My feisty little poodle, Milou, is all dog. He’ll fetch endlessly, race around the yard chasing squirrels, and occasionally catch one in a lightening-fast wrestling match. Unfortunately he has a shrill bark that annoys everyone, especially my back-fence neighbor. When he’s yelling at squirrels there’s no shutting him up.
One morning I was shouting “Come!” to get Milou inside. Ignoring me, he continued yapping at squirrels through the fence, no matter how angry I got. Why wasn’t he answering the command we had drilled and drilled? Then I realized, I wasn’t using the same voice I did in practice! Instead of a harsh, loud “Come!”, I usually used an upbeat happy voice; and practiced “sit” and “stay,” before walking away a few feet, and then “come.”
So I called out, “Sit!” His head came around, yapping cut off. ”Stay?” His front paws came around. ”Come?” He tore back up the lawn and into the house, squirrels forgotten. I had re-learned the old training rule- dogs listen to voice tone more than actual words.
I remembered this some nights later at work, as I heard a mom shout at her 18 month-old daughter, “Sit down! Shut up!” I couldn’t see what was going on behind the exam-room curtain, but apparently the toddler wasn’t listening, as mom continued her tirade. The problem with dogs and toddlers, I thought, is that they don’t really speak English.
Silly as it sounds, training dogs and toddlers is similar. Neither understands the meaning of words- meanings must be demonstrated by action. Both want to please their parents, they just don’t know how, and need to be shown. Both need consistent, kind guidance, with positive reinforcement of good behavior.
Take potty training. First, your toddler sees what you do on the toilet. Then you sit her on the potty, and wait patiently through many sessions until she poos or pees. When it finally happens, you reward that desired behavior with praise, and in the case of my daughter who loved band-aids, a pink band-aid stuck on her arm. You repeat that cycle for more sessions until she gets the hang of it.
My daughter who loved bandaids as a potty-training treat, hated time-outs. No surprise, as time-outs are a punishment. But she really hated them. When we put her in the chair, she would jump back out, until we strapped her in. When we turned her to face away, she would kick at the wall to knock her and the chair over. After a few scares, we kept the chair just far enough away.
Time-out is another action-based training technique useful for teaching toddlers and dogs (and hockey players). Instead of giving a positive reinforcement like treats or praise, time-out removes positive reinforcements from the trainee to show that a specific behavior is not desired.
Most parents use time-outs, and they are much more effective than harsh punishments like spanking. However, a recent study in the journal Academic Pediatrics reported that 85% of parents do at least one time-out technique incorrectly. 64% made multiple mistakes. Such errors included talking with the child while he was in time-out, giving multiple warnings before time-out, and allowing him books, computers, or toys while in.
To be most effective, you must remove all interesting interactions from time-out, including facing a wall so there’s nothing to look at. The child should be put in immediately for bad behavior, no warnings. Multiple warnings only teach toddlers that they have multiple chances at bad behavior before punishment.
Place the child in with minimal emotional input- a firm voice telling them simply why she’s in time-out, no embellishments or scolding. If your child wants to deny it or start arguing, ignore that. Your toddler wants conversation and attention, so silence between you and him is the rule. And no toys or screens in time-out- it’s supposed to be no fun! Time-out should last one minute per year of age: 2 year-olds get 2 minutes, 3 year-olds 3 minutes, etc.
Finally, all training, whether positive reinforcements with rewards, or time-outs with removal of rewards, requires consistency. Like we mentioned above, dogs and toddlers don’t really “speak english;” they don’t understand the meaning of words. Meaning must be taught by action, again and again, until it sticks. And the amount of persistence equals the amount of good behavior you can expect from your toddler. Or your dog!