Whenever I am not hanging out with dogs, I am pretty likely to be hanging out with kids. I work for a local mental health service, providing behavior interventions in an area school. The kids I work with all meet Seriously Emotionally Disturbed criteria, but it sounds more intense than it actually is, most days at least. I teach kids to behave in school and the community, all while teaching them to make good choices, to accept natural consequences, and to use their coping skills to remain calm and focused. I’ve learned a lot by working with kids, and there are more similarities between working with dogs and working with kids than I would have thought. The average dog can understand 165 words, often more with training. A dog’s ability to problem solve is around the same as a 3-4 year old child.
***I am not saying implying that dogs and kids are equal, or that dogs should be treated like children. They are still a different species from us, even if they do have a lot in common. They will fare much better in your home if they are treated like a dog.
I spend a lot of time around small children who lack focus, either age related or because of ADHD. The boys especially tend to be impulsive, wiggly and reactive. Many of the kids need instant feedback for doing something well, even if, two seconds later, they are out of their seat and making siren noises. Yes, this is my life. Dogs also need instant feedback. This is why I love the clicker so much!
Kids need behaviors broken down into small steps if we want them to be successful. When I am coming up with a behavior plan for a kiddo, I can’t expect them to suddenly begin raising their hand rather than blurting out answers, staying in their seat and on task rather than wandering the classroom or talking, keeping their hands to themselves all day and listening to directions the first time they are given. It is just too much, especially for a child whose brain chemistry and life experiences make these criteria more difficult. Add in maturity or lack thereof, and the increased workloads placed on students, it is not that surprising that there are behavioral issues. We work on one criteria at a time, provide that instant feedback and track progress made. Dogs also need things broken up into small steps. This is called shaping (more on this later.) They can’t be expected to know all of the rules and expectations either, and they are at a bigger disadvantage because we can’t just tell them what we want. Although, I can tell kids what I would like from them and some still do the exact opposite.
Kids and dogs both continue to do what has worked for them in the past and they remember everything. This is why kids with behavior issues so often seem to strive for negative attention. Their good behavior often goes unnoticed at home, but as soon as they do something they shouldn’t, someone is sure to notice. Negative attention may be better than no attention at all. When that is mostly what they get, it becomes their normal. There are kids out there who have no idea what to do with positive attention. Then, it becomes the other adults involved to teach the kids that positive attention is actually a really good thing. Plus, kids don’t generally offer a behavior unless they get something out of it. A kid acts up in school to be sent home. They tease a classmate to make themselves look tough. They often can’t identify why they do what they do, but there is always a reason for it. I see the same thing with dogs all the time. The dog is on their bed, chewing a bone, and nobody even notices. The dog starts to chew a shoe, and may get a game of chase out of it. Chase is fun! Of course the dog will keep doing what got them a fun game.
Both like having a sense of control and being allowed to make choices. Kids are either often micromanaged or their home life feels so out of their hands, that they look for control where they can find it. Sometimes, it is in refusing to participate in a certain activity or eating a certain food. They often fight and argue about things that seem silly. I’ve had standoffs with seven year olds about how to spell a certain word. Dogs might not be as aware of control-seeking actions, but they also like choices and dislike being micromanaged. The trick with both is to allow them to have choices on things that will not cause them harm. I allow kids to choose snacks or prizes and I allow my dog to choose which path to take when we go for a walk.
Kids and dogs handle insecurity and fears in much the same ways as well. I have worked with kids who hang back and try to be invisible, making themselves look as unthreatening as possible. They may want out of the situation desperately. But there are also the ones who feel the need to lash out instead. They are both equally insecure, but the one is going to make sure they appear tougher than the other kids. Most school bullies are very insecure kids, but that is how they deal with their feelings. Dogs do pretty much the same thing. They also have a fight, flight or freeze response. That dog who is cowering in a kennel is probably no more nervous and fearful than the one who is barking and lunging at the end of the leash. They just have learned in their own way what works for them. I know with kids, sometimes the loud one is almost easier to help, because at least we know what they are feeling in that moment and can give them some calming strategies.
