Saturday, October 19, 2013

Small Children and Dogs Really Aren't That Different

Most people probably don't look at it like I do, but then most people don't spend their days steeped in the similarities. When it comes right down to it, small children and dogs are a lot alike and, in a lot of ways, managing them requires the same skill set.

Before you get your panties in a bunch, no, that doesn't mean that everything that works for the two-legged creature works for the four-legged or vice versus, although both do respond to the bribery of a treat. And no, it doesn't mean I crate the grandchildren for time out. They do that themselves for fun.

Whatever the similarities early on, children, regardless of how they are raised, will outgrow living by instinct. Dogs left to their own devices will still be dogs.

If you look into the science, you'll find there are studies that support a lot of my conclusions. Babies and small children operate at an instinctive level, just like dogs, as their brain continues to develop. Both are chiefly concerned about their own needs, they react to stimulus at a level that doesn't have society's filters on it, they need house training (one of the toughest parts of dealing with either one), and no matter how well they listen at home, if you take them anywhere you may want a leash.

Seriously, whether you have children or dogs, you have to practice patience, you have to provide food and shelter, you have to protect them from the hazards of a world they don't completely understand (think dogs and streets), and above all you have to be the adult -- the part of the equation that keeps things balanced and doesn't forget that in most instances, no matter what you are dealing with, you are the biggest, scariest thing in the room.

Sometimes reminding myself of that helps me deal with both parts of my day.

For example, it is a waste of time and energy to ask either group why they did what they just did that has me ready to scream. Neither the Es nor the canines have any words to explain themselves, whether it is drawing on the walls (girls) or taking a whiz indoors when they've just been outside (dogs, in case you wonder). On those occasions, I have to work hard to remind myself I'm the only reasoning adult. I just need to breathe, tell them that was a bad choice in whatever language is appropriate for the audience, clean it up and move on. Really, 10 minutes later I'm likely to be the only one who remembers what happened.

Both will let you know when things aren't going well. With a dog it may be raised hackles, a low growl, cowering, snapping, or a determination to dominate another dog. When that happens, it's important for me to put a stop to it because it will only escalate. A bullied dog will fight back and someone could get hurt if I don't bring the aggressor under control. When a dog is getting out of control or needs a reminder of who is boss, like a child he may need a time out -- into the crate with you! For Pedro, the rescue pit bull I'm working with now whose social skills are pretty much non existent anyway, that means come to me and sit and let me throw my arm across your back. Dogs don't really like that position because it means you are the boss, which is why it works so well to ratchet him down a level. Then we play a game of fetch, which he loves, and move on.

For the girls, there can be less warning (no growls or hackles) before someone snaps and pushes someone else away from a toy. Sorting out who did what is harder, but the results are less likely to end in a visit to a medical professional, too. Usually the blame can be attached to the oldest sibling because, face it, she just has more to work with. And sometimes E1 is a lot like Pedro in that she has so much energy and needs something constructive to do and she begins to lose it. I know yelling at her would be as effective as shrieking at Pedro. Instead we've developed a breathe and count exercise -- take a deep breath, count to 10, take another deep breath -- that helps her reset. We stop whatever is sending her into overdrive and do the exercise together (honestly, sometimes it helps me, too). By the end she has usually regained control of herself and is ready to go on with something more positive.

And yes, sometimes spending time with one influences how I spend time with the other. But the lessons are more for me than they are for either the children or the dogs. How I manage my own behavior and emotions is the biggest factor in how either group learns and grows.

Whether working with children or dogs, seeing them cast aside a bad behavior for one you've helped them learn can be the sweetest victory. Hearing E1 stop and say she needed to count made me smile as I knew she was beginning to use that tool when she felt herself in danger of a bad outburst. Watching Pedro overcome his dog aggression even enough to walk confidently with a growing number of dogs makes me want to reward him with a whole bag of treats.

In both instances, making better choices myself leads to a better outcome for them and that's another area where dogs and children are alike. Whether we recognize the similarities or not, we are the ones in charge and, until our children enter the next phase of development somewhere around preschool, the ones most responsible for the outcome.

So take a deep breath and count to 10. Whatever you're dealing with, it's up to you to do it right.

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