WHY CHILDREN ARE NOT DOGS

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This is me as a 2yo with my own beloved childhood family dog, Bandit. (A delightful Smithfeild pup)

We got a puppy. A cute ball of cuddly fur that grew into a mess making ball of energy.

People say getting a dog is like a ‘practice run’ or a ‘replacement baby’. There is a lot of truth in that, but there is one big difference that I think needs to be pointed out:

Dogs learn to obey. Children should not.

Primarily I want my dog to obey me. Yes, I want her to develop socially and cognitively into a happy pooch too… I’m not someone who believes in dominating a dog, but sill; my primary goal in training is to get her to obey my simple commands so we can live well together.

It would be nice if my kids were a bit more obedient sometimes (anyone who spends time around young ones would find this convenient!) but it is by no means a primary goal in raising children. In fact, we need to actively encourage a bit of autonomy from time to time, we want them to think for themselves rather than follow commands.

Instead of following a simple command (as a happy puppy learns to) children instead must base their decisions on far more complex deductions of morals, respect, compassion etc. This is far harder to teach than simply ‘because I said so’ approach, and it takes longer.

This seems like a lot of work (especially at the end of the day when all we want to do is shout ‘because I’m the grown up and I said so – that’s why!’) but ‘training’ our children to make decisions rather than follow our instruction also protects our children from many of the things we want them to avoid later in life:

We don’t want our children to grow up and do something simply because an authoritative figure (any adult or peer they look up to) told them to. To make ‘the right decisions’ later in life, they need to learn to make decisions from a young age.

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This is the newest member of our family, Miss Collie Smith. (A quirky Smithfeild x Border Collie pup)

It is easy for a dog to learn what this adopted family wants of them, even though they will never speak our language. They learn with simple cause and effect: Bring the ball = Get to chase the ball. Sit calmly = back rub. And so on. A intelligent dog can work this out very quickly, and indeed you could even try to train your children like this if you wanted. (Cause and effect, but with different instructions and rewards obviously!)

But for children learning the complexities of interaction and ‘good behavior’ it is far more complicated than a simple case of ’cause and effect’. This is because there are no (or few) simple rules to live by. For example most people have told their children it is ‘wrong to lie’. (But they are expected to be polite and enthusiastic when Great Grandma gives them a rotten gift.)

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My oldest child in particular struggles with the lack of ‘black and white’ in people’s expectations of her. In fact, she entirely freaked out about rules when she first entered formal learning situation and it took her almost a full year to navigate this concept:

At home we had a few rules (ie don’t run onto the road, no plastic bags over the head etc) and these rules were serious. (You know, the ‘life depending on them’ kind of serious). But outside of these few safety rules my poor child had not been exposed to the idea of set ‘rules’ before she entered school at the age of 4 (‘guided decisions where the outcomes were explained’ was more how our house functioned, rather than ‘house rules’)… Then she arrived at Kinder and there were rules. Lots of rules. (As there understandably needs to be to manage a room full of 4/5 year olds!)

My daughter knew it was a rule that you put your bag in the locker, or sit down when the teacher asked etc… And so she applied the same ‘life or death’ seriousness to these rules. If she saw someone not following the rules she’d try to make them comply (of course, telling your class mates what to do all the time is being bossy, so she was told not to do that.) Her next solution was to tell the teacher (again, dobbing on everyone is not appropriate behavior either!) It was a very frustrating year for her as she took giant leaps through uncomfortable lessons to learn that some rules are guides, some are important, and sometimes people just don’t follow them.

Life in the human world is not an easy set of rules that apply to every situation. Young kids generalize so well (an important function of the young developing brain to learn concepts) and as a result we often need to actively explain that the generalizations don’t always apply. (As I’m sure you have experienced when your tot tries to apply his/her rules to you!)

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Dogs on the other hand need to be trained that the rules DO apply in other situations. As Veterinarian, dog trainer and animal behaviorist Ian Dunbar famously explains a dog learns ‘sit’ means ‘sit’ in the kitchen, and in then the dog needs to learn it also mean the same thing in the garden, or the park, or on walks etc. (In contrast to the over generalization of the child, the dog needs to be trained to generalize the instructions to all situations.)

I believe dogs are complex, clever and wonderful. They are in many ways a ‘good child’ (they wait for you, they always want a cuddle, they (generally) do as you ask, they love you unconditionally) but they are not really a ‘trial run at parenting’.

You will always be with your dog. If a dog learns to obey your instruction they will be successful and happy dogs for the rest of their fulfilled days. They will be safe from harm and fear, they will have enough mental, physical and emotional nourishment to live a good life. (We’re talking of course about good pet people here; owners provides a respectful family for the dog, allows the dog to make appropriate choices and so on!)

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But for human children it is not so simple; you will not always be with your children. You will never have all the answers for the life ahead of them, and you can’t make rules that will always apply. Instead you need to teach your children to make the right choices for a happy and successful life of their own.

You can guide this, you can provide a foundation of experience, knowledge and even a well thought out guide book (if you have religion, perhaps). But in the end; it is up to them to choose how to live a fulfilling life.

And that is why your dog should learn to obey you, but your children really shouldn’t.

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