Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Train Your Dog. RAISE your kid.

Dog Training image appears cc from flikr courtesy George Eastman House photography

"For a healthy dog, a human must share exercise, discipline, and affection, in that order!" Cesar Milan (aka "The Dog Whisperer") in Cesar's Way.

At my house, we've been debating getting a dog. We have two guinea pigs, but there's something to be said about a pet that is big enough to come up to you and give you affection. Besides, I love dogs. I grew up with dogs. I have wanted a dog for eight years, but have been unable to get one because we didn't live somewhere where we could. I want my son to grow up with a dog! Because this is a big step, I've approached it the way I approach all big changes. I've been researching A LOT. I start with internet searches and I move to books. (I am a huge book nerd.) Here's what a terse summation of my research thus far has concluded.

1. Dogs aren't people.

2. Dogs are only happy if they know where they are in the social hierarchy and you will only be happy if you are the "pack leader" (as Cesar Milan would say).

3. Dogs will try to take advantage of any sign of weakness they perceive and will immediately try to take on leadership if they don't feel the current leader is strong enough. This is where most "bad" dog behavior comes from.

What struck me most profoundly while I was reading the four books I read by three different authors was that if I put another title on the outside of the book, it would read a lot like some parenting books that are out there. The difference between those books and the dog books are that the authors of the dog books know that they are trying to explain the intricacies of a different species' needs to you while the parenting books that subscribe to the same maxims are trying to convince you that your children (who can safely be assumed to be of the same species as you, right?) are somehow very different.

I can see some surface level similarities between being a pet owner and being a parent. Both jobs entail making sure your charge eats the right food, gets enough exercise, has a safe place to rest, and gets along in society, but just because both children and pets have similar needs, it does not mean that the two need to be treated the same.

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky is an excellent source for scientific information about how incredibly different dogs are from humans and one of the most profound ways they are different is the rigidity and importance of power in the social structure of dogs. The reason why it is interesting to read that book is that, although the structure is somewhat similar to the one we see in highly competitive social environments like work or school, it looks absolutely nothing like the loving social circumstances we build in our homes, churches, and schools. It also reveals a distinct difference between the motivations of dogs and people. Dogs try to create pleasing behaviors for their humans because they want to be fed and kept in the hierarchical structure. Your dog uses your human capacity for love and gives you appreciation in return and a reciprocity based on your social status in its eyes. (Again, this is from the research books, not exactly my words). The way a dog learns is through very rigid rules and they can learn very quickly, but not always accurately. If a dog is attacked while young once it goes through a gate, it may develop an arbitrary rule in its head that it will always get attacked if it goes through that gate and will consequently never go through that gate. It is nearly impossible to break that kind of conditioning. The reason why these dog books try to make this so clear to you is because it is not natural for us to think this way. One of the most effective ways to "teach" dogs is to withhold affection from them until they have "earned" it. When that happens, you have a much happier dog and a more peaceful dog owning home. Because your dog's motivation is a place in the social hierarchy, he sees affection as confirmation that his behaviors are correct. This seems strange to us, foreign even. We are not born with this kind of social compass. We are born with a capacity for love and relationships that are not nearly as rigid or as unforgiving as those in the dog world. We are not dogs.

Your child is also not a dog, neither is your child trying to manipulate you or usurp some kind of authority from you the way your dog apparently is. Your child has completely different motivations. In fact, your child has the same kinds of motivations you do, but s/he lacks the metacognition and verbal ability you as an adult have to share them. Your child wants a relationship with you. Your child wants to learn what love is from you. Your child loves you back. In fact, a loving relationship and understanding is probably the primary goal your child has in almost all of his or her interactions with you. (Isn't that your motivation when you interact with most of your family and friends?) If you do not project "masterly" vibes all the time, your child will still love you. If you parent by withholding your affection (the way would train a dog), you may see good (or at least compliant) behavior as a result, but because your child's goal was relationship based rather than physical reward based, the result won't be like your dog who decided the behavior was what was bad and was being rejected. Your dog would never assume that it is bad because it doesn't have enough self awareness to do so. It knows what it does but not who it is. However, if you withhold affection as punishment from your child, your child will assume he or she is bad and will give you good behavior to try to make up for his or her own (perceived) intrinsic wickedness. If you withhold affection as punishment, you teach your child that he or she is someone who is not worthy of love just because of who they are.

Your child is not dumber than the dog manages to learn things the first time through, either. The dog learns very rapidly, but also very rigidly, because it is not smart enough to think like a human and to think through all the many different circumstances that might change a rule. Your child is not just "testing" you or trying to usurp your authority when he or she hits you, grandma, a friend, and a pet, for example, your child is trying to learn when the "no hitting" rule applies. If you think the answer to that is always "no," have you ever seen a hockey game or a boxing match on t.v.? As an adult, you know that hitting is not the answer in most circumstances, but you also know that in certain sporting events it is permissible under certain rules. When you have to tell your child the same thing over and over and over, it is because he or she capable of understanding the same complexity you take for granted in the "hitting" rule. He or she lacks your experience and so the poor kid has to manufacture experiences to try to learn. It's frustrating for both us and them, but it's part and parcel when you are raising a sentient, intelligent being who understands that nuances can affect rules. (Bedtime is hard and fast, unless grandma is in town, for example.)

