How to Raise a Child Like a Dog

Dog trainers understand concepts about raising a well behaved, civilized dog that many parents raising children aren’t privy to. I do not mean to suggest that children are dogs, certainly not. But in some ways, our culture spends more time and energy sharing information about training a dog than information about raising a child. What am I talking about?

Take a minute and Google the term “socialization period”. How many references do you see to puppies or dogs in the titles? How many to children? Exactly. (I’ll address the issue of socialization later in this article.) How many parents know what “socialization” means? Any responsible dog owner does. Socialization is a crucial component to raising a well-behaved dog or child. Dog trainers and veterinarians make sure new puppy owners are aware of this concept and advocate strongly for puppies being properly socialized. (And kudos here for veterinarians and trainers for working so hard to get this information to new dog owners.) I don’t see the same efforts expended on getting this information to parents. Some of the biggest behavior problems I see are the result of improper or inadequate socialization. Dog trainers are also aware of many other concepts that do not seem to cross over to parents. This may sound horrible, but some of the most helpful ideas I have about working with children came from my dog trainer.

What are some of the concepts which dog owners understand which parents might benefit from? There are several key concepts which the owners of a new puppy will be taught when trying to raise a well-behaved individual. The same concepts apply to raising a healthy child.

Consistency is the most important concept on this page, whether you are raising puppies or children. Consistency is crucial if you want to raise a well-behaved, secure, intelligent dog. It is important that they know what the rules are and what to expect from you. This makes them confident in you and in themselves. It also enhances their confidence in their ability to master the world they live in.

The same applies to children. The best way to drive a child (or a dog) insane is to change the rules everyday. A perfect example of the absence of consistent parenting is children who have grown up in homes with drug abuse or domestic violence. Their days are never the same. If Mommy gets her drugs, today will be a “good” day. If she doesn’t, it will be nightmare. If Daddy comes home angry, there is one set of rules. If he comes home calm, there is another set of rules. If he has been drinking, there is a third set of rules. Children in homes like this never know what to expect from day to day. By the time they get to my office, they are very anxious and stressed out. They ricochet off my walls and are constantly worried about playing with the “right” toy in the “right” way. They are painfully fearful, insecure and on edge because they can never know for sure what to expect. One of the most important elements I provide in the therapy room is consistency. There are always the same toys and they are always in the same place. The session always last for the same amount of time, on the same day of the week. This “sameness” is very comforting to children.

It’s important to decide what you want from your child and be as consistent as possible with them. Naturally, life can be chaotic and adjustments and changes will be necessary. But if your child is secure in your ability to run the show and has a good feeling that things will eventually get back to “normal” they will find it easier to go with the flow and adapt to change.

It is also important that parents work together as a coherent team. They must communicate well with each other and agree on what their expectations are for the child. They must then be consistent in following through. Mom can’t make Dad the bad guy by letting the child do what they want all day then waiting for Dad to get home and punish them. Dad can’t let the child do things in secret behind Mom’s back. One parent can’t buy things for the child that the other parents prohibits. They have to back each other up and function as a single unit, even if divorced and living separately.

Parents who were raised in very rigid, authoritarian households are naturally reluctant to recreate this inflexibility in their own homes. Consistency is not the same as inflexibility. They are completely different. To have a morning ritual or schedule does not mean that the child is held to a rigid, inflexible schedule or that they have to “tow the line” like a soldier in boot camp. It just means that there is a predictable pattern to life that makes life safe and familiar. The child knows what is expected of them and knows how to “succeed”.

Parents who were raised in very authoritarian homes sometimes balk at this idea, and I can certainly understand why. They don’t want to create that militaristic intolerance and rigidity. But they can go to far the other way, providing absolutely no structure or consistency. This is equally stressful to children. Children, like puppies, need to know what you expect from them, what the rules are, what to do to succeed. If they know what the rules are then they can follow them and know that everything will be a “good kid”. They know what to do to “succeed” to “win”. Not knowing what is expected from day to day creates stress, uncertainty and insecurity. They don’t know how to “do the right thing” because “the right thing” changes from day to day. Like all things in life, this requires balance. Not a rigorous, unalterable schedule that does not allow children to be children, but not a laissez faire, total abandonment of structure either. A judge (Isaac C. Parker) attempting to tame the wild, wild west in America said, “It’s not the severity of the punishment, but the certainty of it that checks crime…” This is very true, whether you are trying to deter crime in a town or inappropriate behavior in a child. Consistency negates the need for severity. If children know that hitting other children is always wrong, they don’t constantly have to test that boundary.

