Apr 19 2017

What Training Dogs has Taught Me About Dealing With My Teenage Kids

Dealing with teenagers is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes I would rather be facing down an aggressive dog than trying to figure out how to deal with my kids. Don’t get me wrong. My kids are great most of the time, but sometimes… Well, let’s just say, they’re not so great. The up-side? I get to practice all sorts of training techniques I use for dogs. Now, I don’t think that my kids are dogs, and I certainly don’t treat them like dogs. Well, most of the time. Well, anyway… These are some things dog training has taught me:

1) Make sure they are ready to listen before asking them to do something.
When training dogs, it is vital that you have their attention before requesting a behavior. It also helps to have eye contact since dogs naturally communicate through body language rather than voice. Dogs use sound to communicate, but language is not a natural dog communication tool. So, yelling “Sit, sit, sit” when your dog is jumping all over your Fed Ex driver isn’t all that effective. In fact, doing so makes the word “sit” lose its meaning.
I have found the same thing is true for my kids. If they are headed up to their rooms, and I say, “put your clean clothes away,” they often either don’t hear me or act like they don’t hear me. However, if I stop them on their way upstairs, and look them in the face and tell them to put their clean laundry away, I know they heard me, and they are much more likely to do it.
2) Be very clear about what you are asking.
Often, we confuse our dogs about what we want, especially when they are learning a new behavior. For example, we may hold our hand over the dog’s nose to ask him to sit one time, and the next we may hold our hand palm up and lift it to ask for a sit, saying “sit” each time we ask. Both methods are acceptable ways to ask for a sit, but your dog doesn’t know what “sit” means, so how is he supposed to know what you want. Typically, you and your dog end up being very frustrated, and you determine that you have a stubborn dog.
Hopefully, your children speak English and know what “sit” means. However, say your ask your kids to put their laundry away, and sometimes this means, “Take it up to your room so I don’t have to see it down here anymore.” Sometimes it means, “Take it to your room, put it away, and bring me your dirty clothes.” How are they supposed to know what you mean? So, four times, you have told them to “put their clothes away,” and you have never complained after the laundry basket has left your sight. Then, one day, (no doubt when they are complaining about not having clean clothes) you start fussing at them because you TOLD them to put their clothes away, and the laundry basket is sitting on their bedroom floor full of clean clothes. You are frustrated because you feel like you were clear. They are frustrated because things were always okay before when they just moved the laundry basket. So you’re mean, and they’re lazy. It may seem excessive to go through the process step by step of explaining exactly what you mean, but sometimes that’s what you need to do. After a few repetitions, they will understand that’s what you want and everybody is happy.
3) Ask ONCE and follow through.
It is much more effective to give a verbal cue to your dog a single time, and wait for them to respond than to ask over and over again. Before a behavior has been conditioned in your dog, your dog has to think about it, and it takes a little time. Also, if your dog has learned a behavior, and you ask him to do it when there are a lot of distractions, it may take longer to respond. If you just keep repeating yourself over and over, it doesn’t make them want to do it more, and it doesn’t make it more clear, it just confuses and frustrates them. We have
English mastiffs and have had for years. They weigh over 100 pounds, and it always takes a while for them to do anything. I believe this has taught me patience, and to wait for them to react when I have requested a behavior. I have learned to ask, then wait for them to do it. Once they are sure that is what I want, they are pretty content to do it. If I say it over and over, they don’t it any faster, and it teaches them NOT to do whatever I am asking the first time I ask.
The same is true with my kids. One of my son’s chores is to vacuum. If I ask him to do it at a time when I KNOW he’s not going to do it, the chances of it happening at all are slim. If I keep pestering him about it, but don’t tell him to do it right away, that’s nagging and he gets annoyed and frustrated. If I say. “No do it now, ” he still gets frustrated and annoyed, but when he’s done, it’s over with. We don’t always have the opportunity to ask at the right time, and yes, he can remember that I asked him to vacuum even if he can’t do it that second, but it is so much more effective and pleasant when you ask at the right time, sometimes it’s worth the wait and hassle.
“How do I teach my dog not to jump on people?” You don’t. You teach him a behavior that is incompatible with jumping, and have him do it when he wants to jump. How long can someone be quiet when you ask them to stop talking? Isn’t it better to ask them to listen? It is REALLY hard to teach a negative. Give them something to do instead.
My kids LOVE their computers. If I tell them they are spending too much time on the computer, they feel like I am depriving them of something. If I give send them outside to take a walk or go groom their horse, they are not on the computer, and they are less focused on not being on the computer. I have to be more creative, but it is much more effective, and they respond a lot better.
5) Don’t yell.