While most kids don’t realize it, they do so much better with consistency, clear expectations, rules and boundaries. They may push against them, but it is nice knowing that there are things in their lives that are going to remain the same, no matter what else happens. They like having a routine, and often times struggle to adjust to a change in it, even if it is something small as going to an assembly first thing in the morning. This could put their entire day out of balance. Some kids are more resilient than others to change, usually the ones who have been prepared for it and have been included in the planning process. Dogs also like their routines. They may not be able to tell time, but they know when it is time to eat. If you consistently walk them or offer a treat at a certain time of day, the day you forget or can’t do it, your dog will most likely be all out of sorts. My dog will start asking for a chew treat just before bedtime, because most nights, he gets one.
Kids and dogs both are observant and it is difficult to hide things from them. Kids can usually find someone who is weaker than them, or know exactly what to say to get a rise out of another person. They can spot weaknesses in a relationship and can use these to their advantage. Even if they can’t verbalize it, they are pretty in tune to their parents’ emotional states. The parent is nervous, the kid might be on edge more than usual too. Dogs also can pick up on our feelings. We might be able to hide our feelings from other people, but our dogs know. It can affect their behavior as well.
Some days, I am surprised how often I say (and repeat) “Sit.” Not to my dog, but during school hours. Kids seems to respond to single word cues as well. Sometimes, at least. At the end of the day, I would probably say that working with dogs is easier, but both have their challenges. I’ve been bitten more times by kids, but have had worse bites from dogs. Dogs have the added challenge of being a different species and we have a major language barrier with. Plus, the kids I work with are potty trained, so there is that to be thankful for. Honestly, I enjoy both and want to somehow merge the two worlds together in harmony. Both hold a place in my heart.
While I am still building up my client base, I do get calls and messages from time to time where the dog owners ask for help with a certain behavior, or are looking to eliminate a certain behavior. They are desperate to get their dog to sit. I ask a few more questions, and find out that they are not so much looking for a sit as they are looking for the dog settle, to not jump on guests, to stop begging at the table, to just be calm enough to be loved on. Sit is a great exercise that is incompatible with jumping up, but for all of these issues, the real thing that dog actually needs is impulse control.
What is impulse control for dogs? I’m glad you asked. Impulse control is simply where the dog makes the decision to resist the desire to perform an action. Impulse control can be tough for dogs, because often times those impulses are fueled by instinct. Plus acting on instinct is also self-reinforcing. Dogs are predators, predators chase smaller animals. However, we may not want our dogs chasing cats or risking harm by chasing a bunny out in the street. It sure is fun for them though! Sometimes those impulses are things that have been reinforced in the past, such as when the dog got a great game of chase or tug by chewing on your shoes. Some of it is just because dogs live in the moment, and don’t pause to think a decision through. It looks tasty and unattended, they eat it. It looks like fun, they play with it.
There are also some dogs who lack impulse control, out of fear, frustration or over-arousal. Reactive dogs generally will benefit from some impulse control training, to teach them that they have some control of events in their lives. These are the dogs whose first instinct may be to choose flight, and when they can’t, their next impulse is to fight and carry on.
In this regard, dogs are very much like children. In fact, there are a lot of human issues that come from lack of impulse control as well. Kids are impulsive all of the time, and it is a hard thing to teach them not to be. I should know, I am struggling to teach a kid I work with every day to stop and think before he reacts. I think teaching dogs is easier though. Teenagers are famous for this, because they often times put themselves in a dangerous situation without thinking of the consequences first. It doesn’t always go away in adults either. There are impulsive eaters, impulsive shoppers, impulsive gamblers, and adults who continue to make decisions that could cause them harm.
Impulse control is definitely easier to teach to adult dogs, but it should be started as soon as your puppy comes home. There are so many times in a dog’s day to day life that we can ask them to practice to impulse control, without setting up special training sessions. And the things they do in their day to day life may also serve as the reinforcement as well. If we ask our dog to sit while we put their food bowl down and release them to go eat, the food is the prize. Some other examples that you can do to practice impulse control in your dog’s day to day life are: ask your dog to sit before you scratch their ears, ask them to sit before you leash them up for a walk, sit before they come inside or go outside, wait before getting out of the car or their crate, sitting and taking a chew treat from you calmly. You can teach all of these just as a part of your day to day life, although, your dog will learn these skills faster if you do multiple repetitions during each training sessions. Teach your dog to sit before you throw a toy or play tug with them. You know they have this impulse control game down when they also offer a stay until released to go get the ball. The dog learns that they get what they want by offering calm behaviors.
