Dog training techniques work on children, too

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

Dogs and children are surprisingly similar creatures:

Might dog training techniques then teach us something about parenting? Strictly speaking, this should work for human children up to age two to two-and-a-half, though so-called “super dogs” have mental abilities akin to a three-year-olds, says Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at University of British Columbia and author of The Intelligence of Dogs.

“This works both emotionally and cognitively,” he tells Quartz, “so the techniques that will work for a two- or three-year-old child will work for a dog and vice versa.” By the time children reach age four or five, they begin to diverge from dogs by using language and intellect to reason things out.

Here are the recommended techniques (with edited-down descriptions):

Give them physical cues

Dogs require a consistent physical signal to focus their attention on a specific task or command. This is also true of human infants, who have been shown to learn better when prompted with social cues to direct their attention (for instance, turning our head or directing our gaze). “With children too,” Johnston tells Quartz, “it’s really important that you call their attention and signal to them that you’re trying to tell them something. Even infants are much more ready to learn when you use special cues.”

Know what they can and can’t handle

Typically children’s brains begin developing the capacity for self-control between the ages of 3 and 5, though the process continues until about age 11.

Dogs act out when their frontal lobes are over-worked. That’s why they chew up furniture or bark uncontrollably when left alone to simmer in their anxiety. This is also why young children throw tantrums at toy stores or while waiting for a meal at a restaurant.

“You figure how to engage him in an appropriate behavior before he engages in an inappropriate behavior.” In these situations, distracting a child before they act out is more effective than waiting to punish them.

Use positive reinforcement

In MRI scans of young children, neuroscientists found that negative reinforcement requires complicated reasoning that is difficult for their brains to grasp. In essence, small children fail to understand where they made the mistake. As they approach adolescence, though, negative reinforcement, which takes more complicated reasoning, becomes more effective, though scientists have yet to identify why this change in cognition occurs.

Model good behavior

Johnson recently conducted research at Yale University’s Canine Cognition Center that built on a previous Yale study of toddlers. In the previous study, the toddlers watched an adult run through a series of steps to open a puzzle box and get a prize. One of the steps was completely superfluous, yet the toddlers in the experiment did it anyway, without discriminating between what was necessary and what wasn’t. In Johnson’s study, dogs watched people go through steps to open a puzzle box and retrieve a treat. The people pulled one lever on the box that was irrelevant to the task. When dogs tried to solve the puzzle, they began to skip the lever step as soon as they learned to just open the lid instead.

Researchers believe that children meticulously repeat an adult’s sequence of steps because, unlike dogs, human socializing involves many behaviors that are not directly related to survival.

Run with their personality

“Kids are similar to dogs—at least before they can talk—because you can’t ask them questions. But you can ask them to make choices, and we can find out a lot about how they see the world when we use this method,” Hare, of the Dognition lab, says. “Some dogs are super communicative, while others might rely on their exceptional memories. You would teach these dogs in different ways, playing to their strengths.”

Guide them with calm, controlled authority

The rules vary based on a dog’s or child’s unique personality, but one thing must remain constant: the authority figure’s calmness and self-control.


  1. Kirk says:

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here again–If you can’t successfully train a dog, you’ve got no damn business trying to raise a kid.

    It’s all about behavioral modification. The most valuable leadership book I ever read was a little work by a woman named Karen Pryor, and was entitled Don’t Shoot the Dog. In it, she laid out her ideas about operant conditioning as applied to animal training, and it was an eye-opener to me.

    Behavior, at all levels, is a conversation between the organism, the environment, and other organisms. If you want to modify the behavior, you have to analyze the environment in depth, examine the incentives and rewards you’ve set up, and then work from there. You can’t get from “Negative, irritating behavior ‘A’” to “Behavior I want ‘B’” by yelling at the target. You have to figure out specifically why that behavior exists, what purpose it serves, and then you can work to eliminate it via the appropriate techniques. Coercive brute-force punishment techniques or “corrections” have their place–Sometimes, you have no choice but to tackle and slap the shit out of some idiot who has ignored your instructions not to run towards the rear of the helicopter on landing and debarking. Other times, that sort of thing is totally inappropriate, and you have to step back and analyze “Why the f**k are they doing this…?”, and then implement changes to the environment that will result in your desired behavior. Sometimes, you don’t even need to talk to the training subject–Just change the environment to meet your needs. Dumbasses are leaving trash all over the quad? Why? Oh, no trash cans are out there, and nobody enforces clean-up… Hmmm. Get trash cans, make charge-of-quarters NCO check areas for cleanliness. Yelling at the idjits for making a mess is a waste of time, when you do it on an individual case-by-case basis–You want to fix the problem, you need to make systemic changes.

    As with dogs, same with kids. And, young soldiers, employees, the general public, and about everyone else you’re going to encounter. Don’t like the results you see, in that conversation between individuals and the environment…? Change the ‘effing environment.

  2. Grasspunk says:

    No mention of The Dog Whisperer on South Park? The episode is “Tsst”.

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