SARAH SMILEY

Training dogs and children

Posted Dec. 10, 2011, at 1:50 p.m.
Sarah Smiley
Sarah Smiley

It has become abundantly clear to me in the last month that before having children I should have attended a dog obedience class. It has also become clear, thanks to our adolescent dog, Sparky, what I should expect from my soon-to-be adolescent son, Ford.

Now, I’m not saying my children are like dogs and vice versa. I cannot, after all, put my children in crates. And despite Sparky’s “kisses” and nudges with a wet nose, his “hugs” do not compare to those from Ford, Owen and Lindell. But there are eerie similarities. So many, in fact, that I’ve begun to wonder why the hospital didn’t send me home with Dogs for Dummies instead of a copy of Parenting magazine.

Take the Click-n-Treat dog training method as an example. Without being a dog whisperer, I know Sparky’s internal dialogue — “squirrel, squirrel, small boy with sticky hands, squirrel, squirrel, freeze-dried liver!” — and that using food lures for dog training makes sense. Sparky will do just about anything — spin in circles, bow his head, get in his crate — for the chance to eat a morsel of liver. And once Sparky has been rewarded for an action, he is bound to do it again … and again, and again.

So it’s important that Sparky knows exactly which behavior earned him the treat: “Was it because I opened my mouth and panted? Or because I covered my nose with my paw? Surely it’s not because I covered my nose with my paw. Why would she want me to do that? I think I’ll pant again.”

On a recent walk, when the treat bag accidentally fell and spilled on the pavement, you could almost see the thought process on Sparky’s face: “Now what did I do to make that happen?”

The clicker, a handheld button that makes a popping sound when pressed and is irresistible to children, narrows the behavior down by a matter of seconds. If Sparky was licking his paw in an upstroke when he heard the click, he will lick his paw in an upstroke again.

Imagine life with toddlers if you had a clicker. How many times did I tell baby Owen to stop throwing his graham crackers on the floor, only to turn around and find him throwing his milk on the floor, too … and smiling?

Eventually Owen associated my frustration and stomping foot with good, funny things — spill the milk and Mommy makes all kinds of silly faces. I think he enjoyed watching me clean up, too. With a clicker, I could have rewarded Owen every time the food went in his mouth, not on the floor.

Which leads to another bastion of dog training — consistency. For Sparky, math is simple, paws plus couch always equals banishment to the crate. So Sparky doesn’t get on the couch anymore.

I wish I’d had the same will power with my children, who quickly learned that Mom lets them eat in the living room so long as they “picnic on the floor,” but Dad never lets food out of the kitchen, so when in doubt, pull a kitchen chair in between the two rooms and eat there.

Of course, a child is not a dog. There are in fact many differences, including primate feelings such as guilt.

When my children cried in their crib because they didn’t want to be alone or go to sleep, it never was an option to leave the house until they were quiet. It never was an option to leave the house without them, period.

Sparky knows that whining won’t get him out of the crate because it’s never — not once — worked when I’m not physically present to hear the crying. And I make sure I’m not present to hear the crying. When I return to let loose a calm, happy Sparky, who is now able to console himself and deal with loneliness, we are both better for it. Which is another good parenting lesson, actually.

In Sparky’s first few days at home, he followed me everywhere I went. He was like an infant who thinks his mother hung the stars. He looked at me with great, big, adoring puppy-dog eyes. All was right with our relationship.

Then Sparky turned 6 months old. This, in dog years, is equivalent to adolescence. My lovable pup was then found sneaking away with the head of a Darth Vader action figure or my favorite red shoes. He didn’t come back when I whistled for him. And, indeed, sometimes he looked over his shoulder and said, “Yeah, right.” No, really. That’s what he said.

I’ve taken these slights personally. I’ve re-examined my worth as a dog owner when Sparky runs away with the plastic water bottle, and, in turn, I’ve overemphasized the moments when Sparky returns to adore me.

Increasingly, however, as my oldest son approaches his human teenage years, I’m beginning to think neither Sparky’s aloofness nor his closeness bear much of an immediate reflection on me. I can’t take it personally. I can only stay consistent, keep clicking and be there when Sparky runs back panting. And that’s a valuable lesson as a parent. Minus the clicker. And the panting.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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