Should We Train Our Kids Like Dogs?

There’s something to that idea, according to the Motherlode parenting blog in  The New York Times: Take our cue from The Dog Whisperer and give our kids plenty of affection, discipline and  time outside with a bone.

Well, time outside, anyway.

23 Responses

  1. brilliant. in my experience, young children are indeed a lot like puppies. my son, at about 13 months, decided he was a puppy for about two weeks. he’d have eaten with no hands from a bowl on the floor if i hadn’t insisted he eat as a person. other than that, i played along and treated him just like i would a puppy. lots of affection and cuddling, a firm voice, praise for doing something right, calm discipline…and he responded well to it. even though he’s fully human (most of the time) at four, he still does. (note: i am not one of the many people who say, “my pets ARE my babies!” they’re not. they’re a dog and a cat. they eat the same food from the same bowl every day, get infrequent baths (none, for the cat), brushed once a week or so, and are expected to poop outside or in the litter box. this is not how i treat my son. therefore, they are not equivalent.)

  2. That’s too funny because I always joked that everything I learned about parenting I learned from the Dog Whsiperer. I had a dog before kids and used his methdods (best I could) to train her. And she is very well trained and happy. Of course, he would say that kids are not dogs and you need to do some things differently (just liek he says not to treat dogs like kids!) but the overall message is the same and very applicable to parenting. Especially when its comes to his teachings on patience, consistency, and cal assertive energy.

  3. I dunno. I’m all for patience, calm, consistency, and plenty of outdoor exercise; but unquestioning obedience is not one of my goals as a parent. The thing about dogs is, they’ll be dependent on your their whole lives — and that’s fine, that’s sort of what you signed up for. But the thing about kids is, you want them to grow up and become largely independent of you — I mean, they’ll always be your kids, you don’t want them to leave home at 17 and never speak to you again, but you also (barring some kind of special circumstance) don’t want them living in your basement when they’re 35 because they can’t cope on their own.

    I don’t think “Do it now because I said so” is a particularly good way to produce creative, independent critical thinkers.

    Of course that doesn’t mean I think kids should get to do whatever they want, or be in charge of the family, or run wild driving other people crazy in public places. And as the child of an extremely emotionally immature parent — seriously, my father z”l was in all practical respects a stubborn 3-year-old with a PhD — I absolutely understand how important it is for parents to be parents. But I want my kid to ask the hard questions when she grows up, and to think of new and unexpected answers — and that starts with pushing back against senseless arbitrary orders in childhood.

    When DD was still little and prone to running off, I was as firm as anyone else in insisting on holding hands in parking lots and while crossing streets. If she wouldn’t hold hands, someone would carry her (a dire indignity for her — and no big deal for DH or me, really, since at age 2 she weighed only 20 lb). If she couldn’t hold it together in a public place, we left. You hit, you sit. If you can’t lose, you can’t play. When she sneaked half a dozen Halloween chocolate bars from the kitchen, ate them in her room before breakfast, and hid the evidence under her bookcase, she didn’t get any more after-dinner treats for a week (since she’d just eaten a whole week’s worth in one go). When I hung up the phone and turned around to find her dancing on the couch with peanut butter spread all over the soles of both feet, that was the end of eating on the living-room floor while watching Saturday morning cartoons. When she spills something all over the kitchen floor, she has to clean it up (or at least help, if it’s really dire — I’m not trying to foster rugged individualism here, yecch).

    But all the time I was insisting on hand-holding or removing the melting-down two-year-old from the coffee shop and so on, I was relentlessly explaining to her why. You must hold my hand in the parking lot because the cars can see me, but they can’t see you. You don’t get to play with the other kids until you’re able to play without hurting people. You don’t touch the hot stove because it HURTS. Mommy and Daddy don’t make rules just because we feel like it; we do it for good reasons.

    I guess I’m just really not comfortable in the role of absolute despot, enlightened or not.

    Also, I’m a cat person, so the dog people in the crowd may want to take my opinions with a grain of salt 😉

  4. This story just cracked me up!
    To me, its just a symptom of how parents are inundated with useless advice from the minute their child is conceived (and before). Despite all the books and parenting programs, they find more useful information from a dog trainer!
    Stop letting “experts” run your lives, parents!

  5. Been there, done that. Strangely, it works.

    Although I haven’t used a leash… yet. 🙂

  6. Good article, I agree entirely. The parents must be alpha in the home. Humans are hierarchical beings, we can’t escape that fact.

  7. P.S. I wish my neighbor would train her dog like a dog too.

  8. My husband has said for decades that people who are incapable of properly training a dog have no business having kids.

