Good parenting looks a lot like good dog training


By Ayelet Blumberg

This morning I was watching the Today Show and on came a piece about kids and how to curb temper tantrums. I don’t have kids but it all sounded awfully familiar: They were suggesting dealing with the kids using the same techniques used in positive reinforcement dog training. Minus the Milkbones, of course.

People are always asking me if child rearing and dog training are related. Indeed. Actually, animal training is related to pretty much all interactions we have with other humans.  After all, we’re all animals.

The Today Show segment is hinged on a 30-year-old Yale University study on Parent Management Training for Oppositional and Conduct Problem Children

Here are some of the highlights from the segment:

-Praise your child with a happy song-songy voice when he is behaving in a way you like. Reinforce the positive and be specific why you are praising.  (In dog training, we use a clicker to help with the specificity and then dole out a tasty treat as the reinforcer.)

-Learn your kids “hot spots” (when they are tired and hungry) and be extra calm and go easy during these times. (Likewise with a dog, you always want to set them up for success and not ask too much from them if they’re already taxed).

-Your kids emulate you, so if you start yelling or show frustration during a temper tantrum it will certainly escalate the tantrum and will increase its duration. Remember: any attention is reinforcing. The solution: turn your back and ignore! (Dog trainers repeat this sentence countless times with any given client – amazing).  Make sure to stay calm and, if needed, give yourself a timeout. If you must address your child use a calm voice. (I mean this is dog training gold.)

If we can get parents to see that this is the way to raise children it will be MUCH easier to convince them that this is how we should raise our dogs! And it might make us all happier animals.

Images are by Lisa Adams, taken from the book Wil, Fitz, and a Flea Named T, courtesy of Crosswinds Press. For more of Lisa’s work, visit


10 Responses

  1. Pregunta

    November 17, 2011 7:00 pm

    What’s the proper response if you walk into the room and catch your dog doing something bad (eating something off the table, for example)?

    • Ayelet

      November 17, 2011 10:55 pm

      Hey Pregunta, thanks for reading and for the question! 

      One solution when catching the dog “red-pawed” is to interrupt the behavior with a calm voice and then move along.  If he stops the undesired behavior based on your command (you say “leave it” and he stops eating – unlikely) make sure to mark it with an even toned “thank you” or whichever marker you choose to let him know he made the right choice. The more likely scenario is that you see him eating off of the table and in your calm and stern voice you mark his behavior as undesired with a phrase you’ve established such as “are you kidding me” or “i don’t think so” and take the food away.  Then ignore for a minute.  Punishing the dog teaches him only to avoid doing the “bad thing” (or as he sees it “the natural thing”) while you are present. 

      Of course this is a generic answer.  If the dog is eating chocolate or grapes or any other toxin you do whatever you have to do get him to stop and then take him to the hospital.  If the dog is eating the food off of the table as an attempt to get your attention (though he wouldn’t do it until you were back in the room), take the food away, do not make eye contact, do not say a word and ignore. If the dog is anxious (though he wouldn’t be eating if that was the case) you would figure out what his anxiety is caused by and then methodically desensitize him to it over time. 

      Those are my thoughts….the other contributors to this site might also have some great ideas!  

      If you have any other questions please always feel free to continue to leave comments here or email me at

      • Pregunta

        November 18, 2011 11:40 am

        Well that makes sense. I sometimes walk in on my nieces and nephews getting into something they shouldn’t, and, especially when they are younger than 1, I’m not sure what the best way of dealing with it is. I was curious if the method of dog training for this would also apply to parenting. I think it does. Anyway, soon I will have my own little boy to parent. Too bad shock collars aren’t a possibility (I’m kidding). (But still).

  2. Liana

    November 18, 2011 9:50 am

    This sounds a lot like the ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) model. Isn’t it a sad state of affairs when we liken our children’s behaviors to that of dogs? Using a direct relational model is more understanding and respectful of the child’s autonomy.

    I mean, I don’t know much about the subject as I’m not a parent, either, but, ABA simply teachers the child not to do something. It doesn’t answer the question of why the behavior is wrong. I mean doing a relational model takes more time and effort — but ultimately, seems to make for better kids.

  3. Vanessa

    December 29, 2011 1:26 pm

    I did have a trainer once teach my dog and I that we should act as if everything (i.e. socks, food, trash) is rat poison or chocolate.  There should be a bit of panic and urgency in your voice.  What is your take on this Ayelet?  Thanks!

  4. Ayelet

    December 29, 2011 3:14 pm

    Hey Vanessa.  I’ve heard of trainers doing this, however, because our voices have such a big effect on our dogs, I would have to respectfully disagree with your trainer.  Here is my reason:
    Let’s say you use the command “drop it” to get your dog to drop whatever he has in his mouth.  If you say it with panic and urgency (“DROP IT!”) the value of the item in his mouth automatically increases. (“Holy smokes,” he might think, “she must REALLY want it. It must be an even better item than I thought”).  This is the last thing you want because if he put an item in his mouth, I’m going to venture a guess that it is already of high value.  Increasing that value is only going to get him to hold onto it tighter. 
    Now, if it really is rat poison you do whatever you have to do to make sure he doesn’t harm himself.  Hopefully, this will be a very rare if not non-existent occurrence.


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