New tricks: On Parenting and Dog Training

My friend, Nicole, keeps requesting a post on HOW RAISING CHILDREN IS LIKE TRAINING A DOG.  We both agree that mostly, raising children is not at all like having a dog. Though over the years as we’ve done both, we have found some ways that learning how to be a good, effective “dog master” informs our parenting (but never the other way around).

Ways that they are different:

  • You don’t need to keep figuring out “what works” with your dog.  When your dog regresses in any way, you go back to what works with dogs.  Your children go through different developmental stages, and just when you “figure out” one stage, it’s on to the next, often having to find your way anew.  Great, you mastered potty training?  Feel proud? Now onto figuring out how to keep your little one in his own bed all night.  Or sit down long enough to eat.  Or deal with that mean girl in her class.  Or sit down and do his homework.  And on and on.
  • While dogs undoubtedly have their own unique personalities, their motivations are pretty transparent.  Generally, our dogs don’t push our buttons in the same way our children can.  I know more than one mother driven nearly mad by her child’s habit of twisting and sucking on the end of their t-shirt.  Positively bonkers about saliva and a worn cotton corner.  Sometimes it’s these unintentional habits that get under our skin, but often it’s the outright toe-to-toe emotional warfare.  My friend stops her toddler from grabbing the dog’s tail, which her little one responds to by laughing maniacally and grabbing the dog’s tail harder as if to say, I really am not planning on listening to you.  Or my new favorite, being told nearly every day how much I ruin my preteen’s life.  You know, with all those things I do to support and protect him.
  • You can’t crate train children any more than you can explain to a dog why you’re not letting them jump on the table.  You don’t need to and don’t have to explain anything to your dog.  Perhaps we need to do less explaining to our children, but still, they ask many many questions.  Some of them are good ones, and some are diversionary tactics.  Dogs don’t do this.

Ways that they are similar:

  • A dog needs a strong, believable leader.  Kids, too.

What have I been doing all these years?

My early parenting was very “connection-driven”, meaning that I believed that as long as I maintained a loving, respectful connection with my child, I could gently redirect their behavior.  Most often, this was a good strategy.  While there have been too many times to count where I have lost my temper and NOT employed this strategy, over the years I could generalize that my parenting style was one with a “light-touch” where maintaining a good, positive connection with my child has been paramount.

Parenting a pre-teen has given me pause. Or perhaps it’s parenting this preteen. All I know is that it’s clear I’m in new territory, without a map, and the kind of parenting my child needs is outside of my repertoire. He needs rules, very clear boundaries, a routine, no room to negotiate, and at this point, he needs me to be unrelenting in my administration of these things. And maybe even to not like me very much.  He needs me to be a strong leader. It’s not that there weren’t rules and consequences before, but I suppose I have to admit that they may have been a little vague at times and I’m even going to confess that I was not always consistent (and I knew better with my training as a Social Worker!)  But what do you expect from me when I’m making this up as I go?

How I learned to be a better parent from my dog:

I was torn up about how to handle my pre-teen son and at the same time getting fed up that my dog, Sweetiepie, has, since the Fall, refused to walk on a leash.  Which means that she doesn’t go on walks.  She has gotten so chubby I can hardly look at myself in the mirror.  What am I supposed to do?  DRAG her around the block?  I don’t have TIME for this  is what I reasoned.  And it became one of those things that I decided just NOT to deal with.

One day I woke up, looked at her, and said Sweetiepie, the jig is up. (Did anyone else’s mom say that besides mine?) You will be walking around the block today.  It is good for you and you must do it.  I am going to do everything I can to make this happen. I have set aside a whole block of time to do this with you no matter how long it takes (Yes, I said this out loud.  To my dog.)

She did what she has been doing, sitting, refusing to move, eyes averted.  I gave her harness a tug.  Another.  She laid her body flat, hugging the sidewalk.  With the leash attached to her harness, I lifted until her front paws were barely touching the ground, and started to walk, slowly, steadily.  Let me tell you, SP is one stubborn dog.  This went on for thirty minutes.  I wanted to throw in the towel in and give up, but I reassured myself thusly: Guess who’s even more determined that Sweetiepie?  ME.

Eventually, she began to walk on her own, though she still pulls this nonsense at random intervals even now, a few weeks into her “walk training”.  But she is moving along.  My job is to keep doing this over and over and over, gently and consistently.  Relentlessly.  And this is how training my dog to walk on a leash gave me all the information I needed to remind me what it takes to be an effective parent. Maybe this may seem like Parenting 101 to you, but for me, this required some new muscles.  Or new ingredients to add to all that “Connecting” I’ve been doing for twelve years.

  • Calm authority.  A deep, internal belief that I am in charge.  Owning it. That I know what’s best.  And heck, even if I don’t, I’m the one driving, so I decide, for better or worse.
  • That I’m the only one who can do it (well, me and my husband), and it is my obligation to do it.  I keep thinking of being in labor, and saying at some point, (all three times), I don’t think I want to do this. It is just too hard.  And it really really hurts.  And the midwives kindly responded, You’re the only one who can. And I was like, Wow.  I so get that.  And that is so unfortunate for me.  Because I’d really rather not.  But it looks like I’m going to. It is the truth and so there’s nothing left to do but dig in.
  • Not being reactive or taking it personally.  I was so frustrated with my dog.  Now I remind myself that she’s just being her, just doing what she’s doing.  Just like my son is just doing what he does.  And it is my job to deal with it.  Calmly.  Respectfully. Over and Over.  Which brings us to:
  • Consistency. Yes, I knew this intellectually, but I really got it when, after half an hour, Sweetiepie was finally walking, and I found just the right tension in the leash to let her know I was still there, and she would keep walking.  Animals are very sensitive to touch, and I knew instinctively that I had to hold the tension in the leash so she would know what I expected from her. For now, my son needs me to metaphorically, “hold a steady tension on the leash”.

I think I will be doing this as long as I am graced with Sweetiepie as my companion.  She will need reminding. She’s stubborn, but straight-forward in this way. Which raises another crucial difference.  The lump-in-my-throat one. The one that makes the stakes so high.  I only have my son for six more years.  Maybe less, separation and individuation and all that. They are bound to be filled with many surprises and challenges.  And as certain as I am about what he needs now, I know it will change just as soon as I get the hang of it.  But dang it, I’m going to keep at it until my job here is done.

How about you?  Are you learning any new tricks?

4 thoughts on “New tricks: On Parenting and Dog Training

  1. Wait, we’re allowed to request topics?

    I love every point you make, and somewhere in my memory I think is a scenario with a toddler not unsimilar to the Sweetie Pie walk therapy…..oh yes, that was the sleep therapy attempts with child one and child two. Of course all that effort resulted in child three, almost age 7, sleeping nightly on the couch in my room. XXXC

  2. So funny and right on the mark! I always tell Jimmy I am going to write a book titled “Raise Your Dog Like You Raise Your Kids” in response to all the questions we get AND to counteract all the ridiculous domination/alpha dog theories and rules that make me crazy!

    I always ask “do you tell people that the way you teach your kids is through sheer domination or through love, active participation in their lives and imparting a clear understanding of what it means to be a member of a family?”

    Love, trust, clear expectations, rules of the house (and the different rules at other houses!), love, consistency, positive reinforcement, ignore bad behavior – when you can’t, timeouts, LOTS of exercise – both physical and mental, more love.

    Simplified perhaps but you get the picture…. keep up the good work! 🙂 Jenny Desmond

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