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Leading With Love – What Training My Dogs Taught Me About Working With Children

Leading With Love – What Training My Dogs Taught Me About Working With Children

I’d just finished a particularly grueling two-hour session with a family and an 8-year-old boy who was defiant, angry and acting out with abandon. Everyone was frustrated-the parents, the children, the teachers. And by the end of the session, so was I. I left the school and went outside to sit by the ball field and clear my head. I’m missing something, I thought, when I noticed a young man with a large dog in the corner of the field. The dog would sit, wait, then with a single hand motion from the young man, jump and sit down again. That dog’s eyes never left the young man as he waited for his next cue.

That’s it. That’s the look in that child’s eyes…Tell me what to do. Teach me how to do it. I’m clueless. And no one was teaching him. All we were doing was talking about everything that he was doing wrong and asking him to come up with a solution.

From that point on, I was on a mission. I rescued two large dogs-both willful, strong, and quirky-and set myself to training them. What I’ve learned from them has forever changed my work and helped countless families. What it requires of us to train dogs are the same qualities we need to be effective parents.

P.A.R.C.-Positivism, Authority, Realism, Consistency and Clarity

Positivism : When parents complain about their children or bring their children in for treatment, usually early on in the process of creating a behavior modification plan I ask them to write me a list of the behaviors they’d like to see. One list I got from Marcia (*name and details changed) was pretty typical:

  • Leave without cleaning room – they get docked for one night.
  • Talking back – sent to their room.
  • Starting a fight with her brother – no telephone.

I asked her, What would you like to see them do INSTEAD? She had no ready answers. She had become so accustomed to yelling at them for what they’d failed to do or done wrong, it was hard to unravel the “nots” in her head so that we could rephrase the behaviors positively. Dogs clearly do not understand “nots.” If they hear you say, don’t sit, all they get is: sit. Humans are no different, especially when we’re upset, scared, nervous, or angry. Consider this: Don’t think of a beach. Not the sand between your toes or thesound of the waves rhythmically crashing up against the shore, not the call of seagulls as they fight over scraps of food, nor the heat of the sun on your shoulders as you walk into the water. Don’t think of a beach. Anything but a beach. What did you think of? Keep your goals clear and positive. Know what you want your children to DO, not just what you want them NOT to do. The more you repeat the negative, the more that image will come up in their minds. What we expect tends to be realized. Both in our world and in our children’s.

Authority: When I got my first dog, Angie, I quickly realized I’d have to go to a professional handler for help. Angie is an 85-pound mix (Malamute, Chow, and Flat Coat Retriever) who looks (and sometimes acts) like a black wolf. She was and still is a formidable dog – fiercely protective and highly dog aggressive. When I got her from a colleague, she was exceedingly ill, neglected, untrained, and high-strung. Needless to say, I had not been given any warning. So, when I found out what I had signed up for, it was too late to back out. I had already fallen in love. The pivotal moment came in a park, my second or third day out with her, when another dog (off lead, of course) approached us and she went wild, dragging me half way down a dirt path, yanking a ligament along the way. The other dog tore off into the woods and I limped home.

Nancy and Emma, partners and professional dog handlers at People Training For Dogs in Rockland County, N.Y., heard the story and saw my limp. They also watched Angie’s behavior when another dog was brought near her. Nancy explained the incident in the park: She thought she was the boss. She was protecting you. In the absence of authority, she assumes control. You have to become her Alpha.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So do children. When parents do not provide authority, children assume the dominant position. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It is survival. Someone has to be in control. Authority is calm, sure-footed, firm, confident and compassionate. If you are tentative, hesitant, punitive, or vacillating, you are giving mixed messages and can no longer be trusted to lead. Authority is leadership. Children naturally gravitate to leaders, to adults who seem to know what they’re doing. Children want someone to guide them while at the same time allow them to make mistakes and learn. Authority says: Follow me. I know what I’m doing. Authority says: I understand what you need. Authority says: I will keep you safe.