  9. YES!! I’ve been telling people for years that if you allow kids to do the things you would scold a puppy for, you’re doing something wrong. Until they hit their teens, kids *are* like puppies. They both *like* to be disciplined (doesn’t seem like it, but they are just ‘testing their bounderies’. Once those bounderies are established, they happilly live inside them until puberty hits and they start pecking at those safe bounderies the way a chick pecks its shell). Kids and puppies both *want* leadership, and if they don’t get it, they will become the snarling, tamtrum-thowing disasters we all know and loathe.

    Kids and puppies both thrive in an environment where they know they are loved and cared for, which they know is safe and where they know they can rely on the guidance of a strong leader, be it the alpha of the pack or be it their loving parents.

    It’s no coincidence that people who know how to handle dogs know how to handle kids and people whose kids are screaming monkeys on acid at public gatherings are the same people whose dogs the pampered mutts that snarl and snap at visitors and who won’t allow the husband or the wife of the house to sleep in his or her bed next to their spouse since the dog considers itself the alpha.

  10. In contrast with sylvia_rachel, I’m not a huge fan of “why” with the 2-year old age group. Don’t get me wrong; my son and I discuss “why” a lot both about questions that are meaningful (why must you be strapped into a car seat?) and that are not (why is there a pine needle stuck in the windshield wiper of the car?). But because I said so is a perfectly fine answer in my book for this age group, and his understanding the why or agreeing with can not be a prerequisite to his doing what I say; he does it because I say so, even if he doesn’t understand or agree.

    Obviously that will change as he ages. But I remain a fan of “because this is the way we do things in our household” (I can speak with some authority as to my preferences, since I’ve also raised teenaged stepchildren, so I’ve dealt with different age groups, and indeed I use the same approach with my own parents when they’re in my household, too, as far as that goes. Actually I see this as a pretty significant incentive to his leaving and not living in the basement when he’s 35 — which is going to be important, as we don’t have a basement. When my son gets old enough (as my stepchildren have and my parents clearly are), he’ll get to establish his own household and make his own rules. He gets a voice (and I’m not saying I don’t or won’t discuss reasons with him), but our home is not a democracy, and in the end “because I said so,” or the variation, “because this is how I want it done in my house” is the reason (while he lives under my roof and contingent, of course, on my providing him with appropriate care and support), in my book.

    So, yeah. Dog whisperer. Those interested in reading a discussion of how animal-training principles apply to people (in general, not just kids) might enjoy the book “Don’t Shoot the Dog.”

  11. @Alexicographer — LOL, we don’t have a basement either (we live in a third-floor flat).

    I should clarify, since apparently it wasn’t clear before, that I don’t mean I ever tried to negotiate with a two- or three-year-old. Even before I had my own, I’d had enough experience of younger siblings/cousins/neighbours/etc. to know never go to there. I just mean that while making it happen, I always tried to explain why it had to happen. Giving reasons for the rules is not the same as deciding the rules by majority vote, and explaining to a kid why something is not OK is not the same as negotiating with the kid as to whether it’s OK or not.

    Nobody’s riding in a car improperly restrained in this family, for example, but I don’t see why that has to mean “I’m not telling you why! You’ll do it because I said so!”

  12. I’m with Sylvia – I always said I had cats and not dogs because if I had to do as much as a dog requires for maintenance, I wanted it to eventually grow OUT of that stage, as kids do. Dogs are like kids stuck in the late potty training stages, and I prefer my companions (even pets) to be more self sufficient than that, hence us only having cats. Heck, my son’s being slow on the potty training and speaking developments, and I’m starting to question my wisdom in signing up for this… ;P

    I also try to explain the “why” to my kid because I know I hated rules without whys as a kid. He may not get it yet, but I figure it’s good practice for me until then, because who knows when it might start clicking for him.

    I do agree that training methods are largely transferable form animals to humans.

  13. I tried to the balance the explaining with the “because I said so.” I’m with Sylvia in agreeing that when kids are very young, the first thing they need to know is the baseline of obeying rules even when they don’t understand them. But sometimes — frequently, even — I would also give them an explanation so they would grow in understanding as they grew. And I’m sure others who don’t feel an explanation is always necessary do the same. It’s just that sometimes “because I said so” serves as an important reminder of a couple of things — one, that you don’t get to pick and choose when to listen to Mama or Daddy based on whether they give you an adequate explanation, and two, that you don’t get to demand every ounce of Mama and Daddy’s energy explaining everything that comes into your head to ask the second you ask it. Sometimes, you can wait for an explanation or even live without it.

  14. Giving rationale is always ok, after all humans are more intelligent than dogs. Letting the human pups engage us in arguments or long debates, however, is a huge tactical error.