You have to communicate what you want in terms the dog can understand. A dog’s ability to understand human language is very limited. You can communicate much more readily with them using signals or body language. If you use language it should be short and sweet. You cannot launch into a lecture from Wittgenstein and expect a dog to understand.

Likewise, small children have not yet developed the capacity for analytical thinking. They cannot comprehend the complexities of adult language. I see parents trying to reason with a 4 year old about why they do not want them to wander out in traffic without holding their hand. Though a 4 year old can comprehend language, they can’t comprehend logical arguments and they don’t have the attention span to care. They just want you to tell them what you want. Short and sweet.

Good dog trainers know that there is a period in a puppy’s life where they must be “socialized” if they are going to know how to behave with other dogs and with people. We don’t tell parents that children need the same thing. And there is a certain period of time in which it must be accomplished. Dogs are socialized initially by their mothers, which is why you don’t take a puppy away from its mother before the age of 8-10 weeks. Further socialization is required for the puppy to learn how to communicate and interact appropriately with any other species with whom you want it to live. If you want your puppy to interact well with humans and other dogs you have to socialize them during this period with members of these groups. If you want the puppy to be a dog who can live peacefully with cats, children, chickens or cows, you have to socialize them with cats, children, chickens and cows.

Dog owners enroll their puppies in “Socialization Groups” to allow their puppies to interact with other puppies their age. They will take them to dog clubs in parks so their puppies are allowed to interact with dogs of all ages. They will also ask every human they encounter to hold and pet their puppy so that the puppy learns to understand human behavior and interact with humans appropriately. Puppy owners will continue to expose the puppy to new people, dogs, cats and situations until they are a year old. The socialization must occur while they are a puppy. Lack of proper socialization cannot be reversed in an adult dog. If they don’t receive it as a puppy, their behavior as a dog will be markedly impaired and probably irreversible. This exposure to different species and situations is crucial as it teaches the puppy to tolerate new and different events and stimulations. It prevents the puppy from growing into a fearful dog who is anxious and possibly aggressive when placed in strange or new situations.

We often do not tell parents that children need the exact same thing. Socialization is as important to humans as it is to other mammals. We are very social creatures. It has long been known that babies who are not cuddled and held by adults may suffer from “failure to thrive”, become depressed and listless, indifferent, or withdrawn. As they grow older them often have very, very serious behavior problems. We have recently seen this in adopted children from Bosnia. As a result of the genocide there large numbers of infants were orphaned. Many were placed in orphanages where there were not enough adults to care for them. They spent most of their days in cribs where their physical needs were met (food, bathing, changing) but they were not held or caressed. These children were then adopted out to parents all over the world. The adoptive parents found that the children were unempathic, developed serious problems relating to others and had serious behavior problems both at home and in school.

Children must be socialized with their peers and it must occur in a specific age range. I am starting to see a change in our awareness of this as “play groups” and “socialization groups” have begun to be formed for children. It cannot happen fast enough, especially in this age of technology. I see a lot of children who are parked in front of a video or a video game and not taken outside to the park (or any other place) to socialize with other children and adults. I think this plays a very large part in the increased behavior problems we see when children reach school age. Children who are raised in the isolation of their own home an grow up to be excessively shy and fearful. They may have difficulties interacting with other children when they enter school. This anxiety can manifest itself in violence towards other children (i.e. hitting and biting), and inability to conform to social norms (i.e. being unable to wait their turn or share with others) and the anxious behavior that often looks like ADHD.

Pack Leader
Another concept familiar to dog owners is that of “pack leader”. Dog packs, like human groups, have hierarchies. It is important when raising a puppy that the humans establish themselves as “pack leader”. Why?

Have you ever seen a household where the dog is in charge instead of the human? It’s a nightmare. It’s important to establish who is in charge. How is this done? It is not done by power and definitely by abuse, but by following the rules above and by commanding respect. That’s respect, not fear. There is a difference.

The same holds true with a child. The parents need to be in charge of the child and the household, not the child. Have you seen households where the child is in charge? It’s a nightmare, for the parents, for visitors and yes, for the child. Children are not emotionally mature enough to absorb adult concerns and worries. They are not mentally mature enough to make the necessary decisions. And they inherently know this. Being made responsible for adult emotions and decisions puts an enormous and unfair burden upon them. What do I mean by this?

