Small children and dogs overlap a lot - not just when they’re crashed out in a heap on the sofa, but in their behavior too.
Both are straightforward and honest. Neither of them is devious. While No.1 is the big priority, they will quickly learn to oblige and fit in in order to get what they want.
In your dog’s case, that’s shelter, food, comfort and attention. And in your small child’s case, it’s shelter, food, comfort and attention. (Didn’t I say they have a lot in common?)
I always enjoyed striking deals with my young (and not so young) children. It’s a concept they can easily grasp. You do this and I’ll do that. You get ready for bed and I’ll read you a story on my lap in front of the fire. Whoosh - they’re off to get into their pyjams.
If the prize is presented as a reward for what you want, as opposed to making a threat, wagging a verbal finger, apportioning blame, it’s amazing how quickly your children will go along with you. Saying “You can’t have a story because you’re not ready for bed” is not going to get willing compliance, rather it will produce noisy protests and it’s-not-fairs.
Dogs are just the same. They can quickly learn to take a particular course of action secure in the knowledge that a reward is on its way. Dropping a shower of treats on the floor from my pocket while getting my jumper over my head doesn’t mean the dogs will hoover them up before my face emerges from the woolly tangle. They know that if they leave alone any food that has not been given to them, there’ll be a reward. Not just a treat, but also the warmth of my pleasure flowing over and around them.
For my dogs, sitting at the door will cause it to open, while crashing into it and leaping about in excitement will ensure it stays firmly closed. It doesn’t take a genius of a dog to work out that he’ll get outside faster if he sits quietly for a moment. Similarly, children learn to say please in order to get their slice of cake. Nagging and grabbing don’t cut it.
Here’s the Marshmallow bit
I was reflecting on all this recently when I was taking another look at the Marshmallow Test experiments conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the sixties. These were a study on instant vs delayed gratification in children between 3 and 5. Freud had noted that the ability to defer gratification was a marker of increased maturity. And Mischel’s experiment investigated this.
In the Marshmallow Test, a child had to choose between eating one favourite treat straight away, or - if they could wait for 15 minutes - they’d get two treats. The treat was a marshmallow, or whatever the child valued. A small number of the children caved in straight away and settled for one treat. Of the remainder who chose to wait, only one third managed to last out the fifteen minutes and earn their double reward.
The detailed follow-up studies over the next 40 years were revealing: the children who, at 4, were able to delay gratification, achieved better education results, were more successful, and more healthy, than those who failed the test.
But the part that really interested me as a dog trainer, was that if the tester demonstrated that he was unreliable and could not be trusted to keep promises, the child would snatch his marshmallow as soon as the tester left the room. He wasn’t going to chance missing out altogether for some airy-fairy promise of a second treat.
This is true in children - and so true in dogs!
Marshmallows for Dogs
Many people underestimate their dog’s intelligence. They think “it’s just a dog,” so it doesn’t matter what we say or do. They consider that as we can’t expect the dog to reason and work out a response the only way to communicate is by ordering him about, and as he’s probably not listening anyway they don’t take much heed of what they are saying themselves. This is far from the truth.
Dogs can certainly reason and make choices, and it’s the quickest way to get what you want from them. But if we’re inconsistent with our dog, they soon see that we are unreliable and - just like the Stanford children - will grab what they can when they can. They’ll self-reward opportunistically without a thought for the unpredictable future.
• So when you ask your dog to leave you in peace while you prepare dinner, be sure to reward him for retiring to his bed, and again for staying there.
• When you put your hand on the door handle and wait for calmness, the moment you get it you can throw open the door and release your dog into the great exciting outdoors. Don’t worry - you won’t be standing there all day waiting for silence! If he’s too excited to be still, just walk away and try again a few minutes later. He’ll soon get the message.
• And when you call him in the park, be sure to reward his return lavishly - perhaps with an exciting game with his ball. Let him know it’s the best thing he’s ever done!
What if he doesn’t come? Then the mountain will go to Mohammed. You go to him and he goes back on the lead for a bit while you practice your Call + Reward sequence a few times. Then more freedom and another Call + Reward and so on till it becomes automatic.
Your dog learns that the consequence of non-compliance is loss of freedom, while the consequence of complying is joy, enthusiasm, reward, and fun. Many people get the first bit - they’re good at punishment - but completely overlook the important part: the reward for good responses. Totally back to front thinking!
You can see from this that rewards can be varied, though I can tell you that food will almost always hit the mark with your dog. Little cubes of cheese are very popular. Some dogs respond better to toys. That’s fine, just make sure you always have a toy to hand.
Clear boundaries and consistently rewarding what you want to see repeated are essential to producing a great family dog. And isn’t it nice that it’s the way to get optimum results from our children too?
What about you? Are you a dealmaker or a dealbreaker? Tell us in the comments below.
Beverley Courtney is always looking to build the owner-dog bond. Get your free course From Wild Puppy to Brilliant Family Dog here.
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