    Picking battles carefully is a wise idea too. No sense in getting into a power struggle with either humans pups or doggie ones.

    I think freedom within boundaries is best. Where those boundaries should be is subject of debate, and this free range movement is trying to counter the societal trend that wants to limit the physical environment that children can explore within an acceptable measure of safety. But it’s still up to parents to set where those boundaries should be.

  15. I have a bit of a different perspective on the “train kids like dogs” theory.

    I’ve only had two dogs in my life, and they are both house pets. That, I believe, is the perspective that most people have… that yeah, you train kids like dogs in some respects – “listen to me without questioning in situation x and y.” X and Y being situations where rules are rules and there is no wiggle room – holding a short kid’s hand in a busy parking lot, for example, or not swimming alone until you swim x-distance.

    But, my best friend trains dogs for a living. She has both show (agility, obedience) and working (sled) dogs (some of them are the same dogs… her current lead dog holds agility and obedience titles). She DOES have to teach her dogs to trust their instincts. Where she lives – in Alaska – her dogs are her partners. She relies on their intelligence to guide her along a trail, sometimes through some very treacherous trail or weather. She had to teach them that there is a time to trust her, unquestioningly, and she also had to teach them that there is a time to ignore her, no matter how much she yelled “GEE!! GEE!!” (Turn right!! Turn right!!), because that dog’s instincts are saying that it’s dangerous to turn right.

    Sled dogs, guide dogs, rescue dogs… these are examples of highly developed, extremely well-trained, and extremely smart, problem solving dogs. We would do well to learn from some of these dog trainers. How many of our kids follow their instincts when their parents/friends/boss are yelling at them to do something else? How many of them will trust themselves over that authority or peer pressure? Especially when they know that their instincts are absolutely correct.

    I don’t know about you, but that’s what I want for my son.

  16. @Laura — that’s a really excellent point which I totally didn’t think of. It would be really interesting to read about some of your friend’s techniques …

  17. I do have to say that there’s some benefit to the “experts.” I was raised by abusive and rather non-functional parents. Not wanting to repeat their mistakes with my own kids, I spent a few years (occasionally) reading parenting theory stuff. Now my default way to treat my baby is how I want it to be, and not me just defaulting back to how I was raised.

  18. I agree, great point Laura

  19. I agree with the theory as it would apply to young children. The point has been made that parents rightly should foster an atmosphere of individuality, independence and a strong will, but those characteristics are enviable in a young adult not a young child. Cesar Milan’s trains dogs to become and remain obedient and well-trained members of their pack, while it is our job as parents to continue and build on those lessons to guarantee that our puppies grow into confident and loving trainers as well.

  20. Alexicographer, that post made my day. 🙂

  21. Sylvia… my friend doesn’t really have any “technique” that we can use as parents, beyond absolute common sense and our own instincts. Like Cesar, she believes very strongly in the “pack mentality”, and has set herself up as the Alpha Bitch (doggie language, not aspersions on her character). Her Alpha Male is even subservient to her, though to nobody else. And she helps reinforce that pecking order within the pack. She deals fairly – not equally – with each member of the kennel. Some need a very firm hand, others, a look will bring them into line. She knows each dog personally, and you could walk into her kennel, point to a dog, and she’ll tell you all about that dog’s personality. She plays with each dog – often taking them individually or in pairs out for a day hiking or just hanging out in the house (yes, she brings many of her sled dogs into her house!)

    What I’m saying, I guess, is mostly what we’ve all said here. We all know that we are to be parents first, friends second. There’s nothing wrong with being friends with our kids, but we are their guideposts first – the Alpha’s in the pack. They answer to us. They count on us to be strong, smart, and to teach them the ways of the pack and the world. Do not be afraid to “lay them down” and remind them that they are “under” us (fair discipline that might “hurt” but is in no way abusive)… that we are the parents. And as they get older, eventually, if we’ve done our job correctly, they will challenge us for their individuality, and set out on their own. Then we’ve done our job well.

    It’s the Law of the Pack!

  22. @Laura – yeah, that does sound an awful lot like plain old sensible parenting. (I *so* wish my parents had had a better understanding of the difference between “fair” and “equal” …)

    I think the point about knowing each dog’s personality is particularly germane, because a lot of what we who hang out here do (or want to do) as parents depends on knowing our kids’ individual capabilities and personalities and temperaments, and the contexts in which we find ourselves, rather than issuing blanket decrees about what is or isn’t allowed/safe/sensible based on age, sex, or other people’s opinions (or, y’know, baseless hysteria ;)).

  23. I realize that this is an old post, but really. Isn’t anyone going to point out that this was literally the plot of an episode of South Park?? (episode 1007: Tssst)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsst

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