Many parents quickly confuse authority with the harsh and angry dominance of their own childhoods. Authority speaks firmly, in a low-pitched voice, clearly, calmly. Yelling and making idle threats undermines a parent’s authority more quickly than almost anything else. Authority can be quite kind and loving even when it corrects negative behavior. One parent I know used to get into yelling matches and power struggles with her 5-year-old son in session. I didn’t do it. Yes, you did. No, I didn’t. Yes, you did.

She had been engaged on the level of a peer instead of as a parent. I said to her-You’re the mommy. You are the most important authority in your child’s life. Rest easy and be comfortable in that authority, knowing that you will do what your child needs you to do, whether or not your child understands or likes it at the moment. Most parents do not know they have permission to be the boss and loving at the same time and are terribly relieved to hear it. So are most children.

Realism: In the course of working with dogs, I have become a hard and fast realist. Once, I thought all dogs were the same-happy, friendly, Lassie-loyal and adept. I wasn’t even close. Dogs are as disparate and distinct as people and they come with learning styles and personalities just as complex. What we expect is more than often not what we get.

Ty-my second rescue-is a beautiful 80-pound Chow-Hound-Retriever mix (and God knows what else). His face is striking and very appealing to children. However, children do not appeal to him. They frighten him and he responds to their approach by barking and snarling in a most hostile manner. I therefore do not let children near him. Ever. Angie, on the other hand, is tolerant in the extreme. A baby could put his hand in Angie’s mouth and she would roll over, gentle and forgiving.

When we set goals for our children, we need to take their unique natures into account. Who are our children apart from our own expectations, our own disappointments? What are their strengths and weaknesses? A child with a profound auditory processing disability will not respond to complex verbal requests and reminders. A child with a highly sensitive nature will only tolerate so much teasing or joking, even from a parent. If you want a sedate dog, don’t get a Dalmatian or a terrier-they need to be working most of the time and if left alone for hours a day will release their energy on your sofa or the legs of your dining room table. A Rhodesian Ridgeback may be curbed from lunging at every squirrel while on lead, but his hunting instinct will never be eliminated. And it is good and proper that way. Bad training is never the dog’s fault. It is ours for failing to account for the dog’s nature-both the traits we want and the traits we don’t.

When we say things like, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” or “What’s the matter with you?” we are inadvertently shifting the focus from the behavior-where it should be-to the person. Steve Diller, a renown dog handler and author of the book, Dogs and Their People, wrote, “It is the incorrect behavior that needs fixing, not the dog.” I’d add, “And not the child.” If we make the child feel as if he or she is wrong, bad, insufficient, unworthy, we will have solved nothing, and, in fact, will have probably created a problem far more painful and persistent.

One child was brought to me for impulsivity and aggression in class. He was sullen and unhappy when I met him and called himself “bad” over and over during the interview. His parents were clearly disappointed in him. It turned out, however, that he had been getting picked on by the class bully and had been trying to stand up for himself. That quality in him-of not accepting abuse-was not a defect. It was a strength that needed to be channeled. When the parents reframed it that way and saw that it was indeed a character trait that they valued, they were able to distinguish more carefully between the boy and the behavior. He was not “bad” at all. Nor was his instinct to protect himself. All they had to do, then, was reinforce other, more positive options for him.

Consistency and Clarity: Decide on the behavior you want to see and be consistent. Be clear when you communicate your decisions. And if it’s a two-parent household, make SURE the two of you are in solid agreement. There is nothing that undermines a child more than a division between the parents. Don’t change your mind or allow them to get away with acting out or manipulating because it’s easier or more convenient, or, worse, to get back at your spouse. Your consistency is the cornerstone of behavior modification.

When I worked in an elementary school, I saw children who acted out in the classroom. More often than not, the behavior was a carry-over from home. And, again, more often than not, limits were either not in place, unclear or inconsistently set. Many parents (especially with the demands of work) wanted to see me without their spouse being present. Except in rare cases, I would hold out to see both parents (or in some situations even include the grandparents or other relatives if they were living in the home). Some parents got irritated and considered the demand excessive. However, my experience has shown me that if the parents are not on the same page, it is a wasted effort.