Being loud doesn’t ensure that you will be heard better. In fact, dogs respond much better to a calm, quiet voice than when someone is excited or just plain loud. I often deal with dogs that have behavioral problems or just dogs that are just reactive. Loud voices, yelling, and a lot of activity makes it much harder for them to focus. If they are expecting something bad to happen, they will REALLY start anticipating something when people are yelling and getting excited.
Yelling at your kids is kind of the same thing. When you’re yelling at them, they aren’t really going to be listening to what you are saying, they’re just going to be thinking that you’re upset. This will likely get them upset too, not in a “Oh, gee, I wish I’d done that,” way but more like a “Why do they always yell at me,” kind of way. And the next time you yell at them, they start down that path sooner. I am not perfect, I have yelled at my dogs AND kids before, but I recognize that my lapses are just that, and they don’t make things better.
6) Patience, patience, patience.
We are human. We make mistakes. Our dogs make mistakes too. I read somewhere that when you are trying to train a dog, it’s like trying to teach calculus to someone who speaks a different language. I think this is actually important to think about. We don’t speak dog, and dogs don’t speak people. Calculus is not something that most people use every day. People are rarely taught to sit, lay down, stay, etc., all those things we want our dogs to do right when we want them to do them. It takes time. You need to figure out what you are actually saying to your dog, and you need LOTS of repetition. And when you are in a strange place, asking your dog to perform said behavior, recognize that it’s even harder for them. You need to recognize that your dog is trying and figure out why he’s not doing what you ask.
Teenagers DO speak our language, though, we may not always speak theirs. However, they have a lot of stuff going on. They want to be adults one minute and your little kids the next. Hormones, peer-pressure, homework, extra-curricular activities and jobs are just some of the things that put pressure on your teenager. These things make it difficult to set priorities, plan ahead and get all their stuff done. If they are trying to juggle all their stuff, recognize that, and give them some support. If they are not, then you need to do even more. I know they’ll have to do even more as an adult, but it’s all new to them now, and it’s tough.
7) Have realistic expectations.
Loose-leash walking is a challenge for many dog owners. Typically, I work with them in the daycare area, and they do great, then they walk out to their car, and the dog is pulling like crazy. Why? They just went from zero to sixty in 3.5 seconds. In an indoor training area, especially with no other dogs around, there’s not really a lot of motivation to go anywhere. When they walk out that door, there’s noise, strange people, maybe strange dogs, and you better believe they recognize their owner’s car. So much to do, and so little time… I have owners practice, practice, practice in a controlled situation, then gradually increase distractions, and if things aren’t working out, we go back and work on it some more.
I have found the same is true with my kids. Instill values at home, reinforce them over and over, gradually give them more and more responsibility, and hope they remember what you taught them. If they make mistakes, back up a couple steps or figure out what went wrong, and try again.
8) Sometimes, you have to take what you can get.
Everyone has bad days. Sometimes when you’re working with a dog, they’re just really distracted, and nothing seems to be going right. Quitting says it’s okay if you don’t feel like listening, and the next session could go the same way. Trying to make the dog perform at their best is just frustrating for you and him, so that’s not an option. So, you make things easy, find something you can reward him for, and call it a day. You got him to listen to you, he had to work a little and was successful. Win-win.
The same goes for your kids. Maybe they didn’t get enough sleep or they’re not feeling good. They need to do the minimum: treat you with respect, clean up after themselves. Maybe you won’t make them do their chores, but there are minimum standards, and then you give them a break.
9) Remember to recognize good behavior.
We focus on the negative, but we respond better to praise than punishment. One particular challenge when training dogs is weaning them off treats. Initially, I use treats frequently to capture behaviors and reinforce them. After a dog has learned a behavior and performs it consistently, you need to decrease the frequency of treats and eventually, the dog performs the behavior without treats. A common mistake is to stop rewarding the dog entirely. I don’t think this is a conscious thing most of the time, but people equate treats with reinforcement, and
when the treats are stopped, the reinforcement is stopped. This is sad because a word of praise means so much to most dogs, and it can make the difference between success and failure.
Praise is just as important to our kids regardless of their ages. When they actually do their chores without a hassle, make straight As or get a part-time job, you should recognize their success and say something about it.
10) Have some fun.
Dogs are great. They are loyal companions, loving friends, and just plain cute. Sometimes, they chew up our stuff, poop in the house or jump on our friends, but we still love them. Taking the time to give your dog attention is just part of owning a dog.
We love our kids, even though they drive us crazy sometimes. As teenagers, your kids may not want you to hug and kiss them in public, but they still need your attention and company. I try really hard to be involved with things the kids care about, and give them hugs (at least when no one is looking).

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