Behavioral Consult

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.

Punky, a little white dog Courtesy Dr. Barbara J. Howard


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.


Next Article: