Train your baby like a dog?

Children will ensure that, during the time it takes for you to raise them, you are provided with an abundance of opportunities to look deeper at yourself and how you treat others. The very fact it takes 25 – 30 years for a human brain to complete its development is a clue to the complexity of what it means to be human. And yet Channel 4 aired a sixty minute show last night (20 Aug 2019), Train Your Baby Like A Dog, showing us all how we can be happier and more relaxed parents if we simply train our children in the same way that Jo-Rosie Haffenden, a leading animal behaviourist and dog trainer, trains dogs.

I am both a parent and a dog owner. In my role as parent my job is to ensure that my child is able to step out into the world being sure of who they are, what they want and how to live alongside others in a considerate, respectful and kind way. As a dog owner, my dog never needs to step into any form of independence – she won’t ever have to make her own meals, change her bedding or manage her finances. In fact, as an adult, my dog has the mental capacity of a 2-3 yr old human. When my boys were that age they loved to run after balls, eat the food I put in front of them, snuggle on the sofa and explore the garden – much like my dog. But that is where this programme runs into the sinking sand it created for itself.

Children are not dogs. Dogs are not children. The show shares some valuable psychology insights about the needs of infant animals, why we see certain behaviours in a range of species and then applies these to the two featured families. What Jo-Rosie fails to do is go on to acknowledge that humans have a greater complexity of needs and behaviours as they grow up. I agree with her that every animal is an individual – we are all different. And when an individual doesn’t feel safe they will be reactive, moving into a fight or flight behavioural response. This isn’t new – this is basic psychology that could even be considered common sense by anyone who has observed themselves and those around them.

Train Your Baby Like A Dog is full of strategies that Jo-Rosie uses on her own incredibly well-behaved pack of dogs – if you’d like your dog to help with laundry and to tidy up your child’s toys then give her a call. She is definitely the woman for the job! But raising confident, kind and secure children isn’t about strategies. It’s about connection. Connection takes time and requires us to listen to our children and tune in to them as the individual even Jo-Rosie knows them to be.

Graydon is a 3 yr old boy who apparently makes his parents’ life a living hell. While the narrative of the show focuses on his violent outbursts and unreasonable tantrums we see a family home where exciting items such as light sabers and skateboards are on full view but he isn’t allowed to play with them. We also witness his parents dismissing all his attempts to communicate with them, moving on to blaming him for his behaviour. I was thrilled that Jo-Rosie was able to help the parents see that they were actually quite unkind to him and that the home was an environment that created constant frustration for him. She even talked about needing to control the environment rather than trying to control the child – something I’ve been explaining to anyone who’ll listen since 2006. And she hinted at the fact that all behaviour is communication.

But this is telly. And telly needs sensation and quick results. So out come the strategies and dog training techniques that use praise and rewards, termed ‘positive reinforcement’, to bring about the change that the parents, Jo-Rosie and the TV commissioners want to see. It’s important to note that using rewards and praise to manage and control behaviour is in itself a form of punishment. It’s the carrot, as opposed to the stick, that motivates from the outside so that the individual slowly loses touch with their own sense of intrinsic motivation.

Jo-Rosie declares that if everyone raised their babies in this way then we would have confident, compassionate and curious children but she doesn’t go on to say how this would happen. Research shows us that the opposite is true. Rewards-based systems lead to dissatisfaction, ambivalence and a loss of confidence ( despite the apparent short-term gain. My sons, now 13 and 15 happen to be confident, compassionate and curious in their own ways and have been raised in a home where punishments and rewards have been absent for 13 years. In fact, the parenting strategy (if we must have a strategy) I’ve used is to always find a Yes to them and a Yes to myself. They have a deep understanding of what it means to grow up in a welcoming and understanding environment where there is flexibility and generosity, kindness and the support of a thoughtful parent. I know this because on Mother’s Day this year I asked them what they loved about having me as a Mum and what I’ve just shared was their reply.

Train Your Baby Like A Dog also introduces us to Rosie and her 14 month old daughter Dulcie who screams and screams from bath time until sometime in the night when she finally settles to sleep on the sofa with Mum. It was clear to me that Rosie was at her wits’ end and it didn’t need a dog trainer to go in and gently support her to recognise that there was no way at all that her daughter was going to settle to sleep when placed in her cot, already in a state of distress. When you’re outside of a situation it’s easy to see the moving parts that are driving the pending disaster and I felt glad that Jo-Rosie was able to bring about change to tea-time and bathtime and, as a result, bedtime.

But rewarding 14 month old Dulcie with white chocolate buttons for remaining calm when lifted in and out of the bath reminded me too much of techniques used by sexual abuse groomers or the cautionary tale of strangers plying children with sweeties before inviting them to climb into their car to go and see some puppies. Rewarding our children in this way sets them up to be vulnerable in so many situations as they grow up. It is the opposite of the safe, confident and self-assured individuals we want to raise.

Towards the end of the show Jo-Rosie introduced a highly successful dog training technique to help Graydon’s parents access some much-needed time to themselves, especially in the aftermath of the birth of their second son Phineas. The ground-breaking nature of this technique is extraordinary. It’s called “Play”. Can you believe it? How fortunate we are that Channel 4 have paid a dog trainer to let us all know that our children want, and need, us to play with them in lots of different ways. And we can find creative ways to carve out small pockets of time for ourselves by using different games that our children will love.

What does this say about the state of our nation if parents have forgotten to play with their children? Our children won’t say they’ve had a hard day. Instead they will ask us to play with them. And it is in this, among many other moments with our children, that we have the opportunity to engage in the most important parenting ‘strategy’ of all – connection. When we take the time to connect with our child we begin to understand more about their other needs. As we meet those needs we become responsive parents who no longer need a dog trainer to remind us of what it means to be human.

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