“Train Your Baby Like a Dog” is the title of a new TV programme following dog trainer, behaviourist and mother of a toddler, Jo-Rosie Haffenden as she helps exhausted parents by applying methods she uses in dog training.
As you might expect, with a title like that, it’s caused a great deal of controversy internet-wide even before it’s been aired.
The broad concept isn't new. Here's a little background.
Some underlying principles of how we learn are common to all animals. And dogs, like us, are not only highly social with their own kind but have evolved over thousands of years to bond with us. So, the training comparison is often compelling.
Clients tell me all the time that they’re finding having a puppy like having a baby. I doubt you’d hear that about a kitten!
And if bringing up a dog seems so reminiscent of those early years with a baby, it's perhaps not surprising that the reverse is true.
Back in the ‘80s (long before I became a dog trainer) I read behavioural scientist Karen Pryor’s bestselling, classic “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, which entertainingly introduces the principles of positive reinforcement for teaching your pets, your children – and, as I remember it, your spouse – without the need to nag, threaten, punish or, as the title says, shoot the dog.
The principles of learning are always the same. The technology of training without punishment, and with a marker, works with any organism with a nervous system. Adapting positive reinforcement training to human problems just requires slightly different methods. Karen Pryor
As I remind my puppy-owning clients, behaviour that’s rewarded gets repeated. And that principle is no different whether the learner is a puppy, a baby or a goldfish.
The parent/trainer’s job is to work out what’s rewarding to the learner, be they puppy or human (or goldfish), break the behaviour down so the learner can build on success, and be very aware of timing (to reward the ‘right’ thing).
If your puppy or your baby whine for a toy/sweet and you respond by providing it – whaddya know, you’ll get more whining! (Why we’re so triggered by whining is for another time.)
If your baby or your puppy are happily settled with some appropriate activity — say, chewing a bone not the furniture (that’s the puppy) or playing with toys not experimenting with electrical sockets (that’s the toddler, though to be fair it could be either of them) and you reward with a treat and praise (the puppy) or maybe simply a smile and some attention (the toddler) you’ll likely get more of that too.
Karen Pryor's books was published over 30 years ago, and although the underlying principles remain the same, the methods 21st century dog trainers use have changed considerably.
Whether you’re teaching your puppy or your baby, your aims are likely much the same: to have them grow up to be happy, secure and able to fulfill their potential.
Channel 4 and Jo-Rosie say they hope to help transform our homes from exhausting battle grounds into oases of calm.
Nonetheless, I’ll stick to helping people train their dogs. After all, however old they get, our dogs will continue to want to learn from us — something that can’t be always be said about our children!
Train Your Baby Like a Dog — Channel 4, August 20th, 8pm