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Just Make Sure You “Treat Him Like a Dog”

When I got Cuba as a puppy, a lot of folks told me, "Oh, he'll be fine! Just make sure that you 'treat him like...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Mar 14th 2011


When I got Cuba as a puppy, a lot of folks told me, “Oh, he’ll be fine! Just make sure that you ‘treat him like a dog’ and not a baby.” Because I have a tendency toward sarcasm and unbridled curiosity, I would inevitably respond by asking, “what does ‘treating him like a dog’ entail?” Inevitably, the response included some sort of coercion, physical or otherwise. Collar pops, shouting, poking, kicking, alpha rolls, sprays in the face, knees in the chest, noses in the poop, and if that puppy bites you, just smack him in the face!

Apparently, giving dogs treats, playing with them, redirecting to appropriate outlets, teaching them to do the right thing, managing the environment to eliminate opportunities for them to rehearse failure, etc., is “treating the dog like a baby.” Setting a dog up for failure and then punishing him for failing, is, apparently, how you “treat your dog like a dog.” With that mentality, it’s kind of shocking that dogs don’t bite us more often than they do. Here is a video where “dogs are being treated like dogs”:

How is it that culturally we have come to define the relationship we have with “man’s best friend” through actions which are anything but friendly? I wouldn’t treat my worst enemy the way that many people treat their dogs. I certainly would not treat a toddler “like a dog,” at least as the phrase is colloquially defined. Let’s flip this equation – what if we treated “babies” like we treat dogs?

Can you imagine?! Your child has an accident in her diaper or pull ups? Simply remove the pull up and “rub her nose in it.” Your child has a tantrum at the grocery store? Easy fix! Just grab her by her neck, slam her to the ground, get right in her face, stare her down, and growl at her. If she is bothering you by demanding attention, simply knee her in the chest. Won’t come inside from playing with her friends the instant you call her? A shock collar may be a wonderful fix! Does your kid cry too much? Have you considered cutting off her air supply to “teach her a lesson?”

Perhaps I do treat my dog like babies, and with good reason – dogs have the mental reasoning capacity of two-year old toddlers. I would not do anything to a dog that I would not do to a two-year old child, with the possible exception of crating. (While I’m not a big advocate of crating children, I admit that many would gladly crate train themselves – my niece and nephews are totally convinced that Cuba’s enormous crate is in fact a playhouse and bee-line for it when they come to visit, hanging out in there and shutting themselves in. Hey, kids are weird!) I would not do anything to a dog that I would get arrested for doing to another human being.

When babies are cutting teeth, you give them something to chew on and soothe the inflammation. When a toddler has an accident during potty training, you don’t beat him up, you clean it up and consider taking a step back – more frequent potty breaks, temporary reintroduction of pull ups, etc. When children are learning to walk, you don’t scream at them when they fall down, you do encourage them for trying and celebrate their successes. When a child is overtired and grouchy, you set them down for a nap – you don’t punish them for being tired! You don’t punish a three month old child for not being potty trained.

When a two year old has a potty accident, is he doing it to be “spiteful” or because he just hasn’t learned appropriate toileting behavior yet?

We try to set babies up for success – we manage the environment so that they are not shoving little fingers into electric sockets. The baby is in a play pen when you answer the phone, warm up a bottle, and at other times when you are unable to directly supervise. We use baby gates to prevent them from having access to stairways until they have developed stronger motor skills and coordination – the consequences of failure are too high.

Because most people who are not deranged reject violence, physical and mental coercion as a way to instruct infants or toddlers, we find other ways. We reward every successful effort to go potty on the toilet. If we want children to have manners, it may take frequent reminders – children are not born knowing to say “please” and “thank you” at the appropriate times, are not born with table manners (have you ever seen a photo of a child eating his first birthday cake? No manners whatsoever, cake everywhere!), are not born with the knowledge that “some words are just for grown ups, honey.” You have to teach them all these things, and it may will take years.

Puppies, and adult dogs as well, are not spiteful. Your dog is not secretly plotting how to take over your bank account and escalate his rank within your family while you make a pot of coffee in the morning any more than your infant lies awake at night in her bassinet scheming to steal your 401k and pension to pay for her college tuition in seventeen years. They’re just not like that.

The good news is, you don’t have to “treat your dog like a dog” to have a fantastic dog. In fact, positive reinforcement training (which some folks think means, “treating your dog like a baby”) can yield fantastic results. “Positive” is not permissive – preventing rehearsal of unwanted behavior and implementing negative punishment (opportunity removal) contingencies are every bit as important a part of training as reinforcing desirable behavior. Before we finish for today, I also think that it’s a great idea to teach toddlers and infants using the same techniques positive reinforcement-based trainers use to instruct dogs. Here is one of my favorite training videos of all time (can’t seem to figure out the embed code for this) which features the use of TAGteaching (essentially, clicker training for humans), to teach 2 1/2 year old Max to accept saline spray in his nose. Great mom, great training!

Yes, I treat my dogs like babies. And if I ever had a baby (which will only happen if crate training children becomes legal, LOL), I would train him like I trained my dogs as well!