Dog Training and Child Rearing (or Vice-Versa)

My wife and I recently became parents to a (human) baby boy. Many experienced parents whose dogs I’ve worked with – and even some kindergarten and grade-school teachers – after watching my methods have told me “Aha, that’s just like dealing with children!” Up to this point I’ve simply had to take their word for it, but lately I’ve been starting to experience some of the parallels between dog training and aspects of raising a young child.

I recently contributed my thoughts to a journalist who wanted to know which essential elements of dog training are equally important when raising a child:

1. Physical exercise.

Dogs aren’t houseplants! They need to run and play outdoors everyday, until they’re exhausted – multiple times. My analogy is always with children: no matter how smart the kid, can you really expect him to focus in the school classroom if he hasn’t been allowed out to play in the playground at recess for a week – or even a day?

2. Socialization.

Dogs, like humans, are social animals. They need daily social interaction with other dogs – not just with their neighbors or their best friends, and certainly not just with their guardians. Kids need to learn from elders, teach younger kids, play, do rude things and feel bad about it, meet other people from lots of different cultures, see feel and help kids who are more frightened than themselves, get bullied and learn to stick up for themselves… and so on. Dogs can teach other dogs more than any human trainer can. By the same token, kids need to experience life and work many things out for themselves – as hard as that is to watch as parents.

3. Leadership.

Dogs need leaders. When you take them to the dog park, if you sit on the bench, they’ll think you’re scared of the other dogs, so you can guarantee they will be too. You need to lead by example. Think of trying to tell a child not to watch TV while you sit there watching The Bachelor on your cellphone. Think of trying to tell your child to eat his broccoli while you devour a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Even if you can enforce your rules at the moment, it’s a recipe for disaster down the line.

4. Positive reinforcement.

You can make dogs do lots of things – by tugging their leashes, yelling, locking them in a crate, etc. But to get their behavior to stick, they have to actually enjoy the things you ask them to do. This requires positive reinforcement; i.e. rewards. The most important thing to remember about rewards is that whatever behavior successfully induces the reward is the behavior that will be reinforced. If your child whines that he wants to leave the table, and you let him go, he just learned – on a very fundamental, animal level of operant conditioning – that whining works. Whining gets him what he wants. If instead you tell him that you can’t hear him when he whines, and instead help him calm down and ask you politely, then when you let him leave the table you’ve just discouraged whining and instead reinforced calm polite social interaction. Giving your kids cake won’t make them spoiled brats. Just like giving your dogs bones won’t make them disobedient; treats are the centerpiece of modern positive reinforcement training. Just be careful what they were doing right before you give it to them!