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!  

I’ve Got A New Baby! What Do I Say To Her?

Some people just don’t know what to say to babies and toddlers.  I remember a moment from a TV show, where a young and hip man was left alone with a little kid, and was plainly   uncomfortable.  Desperately fishing for something to break the silence, he finally says “So, you’re a kid, huh?”

Not the smoothest conversation starter, but when it comes to talking to new babies, really pretty much anything will do.  Newborn babies are sponges for hearing and learning, and the more words and talk they hear, the more they learn, and the smarter they become.  There are a few easy hints to make talking to babies better for them.  First, talk to them with your face about a foot or two in front of theirs.  Newborns like looking at faces, but their new eyes can only focus on faces that close.  Second, make the most of the time that baby is awake.  Newborns are only awake about four hours per day, so that is the time to lay it on.  Just start talking, use lots of different words, use an upbeat voice.  For the first month you may not get much response, but don’t be discouraged.  After that time babies “wake up” to the world, and nothing is more fun than watching their faces light up when you start talking.  They start cooing along and smiling and laughing, and that is the best.

When you talk to toddlers, stay upbeat and positive, and keep talking with a lot of different words.  Believe it or not, toddlers still don’t speak much English at 1 to 3 years old.  They still only have a few words they really understand, like “no,” “juice,” and “cat.”  Use full sentences even if they can’t; they’ll learn.  Even if the toddler acts defiant, stay polite and upbeat.  They learn good English and good manners by imitation, so be a good role model.

When toddlers begin to act bad, this is when talking positive and being polite become hard work.  Yelling at them to “Sit down!” and “Shut up!” teaches them to speak rudely too.  Also, they don’t understand the meaning of lots of commands and sentences, so they can only follow the tone of your voice and body language.  Modeling impatience and frustration teaches them to be impatient and easily frustrated.

Therefore, talking to toddlers needs to be done in a way that you want your toddler to act and talk.  ”Please sit down so mommy can do this” should be done in a polite tone, with gently guiding the toddler to his chair.  If he is acting badly and defiant and just won’t sit down, then gently guide him to his time-out chair, the one with the buckle that keeps him in place.  The time-out should last as many minutes as his age- one year olds stay in for one minute, two year-olds for two minutes, and so on.  And then ignore all screams and rants and bad behavior and go about your business in a calm way.  When time is up, ask “Are you ready to be helpful?,” again in a positive voice.  If he is, great.  If not and the defiance continues, back into the chair for another break.

I am not saying that this approach with toddlers is easy or always possible, except for the most saintly and patient of parents.  However, you need to start making the effort and keep reminding yourself to stay nice.  Many toddlers are hard work when it comes to making good behavior, but the effort counts!

When it comes to talking to babies and toddlers, just start.  To quote a movie title, Say Anything.  Say it nicely, and say it a lot.