Am I saying that you should not try to change hurtful behaviors in your children? Absolutely not. I am saying that instead of withholding affection or assuming your child is usurping your authority or challenging you directly, your baby, toddler, child, teenager, probably has other motivations at heart and will learn most effectively with relationship based interventions and through heart to heart honesty rather than "pack leader" acting.

What is different about "raising" a child rather than simply "training" them is that one implies lifting up while the other is about tearing down. Set your behavior standards high, set your expectations high, lay out your consequences clearly, but do so with your relationship with your child intact and always attempt to teach your child the way you would learn most effectively, with love and concern. Remember that there is strength in some flexibility. Iron was given up as a building material because it didn't know how to "give" the way steel does.

Unlike your dog, you can assume your child is a little person a lot like you because he or she is a little person a lot like you! Train your dog, but raise both your child and yourself to a higher standard, one where love and respect are a two way street.




Rachael said... [Reply to comment]

Near my parents' house there is a yard sign for a home daycare called "Train Up A Child Daycare". I cringe every time we drive by...

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@Rachael Maybe the daycare is in reference to the bible verse, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it."(Proverbs 22:6) I hope so. . . in that case, I think it's more about raising your child to be the spiritual, moral person you want him to be, which I would argue is what respectful and understanding parenting is all about!

Sheila said... [Reply to comment]

I so agree. Another difference between dogs and babies is that we want our babies to grow up to be our equal, whereas you intend for a dog to look to you for direction its whole life. It's all very well to teach obedience to a dog and nothing else, because it will always have you, but your child needs to actually understand where the rules are coming from so that they can apply the same knowledge once they grow up.

Breanna said... [Reply to comment]

In the dog training community, there is actually significant debate about the dominance/social hierarchy thing, and there are a lot of problems with Cesar Milan's methods.

Honestly, I think that there is not as much difference in raising a dog and raising a child as it seems - it's just that culturally, we have outdated methods of raising dogs and then apply that to children! It should be the other way around. The main difference is that it is much easier to communicate with the child and figure out what their motivations are; with another species, there is much more guesswork.

Some resources for your consideration:

Wolfmother said... [Reply to comment]

I love the comparison! I have noticed how many parents have inappropriate expectations of their children as well and have the mistaken idea that they need to be trained like animals rather than engaged with respect like in any other healthy relationship. I'm definitely sharing this with everyone I know!

Inder-ific said... [Reply to comment]

I have two dogs and one toddler. I see a lot of similarities between having dogs and parenting, and between getting along with dogs and getting along with people in general! But I don't really see dog training as a rigid or punitive system of behavior modification, either. I don't withhold affection when my dog behaves in ways I don't like. I do what I do with my child: I gently and briefly correct (obviously a dog's not going to understand the explanation I would give my child, so it's short), then redirect to positive activities.

I don't think dogs need to be "dominated" and it's counterproductive to punish them, as they do not understand the the difference between right and wrong. I think "firm gentle leadership" is good, and it's much like the firm gentle leadership you use in raising children or getting along well with people generally.

I am often upset when I hear someone say something like, "But Fido KNEW that was wrong! I could see it in his body language." No, your dog doesn't know what's wrong or right. He just sees YOUR body language and is cringing in fear, you know? Unlike children, there's a limit to the abstract intellectual abilities of a dog. Your child might (or might not!) actually understand those things, but a dog does not. People who overly anthropomorphize their dogs in that way are doing them no favors.

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@SheilaExcellent point!

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@Breanna Thank you for your help! Actually, the Budiansky book was really helpful to read because it included scientific studies in the differences between dog groups and wolf packs, but since this is a blog, I sort of glossed the stuff that was pretty similar in the dog books together!

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@Wolfmother Thanks! By the way, I love your name!

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@Inder-ific Thanks for your response! I know I was simplifying things a bit when it comes to the dog training, but I was just trying to get the conversation started between the differences between dogs and kids. Like the differences between a dog's intellectual capability and a kid. I just wanted to point out that children do have more complex capabilities. Thank you for pointing out more of the similarities, too.

Jane Impromptu said... [Reply to comment]

I agree with Breanna, when we did a puppy preschool class for our great dane the first excerise was puppy massage, which reminded me of course in baby massage I had done. I often joked that if he wasn't a great dane I would carry him in a sling. Both parenting and animal training in our society is old fashioned, and I enjoy hearing about gentle methods for both :)

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@Jane Impromptu Thanks for the comment, Jane! Thank you for reading!

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Ale Rossi said... [Reply to comment]

Great topic related to pet care you have taken to discuss here. I personally believe that sometimes having a pet may help people in improving their lifestyles.
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