Training Dogs and Toddlers

My feisty little poodle, Milou, is all dog.  He’ll fetch endlessly, race around the yard chasing squirrels, and occasionally catch one in a lightning-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!  

ADHD Or Just Bad Behavior?

This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Seth Koster, a Family Practice resident at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.

Is your child ”bouncing off the walls” or “just won’t listen?”  Pediatricians and family physicians see lots of kids with behavior problems.  Parents or teachers often want to know if this is ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or just bad behavior?

ADHD is a hot topic.  Some claim that ADHD is only bad behavior from ineffective parenting- “she just needs a good spanking!”‘  On the other extreme, some kids receive ADHD medication who don’t need it. Regardless if you believe ADHD is real, here are tips on helping kids act better.  Kids who don’t have ADHD respond to these tips; kids who do may respond less consistently, but will still be happier and better behaved.

Spanking?  Many ask, to spank or not to spank?  A bigger question is why are you spanking?  If you do spank your child, avoid doing this in anger.  Only spank for behavior that’s dangerous, like running into the street, not for something small. Explain why you’re punishing. He may not understand right away, but kids get more than you think and will eventually catch on.

More importantly, reward good behavior.  Positive reinforcement is MUCH more effective than punishment.  Saying things like “Thank you for being so quiet,” and “You did a good job picking up your room” is great behavior modification. Every kid (and adult!) likes praise, and kids will work to earn more.

Don’t be sarcastic, or make fun of your child.  Young children are sensitive, and cutting remarks and mean-spirited teasing hurt feelings.  Pre-teens and teens don’t like that either.  If you are unpleasant to your children, they will grow up thinking that it’s okay to be abused and to abuse others

Build family traditions.  Many households lack structure or traditions.  Do something together!  Go to a park or to church every Sunday, or have Friday night pizza as a family. Kids look forward to these things- it’s something to do with mom and dad. Also keep extended family in mind and make time for them.

Keep a home routine, or “rhythm.”  Chaotic homes make chaotic children.  Some kids who seem to have ADHD just aren’t used to having to sit still and follow along; they never learned how at home.  We know it’s especially important to have a routine home life for children with autism or ADHD, but every kid behaves better and is happier with structure.

Keep the same bedtimes.  Don’t let kids stay up later with phones or watching TV-that’s cheating!  Eat meals together at regular times. Give your children daily and weekly chores. Even kids as young as 5 years-old want to help, and should start picking up after themselves.  Be realistic though; the seven year old shouldn’t be shingling the roof.  5-6 year-olds can clean rooms, 8-9 year-olds can help with dishes and take out trash, and 13 year-olds can mow lawns and babysit younger siblings for short periods.

Expect your children to RESPECT others.  Respecting adults and peers is important. The Golden Rule, “Treat people as you want to be treated,” even very young children understand.  This is the South- we expect ”yes sir” and “no ma’am.”  Doing this will help your kids earn respect in turn. 

Set a good example by respecting others in speech and action.  Your child should never hear you curse.  If (or when?) you do mess up, be honest with your children and tell them you expect better from yourself, and them.

Don’t argue with your kids, or ask them “why” they did something.  If they misbehave, punish them appropriately and briefly explanation why they acted badly.  Asking them why makes it personal, as if they are bad inside and not just simply making a mistake.  If they argue with your reasoning, don’t engage them in the argument.  As Dr. Hamilton used to say to his kids, “This isn’t an argument, this is simply how you should act.”

The most challenging child can benefit from these tips. Try them out; if you don’t make progress with difficult behavior, you’re not alone!  Talk with your doctor or school counselor.  They can help you with behavior techniques, to help your kids be the best they can be.

Spare The Rod, Improve The Child

I see it almost every day in the Pediatric Emergency Department: a little one running about the unit yelling, throwing toys, crawling under the curtains.  The parent says something like “Come back here or you’ll get a whipping when we get home,” which the child ignores. The parent repeats the threat, this time in a ominous, growly voice, which again has no effect. Other parents or the nurses say “That kid doesn’t have ADHD, she just needs a good spanking!”

Spanking is a time honored tradition in America.  While other developed cultures have given it up as ineffective, many parents in the US still whack away on their kids, not knowing that there are much better ways to modify a child’s behavior.  Pediatricians have known for years that children who are spanked are more aggressive towards others. When parents spank a child for bad behavior, the child gets the message that hitting is okay.  A doctor friend of mine tells of once slapping his 2 year-old boy’s hand when he misbehaved.  The child became thoughtful, the wheels turning in his head.  He then slapped his own hand, then slapped his father’s hand, trying out this new behavior Dad had showed, and Dad realized he had made a mistake.

A new study on spanking came out in October’s issue of the journal Pediatrics.  It showed that children who are spanked may develop language and problem-solving skills slower than children who are disciplined other ways.  When children are spanked to stop their bad behavior, they don’t learn self-control for themselves.  The self control is demanded from the outside, by the angry parent.  And if the child doesn’t learn self control, he can’t stay controlled enough to solve conflicts with others.  The child resorts to aggression he learned from the parent.  He also can’t stay controlled enough to absorb language that he hears around him.

Now, am I saying that parents should just ignore bad behavior?  No way!  A child absolutely needs to learn how not to be annoying, disruptive, or destructive.  She must learn how to get along with others in a non-violent way.  What pediatricians are saying is that there are much more effective ways to teach good behavior than spanking.

The first important thing about stopping bad behavior is to stop it immediately. Threats of future discipline, second chances, putting off punishment for later, are just ways of letting the child “off the hook.”  Little kids don’t think about the future- if you don’t discipline them right away, in their minds they get away with it.  You may say “don’t do that,” but your inaction tells the child that bad behavior is really okay.  Our disruptive child from above learns nothing when the parent says “you’ll get a spanking when we get home.”  He cannot imagine of a later time when punishment might happen because of his misbehavior now.  He just can’t put that two-and-two together in his little brain yet!

A much more effective discipline is the time-out.  But there are rules that make time-out work best.  The first rule is that the child has no interaction during the time-out.  This means putting the child in a chair facing a corner where there is nothing fun to look at.  This also means that no one, even the parent, should talk to the child.  Having a conversation with the child during time-out, even if it is about the child’s bad behavior, is still a reward for the child, not a punishment.  The child is getting the parent’s attention, which is often the point of the bad behavior anyway.

Time-out should last one minute for each year of the child’s age: two-year-olds get two minutes of time-out, four year-olds four minutes, and so on.  If a child won’t stay in a time-out chair, they then need to buckled in!  One of my daughters needed buckling in, and when that upset her she would kick the wall to topple over the chair!  We would have to quietly pull the chair back far enough so she couldn’t reach the wall.  After the time-out, if the child agrees that they can behave better, they are free.  If they can’t agree (sometimes my daughter wouldn’t) or go back to the same bad behavior, back into time-out and the clock starts afresh.  This way the child learns self-control to earn their freedom.

So consider time-out instead of spanking for your kid.  Spare the rod, but don’t spoil the child.  Time-out is more work for a parent, but isn’t your child worth it?