Besides, it often gave me a much better understanding of the child’s behavior. I remember one 10-year-old boy vividly. He was getting detention (which was held right outside my office) about twice a week for using foul language in the hall and being aggressive with other children. I called in his parents. It was easy to see where the behavior was coming from. When their presentation and relationship was transformed, so was their child’s behavior.

Consistency is often the most difficult obstacle for parents. I explain from the very beginning that initiating a behavior contract can actually make things worse for a little while. There’s a spike in negative behavior as if the children were pushing the limit to test us, to see if we really mean what we say. Then, with time and consistency, there’s a plummeting drop-off and the negative behavior is eliminated. This learning curve differs in duration and intensity from child to child and family to family, but it is almost universal.

One mother with a brilliant but angry young boy had her entire extended family in on the contract. They all participated, staying on track despite the little boy’s initial resistance, and they saw a marked increase in good behavior with a concomitant decrease in his tantrums and aggression. Two months later I receive a call, “He’s getting into fights.” “Have you been using the contract?” “Well, no, I thought we could stop after a while.” So, it was back to basics for them and eventually the acting out resolved. Behavior management with children is a way of life, not a one-time application. It is a way of communicating and relating over time.

Half the time, we don’t actually tell children what we want from them. In fact, we think we’re saying it over and over, but-as the old adage goes-if they ain’t getting’ it, we ain’t deliverin’! Or we may be saying one thing with our words and a vastly different thing with our tone and body language.

Steve Diller has said that a vast proportion of behavioral problems in dogs are generated by the mixed messages humans give. He gives people three rules:

  • Don’t use the word ‘no’ for everything. The dog won’t know whether you’re talking about the way he barks or the way he’s begging at the dinner table.
  • Don’t use the dog’s name as a reprimand. He won’t come to you when you call.
  • And don’t use the same body language or signal for a multitude of commands. You’ll drive him crazy because he’ll never know what you want him to do.

It’s not only WHAT we do and say, it’s HOW we do and say it. There are a dozen different messages possible in just the word, “fine.” It all depends on our pitch and tone, our eye contact, and our posture. Our intention leaks. What we mean to say we eventually say, even if we don’t use words to say it. Check your own emotional state before you go to deal with your son or daughter. If you’re too angry to talk with them, wait. Keep your voice low-pitched, calm, firm. Let it reveal your confidence. Keep your gaze even, kind, open, and stay willing to see your child’s point of view.

And Above All These Things – Love. When you get what you want, let them know you’re happy. Get excited. The first day I had Angie, she ran away-all the way up to a major thoroughfare, scaring me to death. She would not “come” no matter what I did because she had never been trained to “come.” Her prior owners had left her to wander the streets and highways for days at a time. So we worked on it starting from scratch, using 30-foot leads, hours of repetition and hundreds of treats as reinforcements. I remember the moment it all clicked: She was on the long lead, sniffing around the yard, absorbed in something thrillingly foul. Angie, come! She looked up, turned her head and lollopped over to me, mouth in an open smile, tail wagging. I squealed in joy and hugged her, which reinforced it even further.

The relationship is the glue. Dogs, like children, love us almost automatically. Their love, unless thwarted, is forgiving and unconditional. They want our approval and will often go to great lengths to get it.

Give tons of praise when your child does the right thing. And give tons of love all the time. Your love is a constant. Let them know that in no uncertain terms. Love your partner/spouse. Do so in front of your children and keep your fights private. You can have disagreements in front of your children so they learn about negotiating and resolution, but if you’re in constant conflict, your children will be, too.

There is no substitute for love, no psychological trick, no contract, no therapy that can ever take the place of a parent’s approving smile or loving touch.

c. Judith Acosta, 2009. All rights reserved.