I’ve seen parents who expressed their anxiety and stress through the child, making the child responsible for calming them. I’ve seen parents who worked out familial problems by discussing them with the children. I’ve even seen parents work out marital difficulties through their children. This is simply unfair. Children should be free to be children and adults must shoulder the responsibility for the family themselves. This does not mean that the family structure must be strict and unforgiving or that communication should be stilted and demanding. Absolutely not. It does mean that parents must be the ones making the decisions and comforting the children, not the other way around.

When a lot of people hear that they need to establish themselves at the top of the hierarchy, they visualize a regime based on fear and punishment. People who visualize a hierarchy this way do so because this is how power was expressed in their home. But there are different ways of manifesting power. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had vast amounts of power, yet they were not punitive or harsh. You can lead from a position of fear, or you can lead from a position of respect. The latter is always best. Fear breeds resentment and rebellion. A heavily punitive and fearful form of leadership will result in either outright disobedience and rebellion or passive-aggressive behavior (smiling in your face while disobeying you behind your back). Obviously, this is not the ideal.

How do you establish yourself as leader from a position of respect? You earn respect by giving respect, to yourself and to your child. You respect your children by communicating clearly and being consistent. You also gain respect by being in charge and taking responsibility. Being calm and confident are essential in being respected as the “pack leader”. Think about bosses for whom you have worked. Which ones did you respect? Which ones did you have little use for? Which ones did you abhor? What was it about each boss that earned your respect or your contempt? Use these same concepts in establishing yourself as the head of your family.

What would a dog trainer tell you? Here are their tips for establishing yourself as “pack leader”. Once again, these apply to children as well as puppies.

Be confident
If you are confident in your abilities to parent, your child will be confident in your abilities to parent.

Praise the positive
Always notice when they get it right, whatever it is. Positive reinforcement is just as effective as negative reinforcement, without the negative consequences. It also reinforces that you are in a position to approve good behavior.

Reprimand quickly and fairly, then forgive.
Holding grudges does not command respect. It breeds resentment and ill will.

Require that your child do what you ask the first time you ask it.
Don’t harp on and on. I see people in the store repeating over and over, “If you don’t stop that I’m going to spank you.” Now the child and everyone else in the store knows the parent does not mean this and the child keeps on doing what they were doing.

Pick your battles.
Do you make a request that you are not prepared to back up. If you are unwilling to take away their video game for 3 days do not threaten to do so. Do not insist that they pick up their toys “right now” unless you are prepared to go over and enforce your request. Making requests that you do not back up makes you look ineffectual. Children learn very quickly that you do not mean what you say and you lose their respect.

Be tough, but fair.
You can be tough and loving. Be tough in a fair, calm, reasonable way. Do not lose your temper or rage at a child. And always be fair. Even the youngest child will respect calm and fairness.

Use modeling behavior.
Modeling behavior is a therapist’s term that refers to acting out the behavior you want others to emulate. You cannot raise confident, quiet, intelligent children by screaming at them maniacally. Conduct yourself as you wish them to behave. They are watching every move you make. And your actions speak 100 times louder than your words.

Decide the “pecking order” in your home.
The parents should be the pack leaders, both parents equally. One parent should not dominate another. Nor should one parent be placed below the children, or one child elevated above a parent. You may also decide a pecking order for the children based, for instance, on age. Older children have more responsibilities, but more privileges than their younger siblings. As younger siblings age, they too gain these responsibilities – and privileges. Be sure the pecking order is fair and based on behaviors, not innate qualities. If you place boys over girls or athletic children over creative children you negate their individuality and create a hierarchy in which they can never move up. (You also lock them into the role of the “athletic child” for the rest of their childhood, which doesn’t allow them to be anything else. Children can be athletic and creative.) If the hierarchy is fair and based upon behaviors and responsibilities, then everyone can participate – and succeed – equally.
Parenting is a tough job, especially in the modern world where families are isolated from extended family members, technology complicates parenting decisions and an erratic economic environment stresses families which are already straining to stay afloat. Knowing some basic techniques for raising healthy children may help ease the stress and strain.

This article is provided courtesy of the Kellyvision blog

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