Editorials for Clinical Practice
CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
How dogs can teach parenting
Have you ever wished you could prescribe dog training classes to any of the parents of your pediatric patients? As one of the myriad people adopting a dog during COVID-19 quarantine, I have had the amusing and poignant chance to relive the principles basic to effective parenting of young children that I have been coaching about for decades.
Managing a dog instead of a child strips away layers that obfuscate parenting (e.g. child from unwanted pregnancy, fears about health issues, hopes for Harvard, wishes for the other gender, projection of expectations based on relatives, etc.) thereby making the lessons crystal clear. Unlike our perceptions for children, dog behavior does not mean anything (dog aficionados who differ, please allow poetic license). When a dog is hyper it indicates time to play or eat, not intentional defiance. Understanding this, we tend to respond more rationally.
With a dog of any age post weaning, one starts with the same basic learning abilities that will ever be present. An infant soaks up one’s caregiving for months before much training can begin, lulling parents into a mindset of having perfect skills that later requires a wrenching transition and new techniques when toddlerhood strikes.
Without expressive language feedback from a dog, we are forced to observe closely, and consciously use behavior modification techniques to get the desired behavior, but we have the advantage of seeing the effects of our management in days, not years later as for children!
Get her attention
It becomes obvious that to teach something, we need to get a dog’s attention first. A smell, appearance of a rabbit during a walk, a raindrop on the dog’s head all need to pass before a verbal command has a chance. Somehow the fact that children from toddler age on understand language (most of the time) makes parents forget that something else may be more interesting at the moment. We understand we need to teach a dog in a nondistracting environment without judging them for this requirement. In fact, trying to see what is engaging a dog or a toddler can enhance our appreciation of the world. But we stay curious about a dog’s distraction – not expecting to sense all a dog can – yet we may label a child’s repeated distraction as a flaw. Not being dogs ourselves allows us to give them the gift of being nonjudgmental.
Humans are inclined to talk to their young from birth, and, in general, the more talk the better for the child’s long-term development. Dogs can readily learn some human language but dog trainers all instruct us, when trying to teach a command, to give a single word instruction once, the same way each time, maintaining the animal’s attention, then waiting for at least a partially correct response (shaping) before rewarding. Inherent in this method is consistency and avoiding messages that are confusing because of extraneous words or emotions. While providing complex language that includes emotions is important for children overall, parents often do not differentiate times when they are actually giving an instruction from general banter, yet are upset when the child fails to follow through.
Rather than relying on words to teach, using routines is the secret to desirable behavior in dogs. Dogs quickly develop habits (such as pooping on a certain rug) that can take many repetitions of humans supplying an alternative acceptable routine (pooping only in part of the yard) to change. Supplying an approximate alternative (rag toy instead of shoelaces), particularly if it is more exciting by being relatively novel and unavailable at other times, is far more effective than saying “No.” In fact, yelling at or hitting a dog is rarely effective because of short memory and lack of causal thinking and, in addition, can result in anxiety, shying away from interacting, or aggression; all consequences of harsh punishment in children as well.
Whatever your beliefs about dogs loving their humans, dogs understand only a small human vocabulary and are instead reinforced mainly by our attention to them that has become strongly associated with getting food or treats through instrumental conditioning. Because dogs have short memories, the most effective tools in changing their behavior are immediate attention, praise, and treats; this is also is true for children. The opposite of attention – ignoring – is very powerful in extinguishing an undesired behavior. We are told to wait at least 2 minutes after an undesired dog behavior before re-engaging. Why does this not seem to work in child rearing? Actually, it works well but is very hard for parents to do as our hearts go out to the begging child, who is part of our soul and closest kin. Soft-hearted dog owners have the same problem and often create obnoxious barking, begging, and nipping dogs as a result. These are all behaviors that could otherwise be extinguished.
Consistency is key
Behavior management works best and fastest if all the humans agree on the rules and follow them. This kind of consistency can be difficult for people training dogs as well as raising children, for many reasons. Most often there is a failure to take the time to explicitly decide on the rules; in other cases, it is lower thresholds for being annoyed and an inability to ignore a behavior. There may have been past experiences with being harshly punished, ignored, or coddled that people are are trying to overcome or reproduce; covert disagreements or desires to undermine a plan whether for the dog, the child, or the relationship; or even a desire for the dog or child to favor them by giving more treats. Sound familiar in pediatrics? With animals, objectivity and agreement may be easier to achieve because unwanted animal behavior is immediately more obviously related to training consistency than for children and may include big disincentives for humans such as barking, biting, or defecating. When these overt or covert disagreements occur in parenting children, our pediatric counseling or even family therapy may be needed. A similar acceleration plan may be available for people and their dogs (but not covered by insurance)!
While a dog may run down the stairs after a ball or a treat day after day, having forgotten that he will inevitably end up being locked in the basement for the night, we are taking advantage of the fact that dogs generally do not anticipate consequences. Yet, parents often scold even young children for a similar level of comprehension: “Didn’t you know that would break?” Fortunately, talking about consequences is educational over time for children but it needs to be done kindly with the understanding that, as with dogs, doing the same undesirable thing repeatedly is not necessarily defiance in young children but failure of our teaching. If behavior is not what you hoped for, look at what you are doing to promote it.
Much of what we call temperament is genetic in children as well as dogs. People know what to expect adopting a Jack Russell Terrier vs. a Labrador Retriever. With children we just don’t get to pick. Acceptance of what we got will make the journey easier.
We have much to cherish about dogs and children. If we lose it over the location of their poop, their forgiveness is quick. There is no such thing as too much affection. And joy is always available from both.
So why do I wish I could recommend dog training? Besides all the principles above, raising a dog together allows adults to discover mismatches in behavior management philosophies and to have a chance to see if they can negotiate a plan acceptable to both. Maybe it should be a premarital recommendation.
Dr. Howard is assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. E-mail her at email@example.com.