For other scenarios, you will want to set up training sessions. Teaching your dog to “Leave It” does not necessarily come naturally, and the level of impulse control needed depends on the stimulus and the location. It has to be built up slowly, in the least distracting environment possible, and then increasing distractions in a controlled way. It is really important to teach our dogs that by leaving something alone that they really want, they get something better in return. It’s a trade. Leave-It can be used for dogs who are food thieves, to keep them out of a cat box (gross, I know), away from questionable finds outside, and for chasing other animals. There are lots of amazing games that start to teach dogs to make these choices on their own, by heavily reinforcing the dog when they make the choice that we want them to make. Check out this video for some more information. http://www.dogtrainergames.com/its-yer-choice/ Dogs who pull on the leash and drag you around are lacking impulse control, but it is possible to teach all dogs to walk nicely on a leash. I usually start without a leash, and reinforce lots of checking in with me.
A couple of other set ups that I strongly encourage all dog owners to do are teaching your dog to relax. Just like with some people, some dogs are better at relaxing than others. Lots of mental stimulations will help with this, as will teaching them to go to a set spot in your home, such as a bed or crate. You can send your dog to their spot when you are eating, when guests come, and when you can see that they need a break. They have to be built up to this point, because this is high distraction. I highly recommend Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation. https://www.boulderhumane.org/sites/default/files/ProtocolforRelaxation.pdf I also believe that all dogs should learn to respect boundaries. This is where we teach the dog to remain behind a line that we have established. Check out this link here for more information. https://clickertraining.com/node/2409 You may also have to begin some counter-conditioning if your dog’s impulses are based on fear and their fight or flight reflexes. Check this site for more information. http://careforreactivedogs.com/
To start training impulse control, it is always important to assess your dog’s mental state and to decide if they are ready for training at this time. Your dog may be able to handle something at home but will get too excited anywhere else. Don’t put your dog in situations that they won’t be successful in. We always want to set our dogs up for success!
Teaching impulse control to dogs is the answer to so many different behavior issues, which will be the next post. As you can see, this is something I am pretty excited about. I’m looking forward to offering classes on Impulse Control. If you would like to start teaching these skills to your dog, I am here to help!
Since I am teaching a Recallers class right now, good recalls have been on my mind a lot lately. I've been looking at mistakes I have made and seen made in order to help my students have the best recall possible. The two biggest reasons that a recall falls apart are that the behavior hasn't been proofed enough and the dog learns that he/she doesn't have to listen. In the world of recall training, repetition, repetition, repetition will be your best friend. However, when your dog learns that a cue can be ignored, sometimes it is best to start with a new one and start from scratch retraining the behavior.
The other issue is that the cue has somehow been poisoned. The dog takes their sweet time getting back to their owner and the dog gets in trouble. The dog may make the association that this particular cue means trouble, so running the other way is self-preservation! Or, the dog is only called for unpleasant experiences, like baths and leaving the park. Of course they ignore the cue then. Again, the best thing to do in this case is to choose a new recall cue, and make it fun and positive every time the dog listens and returns.
Here is an extensive list of potential recall cues that may be novel to your dog. This is a good thing, because the dog has no association with this word. You can turn paying attention and listening to this cue to be the most fun thing in the world, with the best ever treats, play sessions and cuddles. Plus, it may be less likely that everyone else and their dog is using the same cue as you, lessening confusion for your dog. Enjoy, and let me know if you chose one of these cues in the comment sections!
Dogs often make us scratch our heads and look on in bemusement. I’m sure they feel the same way about us too. Some of what they do is embarrassing or frustrating to us, some is potentially dangerous to them, and sometimes their behavior and habits are just plain gross. This is a good time to remind ourselves that dogs are not human. Of course we all know this, but so often, I hear someone tell me that they know their dog chewed up their shoes to punish them and they are feeling super betrayed by their buddy. I mean, a dog I used to have pooped on my bed this one day I didn’t come home at lunch time. She hopped up on my bed and left a gift right in the middle. She had a dog door, so it wasn’t a necessity thing. I felt punished, but looking back, she was just showing her displeasure in an obvious way. Let’s remember that dogs are animals and their reasons behind behavior are actually pretty simple. Here, I will share as much insight as I have on why dogs do these kinds of things.
Hi, I'm Rachel. I'm crazy about dogs and want to see all of them living the best life possible. Most of my free time is taken up by dogs, but when I am not working with my own or others, I also enjoy cooking, volunteer work, reading and Netflix in my pajamas.