans. Instead, we recommend using treats and praise when a puppy does something good. “Catching them being good” is also an excellent way to encourage a child to practice good behavior and consider possible consequences before they do something. This doesn’t mean you need to use superlatives (You’re the best big brother ever!); there are dozens of opportunities throughout the day to say something positive without gushing (I noticed how you helped your little sister wash her hands, I bet she appreciates that.).
  • Redirect “misbehavior”–Dogs need to chew. It’s good for their jaws, good for their teeth, good for their gums. So when a puppy exercises his jaws on your stuff, you need to teach him that while he can’t chew your shoes, he CAN chew his toys. Same for kids. My 5 year old has a physical need to jump and run and be active. It’s not okay for him to jump on my couch, but rather than trying to stop him jumping altogether, it’s been more effective for me to help him find something to do that meets his needs in an appropriate way. Pick your battles. You don’t have to discipline every single infraction.
  • Foster age appropriate expectations and administer discipline accordingly–It’s not fair to punish a young puppy for a puddle in the house when the owner left it alone for eight hours or more. The same can be said for a toddler kept out at an adult function for hours past his bedtime. It’s possible to avoid behavior problems if you have a firm understanding of age appropriate development and behavior and tailor your activities around them. This can be especially hard for bright children or kids with good vocabularies! My three year old has a wide vocabulary and is very well spoken, so it’s difficult for me to not get impatient with her when she can’t express her feelings. It helps to remember that she’s only three. And make sure that your discipline of choice is age appropriate.

How about you? Have you seen parallels between a pup and a child? And can you add any principles to this list?

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kayris (29 Posts)


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

mamapoekie April 14, 2010 at 10:24 am

I did an article about dog training and child rearing when I just started blogging.
http://mamapoekie.blogspot.com/2010/02/doggy-training.html

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justine April 14, 2010 at 10:33 am

Excellent! I have a crying baby right this second, so I can’t say everything I want to on this…but thanks for sharing this!!!!

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Sarah April 21, 2010 at 9:41 am

I too, am (well before the baby came) a vet tech. When I was pregnant I said something along the lines of this to my husband, and he totally agreed. Its how we became interested in AP!! Thanks for this post!

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Beth May 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm

YES!!! I am a huge dog-lover and after rehabilitating quite a few rescued animals, I’ve noticed quite a similarity! Actually, when I don’t know what to do with my kid–I ask myself how I would react if the dog did that…lol!!!

I know it sounds absolutely absurd, but its very true. I haven’t spanked my dog and she is well-trained. She comes when called even at a full gallop towards something outside off-leash, and she will listen to a slight voice or snap of the fingers. For a beagle, this is quite the feat!

A healthy respect for dog-language and the way dogs view the world is really all thats needed to communicate with them–and its about the same for kids too. Great post!

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