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Can We Teach Children The Same Way We Train Dogs?

Long gone, we hope, are the days where a crack on the nose with a rolled up newspaper is considered a perfectly effective mechanism for teaching a dog some ‘manners’. Modern dog training methods tend to focus on rewarding the good and either ignoring the undesirable or making a calm, calculated correction timed perfectly for the dog to understand exactly what’s happened. But what of modern child training methods? Are the current generation of youngsters lacking the sort of rigid discipline so favoured by The Victorians?

An interesting debate on the excellent Sunday Morning Live show, hosted by the equally excellent Susanna Reid (I say excellent because it seems a rare quality these days to watch a debate show that covers topics evoking great emotion to be moderated in a cool, fair and balanced way rather than playing ring leader to a bear pit atmosphere and a shouting match where all you ever learn is how much each side hates the other!)…I digress, it’s a good show and this was a particularly interesting topic to me.

Proposing the view that our current crop of youngsters would do better if trained in a manner similar to dogs, former Tory MP Edwina Curry showed off her, it has to be said, excellently behaved canine companions.

Dog chewing rag

She had ‘proof’ that her method worked too, in the form of her own daughter who in turn had applied the same disciplines to her own children.

The main thrust of the argument is that children should be told, not asked and that parents didn’t have to answer questions from the young un’s, that they should just do as they’re told, when they’re told, end of debate.

Well, I have to admit it made me think.

I don’t have children, but I enjoy their company. With youngsters in my own extended family, I find myself really, genuinely, enjoying the marathon quiz sessions they put me through. They go something like this…

“What’s that on that book?”

“That’s an owl.”

“What’s a owl?”

“It’s a large bird of prey.”

“Why does it pray?”

“No. Not pray as in prayer, prey as in it hunts other animals to eat.”


“Well, in order for the owl to live and get by, it has to eat animals that are smaller.”


“Well, erm, it’s how nature works.”

“Do I need to eat animals that are smaller than me?”

“Well….(OK, now I’m worrying – is my niece being raised vegetarian? Am I about to inadvertently cause someone else’s small child to have nightmares about giant owls swooping down to eat her?) Erm, no. Not necessarily. Humans don’t HAVE to eat other animals.”

“I like to eat dinosaurs.”

“Do you? Hang on, sorry. What? You eat dinosaurs?”

“Yes. I like the green ones.”


“Yep. They’re wobbly.”


“Yeah. So would a owl eat your dog?”

“No. Owls aren’t really big enough to eat a dog.”

“Would a owl eat a pig?”

“No. Pigs are normally even bigger than dogs.”

“Would a owl eat a dinosaur?”

“Yes. Yes it would.”


“Would your dog eat a owl?”

*and, on, and on, and on!

Fun. I genuinely enjoy these knowledge exchanges. My niece learns about what owls eat and I learn my niece enjoys green, wobbly dinosaurs. Mutually beneficial.

But then, as I say, I’m not a parent. I really don’t know how much fun it would be being subjected to a junior-Paxman session every five minutes.

But what I do know is this. Having worked with more than 2,000 dogs in a training capacity, there are a few key principles that tend to make up the core elements of successfully getting a dog to willingly comply with you:

1. Patience.
Lack patience and you fail. I’ve seen it, often.

2. Consistency.
If you’re hot and cold on a regular basis, think about another career because dog training is NOT for you. Dogs are 1,000,000 times better at reading mood and body language than humans. If you’re in a bad mood, don’t assume for a second you can fake it without your dog noticing. Dogs can ‘thin slice’ better than ANY poker player. (Note: you can read all about this in my forthcoming book Dogsperity: The science of canine achievement – END PLUG)

3. Calmness.
Dogs, by their very nature, do things that we don’t want them to. In some cases, they can cause us genuine stress. But if you lack calmness, you’ll make the sort of emotional mistakes that could take an age to correct.

It’s my experience that it can take a very long time to successfully perfect a desired behaviour in a dog…and about 5 ill-timed seconds to undo it all.

So, where do I stand on the ‘can we teach children the same way we train dogs’ debate?

Well, there’s one thing that really wasn’t touched on in the debate on Sunday and it’s this.

Of the 2,000 plus dogs I’ve personally worked with, I can honestly say no two were ever the same. In fact, the sheer range and variety in personalities is astonishing, EVEN in litter mates.

Which reminded me – if we’re going to suggest that there is a single ‘system’ or ‘method’ to training dogs or children, we’ll fail.

My own brother and I are massively different in the things that motivate us to do or stop doing.

Genetically we’re almost identical, we share the same parents and have enjoyed a virtually identical upbringing, but in terms of shaping our behaviour, my parents must have worked out very quickly what does and doesn’t work with both of us (for example, if my mum wanted to get my brother to do or stop doing something, all she needed to do was ignore him and within minutes he’d be appealing and promising to be good. Me, on the other hand, would consider being ignored the perfect opportunity to do something REALLY naughty. I’d think it was a great chance to do something outrageous – thus causing my mum to have to stop ignoring me, sharpish, and put the real frighteners on me (she’d threaten to tell my dad).

The moral of this little tale seems to be, dogs – just like children – are all wired very, very differently. The key in shaping behaviour is

a) Find out what motivates good behaviour
b) Find out what works as method to stopping undesirable behaviour
c) NEVER get to a point where they don’t want to ask you questions!

Source: – the K9 Magazine blog

Can We Teach Children The Same Way We Train Dogs?

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