Thursday, March 1, 2007


When I got Cousteau I read every book I could find in the library on training. It wasn't much and most of the literature was written in the 1970s - what I now know was NOT a good era for dog training. recommended the Monks of New Skete book - what I now know was NOT a good training book! Cousteau spent the first month of his life with us being smacked with a rolled up newspaper, whapped under the chin with my fist, getting forcibly rolled onto his back, being yanked off his feet by his leash, and otherwise generally abused in the manner of "traditional" dog training. Oddly enough, he never seemed to learn anything. In fact, whatever I did to him, he gave me back double. Since I wasn't willing to cut off my puppy's air supply - the next suggestion on the list of ways to get my dog to see me as alpha - it was fortunate that I found a puppy kindergarten class using positive training methods endorsed by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (

It was amazing what I was able to do with positive reinforcement training. Instead of punishing Cousteau for all of the bad things he did - and there were a lot! - I focused on the good things. Or at least the things that weren't bad. If he did something I could live with, I clicked my little clicker box and gave him a treat. Since Cousteau lives to eat, he likes to do what he can to make me click my clicker. When he was bad, which was happening less and less, I ignored the behavior I didn't like unless it was putting one of us in danger. If I had to pay attention to bad behavior, it was with as little emotion as possible. Anger has no place in reprimands or punishment.

Linda Holway was our instructor and she literally saved Cousteau's life. Without her guidance we would probably have given up on him or been bitten thanks to harsh training methods. One of the things she said is that telling a dog "no" is pretty useless in most situations. It's far better to tell the dog what you want him to do because that's specific. "No" covers a pretty broad base. "NO!" = "Don't chew on the chair leg!" Well, what is ok to chew? The couch cushion? The molding around the door? This textbook? "Get your bone" is very specific. It means, get your bone and focus on that.

We started teaching Cousteau what we wanted him to do so there was less room for him to find his own activities. We also spent a lot of time managing his space so he couldn't get into trouble. We puppy proofed the rooms he was allowed to be in, put up gates, taught him to like his crate so he could be safe if we couldn't watch him, and made sure that there was always something appropriate for him to do when he was with us since there was no way he was going to lay quietly at our feet - unless he was systematically destroying something!

During this time I read Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog for the first time. I also read Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash and Paul Owen's The Dog Whisperer. (Owens is in no way, shape, or form associated with cesar millan the man who harshly trains dogs on the National Geographic Channel.) These books, among others that I've read, have really emphasized to me how well positive reinforcement works on dogs. I was able to take these lessons and use them in my classroom where I was really struggling with a few students. By focusing on finding what was reinforcing for these children and givng them specific behavior that I was looking for in set situations, rather than telling them what was reinforcing and giving them a generic "no" when they screwed up, I was able to end the school year on a really good note.

For the first three months of BabyBug's life discipline was the furthest thing from my mind. Why worry about disciplining someone who eats, sleeps, poops, cries, and if you're lucky, smiles? Then those little fingers started working with a purpose and her brain started figuring out cause and effect. Babies don't come hardwired knowing "no" and my baby is totally unphased by a stern voice and I do not feel that smacking hands or bottoms is the way to go for my child. So, what could I do?!

Well, I looked back to my trial and error with Cousteau. Smacking him did nothing and he couldn't care less about a stern voice, either. What did work was to show him the right thing to do, ignore the bad behavior, and manage what I couldn't ignore. That's what we did with BabyBug. It worked.

When Bug started grabbing Cousteau's whiskers or the cat's tail, we told her "gentle" and demonstrated how to be gentle by petting the animal gently or gently stroking her arm. And we praised her like mad when she did it right. If we'd just told her "no" she wouldn't have known what was not appropriate. Was it the petting? Where she was petting? Which animal she petted? How she was petting? Soon she learned that it was ok to touch the animals if she was "gentle". If she wasn't gentle we managed the situation by sending the animal away or removing Bug from the object of her over-enthusiastic affection. We did the same thing with hair pulling and glasses tugging on her human admirers.

About this same time, Bug started emitting a screech that rivaled Mariah Carey in pitch and volume. It was horrible! The pediatrician told us Bug was experimenting with sound and with cause and effect. "What happens when I screech like this?" In a perfect world we would have completely ignored her and she would have stopped doing it because nothing happened when she did it. Unfortunately the world, my husband, nor I are perfect. We jumped when she startled us, which was pretty funny - for her. We scolded, which she must have thought was either funny or that screeching is how you start a conversation. Finally we made a point of ignoring her, which largely worked. We did resort to a bit of blowing into her face to startle her into being quiet, but we made sure to praise her for being quiet as soon as she was. Thankfully that phase is over. Unfortunately it's been replaced by the Howard Dean holler, but knowing how well ignoring her worked before, we are doing it again and she's getting better.

Managing the environment is one thing that most parents do. We baby-proof our houses, make sure not to take our child to a dangerous playground, try to ensure that only responsible, safe people are around our babies, etc. I do remember at one point, though, asking the pediatrician how to make a 12 month old understand "no", particulary in regards to the light she wanted to pull down on her head. The doctor gave us a sympathetic look and said "maybe that lamp just needs to go away for awhile". Soooooo, in other words manage the environment? Yeah, I can be a little slow sometimes!

One thing I will say about discipline and punishment in dogs and children is to be aware of how you say things. BabyBug has reminded me to say something only once and mean it or else don't say it at all. Saying "No baby. Baby no. Uh-uh baby. Stop." just teaches the child (or the dog) that it is acceptable to ignore you since you are just going to say the same thing over again. Saying "Baby, fingers off the TV" one time and then removing the child from the situation is much more effective. The child learns that you mean what you say as well as exactly what "fingers off the TV" means. It is more work for the parent, but then again, what isn't?! When I do catch myself repeating something over and over I have to poke fun at my mistake. I'll tell either baby or dog "Stop it right now or I'll tell you to stop it again!" Usually I end up giggling which stops the behavior. If it doesn't, then I have marked in my mind what I was doing wrong and I am able to make a change.

Another thing to be aware of is to word things as a statement rather than a question. If I ask my puppy, "Havana, sit?" she knows that my tone of voice isn't authoritative and most likely will not respond. Asking a child "Would you like to put your coat on?" when you mean "Put your coat on" is also not authoritative, even though the child needs to wear a jacket when it is 20 degrees below zero. If there is no choice in the matter, do not give a choice. I catch myself doing this a lot, too. Then I'll say "Wait! Let me rephrase that. Sit." It's far more effective.

Finally (for now - I have lots of thoughts on discipline...) if you have to issue the same punishment more than 3 times for the same behavior in dogs or children, the punishment is not punishing or stopping the behavior, which is the purpose of punishment. The behavior is more rewarding than what you are doing. And to be honest, if you are issuing physical punishment and have had to more then 3 times, it is borderline abuse. The fourth time an infraction occurs you either need to up the level or punishment, or more likely, try a different approach to modify the behavior.

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