Everything I Know About Child Rearing I Learned from My Dog

I have a bad dog. He jumps on the furniture; he clobbers guests when they walk in the door; he barks uncontrollably at random objects like brooms and mops; he pulls on the leash; he howls in his crate every time I leave the house; he steals things from the baby and then eats them; and, if you haven’t guessed, he doesn’t listen all that well, if at all at times.

Student or sage?

Part of it is his age–he’s still a 10-month-old puppy–and part of it is that he’s just a hard-headed Doberman. (Sometimes he’s even a butt head, as one dog expert calls him.) But because he’s still incredibly lovable despite his foibles, I spend the time and the dough nearly every week to work with a trainer–Rachel Jones of K-9 Divine–to help him become a better dog. Better is of course the key word.

While Zus still has a ways to go before becoming a certified canine good citizen, the training totally helps. I really feel like once he’s through his teenage years, rife with rebellion, I’m probably going to have a really well trained dog on my hands.

But we’re not there yet, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. But in pursuing this obedience training, I’ve learned a thing or five about dogs that I think have made me a better parent.

  1. Schedules are a sanity saver. Yes, my dog has a schedule. It’s not as strict as baby’s, but there is a framework in place. Like baby, Zus has a wake-up time, scheduled activities (usually a Kong stuff with treats and peanut butter or a bone), naps/quiet time in his crate, exercise and play periods, and meals. Having a routine solves a bunch of issues, but the biggest one is that it keeps the dog occupied so he’s not doing stupid stuff like eating baby booties out of boredom or anxiety. I totally believe the same is true for children. While I don’t advocate a super strict routine, a stable one really goes far for my wee one. He learns to know what to expect, so there are fewer meltdowns over taking a nap or eating dinner. And when the dog/kid isn’t melting down, the likelihood of mom melting down diminishes rapidly.
  2. Parents have to be on the same page. When training a dog, especially in the early stages, it’s critical that joint owners subscribe to the same training method. For example, it’s not fair to expect a dog to respond correctly to both owners if one says “sit” and the other says “sit down.” The owners need to use exactly the same commands and also adhere to the same rules (is the dog allowed on the couch or not?) to really be able to give your dog a shot at being obedient. Similarly, parents need to figure out what the house rules are and both abide by them if their children are to respect them. It’s not going to work all that well if one parent is a stickler about naps and the other could care less, for example.
  3. Practice makes perfect. My trainer says it takes an average dog about 100 times of responding to a command correctly to truly master it. I don’t know how long it takes for children–sometimes I feel like its fewer than 100 repetitions and sometimes I feel like it’s 10x more–but my theory is that if you want your children to do something without a struggle every time, parents need to keep modeling the appropriate behavior. (I saw this in action on Super Nanny, an ABC reality series where Super Nanny Jo Frost helps desperate parents regain control of their children.) For example, you don’t try to reason with a child about going to bed. You go through the bedtime routine, then it’s lights out, and then if they continue to get out of bed, you take them by the hand and walk them back to their beds. Repeat until they realize that they aren’t going to get to stay up.
  4. Most of the time I’m the problem. There have been points in my dog training career where I’ve gotten frustrated with my dog because he was failing to obey my commands. However, what I learned was that most of the time he wasn’t obeying my commands because I wasn’t articulating them correctly to him. For instance, the dog wouldn’t immediately sit down when I asked him to do so. Turns out, without realizing it, I was telling him to sit down twice without giving him enough time to complete the action after the first time I gave him the command. So, several weeks later, he wouldn’t respond to me until I said the command twice; I had unknowingly created a habit. I imagine that parents can often assume that their kids know what they, as parents, expect from their children. But I would venture a guess that maybe that’s not always the case. So, I think as parents we need to not only be explicit in our direction but also patient in allowing our kids to process it and react before we jump all over them. Otherwise the original message lost because we’re interrupting its transmission.
  5. Don’t get emotional during conflict. Admittedly, this is not one of my strong suits. In periods of high stress, my dog really knows how to push my buttons and I have definitely lost it. But I backed off on yelling at him early after I realized that when I yelled at him he sometimes peed on the floor out of a mixture of excitement and fear. I had enough baby spit up and poopy diapers to clean up that doggy piddle was just too much, so I figured out that if the dog stole something and I wanted it back, the best thing to do was not to yell, chase, or try to tackle the dog to get it back. I simply turned and went into the kitchen, got a treat, and nonchalantly walked over to wherever he was and in a very nice voice asked him to sit down. Inevitably he dropped the stolen object and I gave him a treat. It’s classic positive reinforcement technique, and I believe that it’s pretty effective with people, too. Basically, you ignore the bad behaviors and reward the good behaviors.

This definitely isn’t rocket science, but I totally found it interesting that responsible dog training had so many similarities with good parenting. I am not suggesting that children are like dogs, or should be treated as such, but I do think there are some fundamental communication skills that are applicable across relationships with dogs and humans.

I think it’s safe to say that at this stage in the obedience cycle, I’m pretty sure Zus has taught me at least as much, if not more, than I’ve taught him.

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