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.
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.