Parallels in raising puppies and small children

I have to say that I am extremely proud of this particular 2010 research paper which garnered a 98%.

Parallel Practices and Philosophies in the Education and Guidance
of Young Children and Puppies

On July 5 of this year, a litter of eleven Black Lab-mix puppies was born under my back deck to a mother dog I had been fostering. Over the past five months of raising the nine puppies who survived and placing them in new homes, I realized that my methods for raising these puppies to be cuddly, affectionate and family-oriented pets were remarkably similar to what I was learning about teaching very young children in an Early Childhood course I took this semester.

Bemused and wondering whether or not my dog training knowledge would be transferable or even at all useful in early childhood teaching situations, I did some research into several dog training manuals and psychology textbooks that I own and compared them to the course textbook for my Child Guidance class. I discovered that use of simple language, positive reinforcement, patience and assertiveness on the part of the trainer are indeed some of the dog training techniques that parallel modern early childhood guidance practices.

In order to compare apples and oranges, we must view both as simply fruit; for comparing small children and puppies, we shall accept the widely-held analogy of “one dog year” equating to “seven human years.” Therefore, the toddler/preschooler between 3 to 5 years old equates roughly to 4 to 9 months old in the puppy.

Comparison of Human and Canine Early Education Philosophies.

According to Darla Ferris Miller, Ph.D., author of Positive Child Guidance, “positive child guidance” is that which “bolsters self-esteem, nurtures cooperativeness and models socially acceptable coping skills” (Miller 3). Dr. Miller explains that the whole “purpose of child guidance is to support and direct the growth of effective life skills rather than only to bring about the immediate control of annoying behaviors” (Miller 2). From my own 40-plus years of experience raising puppies and providing foster and rehabilitative care to shelter dogs, I strongly believe that this is just as important a concept in raising healthy, emotionally stable and pro-social puppies as it is in the raising of children.

Award-winning authors and professional dog trainers Jack and Wendy Volhard concur with Dr. Miller’s statement of purpose in their own context. They write in Dog Training for Dummies, “Over the course of those [first few] years, your dog will undergo physical and emotional changes. […] the most important one is your dog’s sense of identity and the process of becoming an individual in his own right” (Volhard and Volhard 50).

In her landmark 1912 treatise, The Montessori Method, educational pioneer Maria Montessori writes, “We call an individual disciplined when he is master of himself, and can, therefore, regulate his own conduct when it shall be necessary to follow some rule of life” (Montessori 86). Children encouraged to explore their environment and be active participants in their own learning process is referred to in Dr. Montessori’s tome as the “liberty” of the child. She defined liberty as equating with activity in learning “the simple acts of social or community life” (Montessori 87). She later elaborates, “The liberty of the child should have as its limit the collective interest” (Montessori 87). This is echoed by Dr. Miller when she writes, “The ultimate goal of child guidance is the child’s development of responsibility, self-confidence and self-control” which are desirable in a democracy versus an “anarchy in which people wantonly trample the rights of others in their quest for self-gratification” (Miller 4).

Although we never expect that dogs will fully master their own impulses through use of metacognition, defined by Dr. Miller as the ability to consciously and intentionally control one’s own behavior as a human does, it nevertheless is important that dogs are taught good manners and to respond immediately in the event they are tempted to commit inappropriate behavior (Miller 35).

A well-behaved dog knows what is expected of him in calm as well as distracting situations and will react to outside stimuli in accord with how well he has been raised to deflect those stimuli. Award-winning author and professional dog trainer, September B. Morn emphasizes in Training Your Labrador Retriever, “A dog that does not listen and obey when distracted places himself at risk. He may become lost or injured when he ignores his handler, so it’s vital that you teach him to pay attention to you, regardless of what else may be happening around him” (Morn 55).

Respect and Pro-Social Behavior.

Learning pro-social behavior and positive interaction with others are goals parents and educators aim for with children. The same can be said for the responsible dog owner seeking to train his pet to be a polite and well-behaved member of the family. Interspersed and elaborated upon throughout Positive Child Guidance, Dr. Miller shares three basic principles she uses for impressing pro-social and respectful behavior upon toddlers and preschoolers in an educational or daycare setting: “Be kind. Be safe. Be neat” (Miller 9). These simple concepts of respect for self and others are applicable in both human and canine educational settings:

Be kind. Examples of behavior that respects the rights of others include a child who learns to control his or her physical and emotional impulses such as not hitting or biting, using words to express their emotions instead of acting out in tantrums, to pet the puppy gently, and to share and cooperate. For a puppy, examples include one who learns to control his or her impulses by learning good manners in social situations both within the family and when interacting with strangers such as by not biting, not jumping up on people, obeying commands, and walking calmly on a leash.

Be safe. Examples of behaviors that diminish the risk of harm to oneself or others include a child who learns not to run with scissors, throw rocks, touch the hot stove, or stick objects in an electrical outlet and a puppy who learns not to chew the phone cord, jump against the glass storm door, or chase the cat which can turn and claw the puppy’s nose. Both the child and the puppy must learn not to run out into a street.

Be neat. Examples of behavior that respects the environment and surroundings include a child who learns how to pick up their toys and put them away, to flush the toilet, and to throw used paper towels into the trash can. For a puppy, examples include one who is house-trained to eliminate outdoors, does not raid the trash can, and does not to chew up the couch but chooses instead his own toys.

Applying Educational Principles

“Early life experiences affect a dog’s ability to trust people and handle stress. A good environment is one that provides positive social experiences and teaches a pup to make friends with people and animals” (Morn 14). Clearly desirable by both philosophies, the foregoing statement could have come from either the child education perspectives or the dog training manuals. In fact, by simply changing out the canine references to “toddlers” or “preschoolers” and vice versa, much of the educational advice of each of the dog trainers could easily have been quoted in Positive Child Guidance and still be contextually appropriate.

1. Structured play is important to learning. Structured play is an integral part of the learning experience in a day care setting and does the puppy good as well. Dog trainer Morn writes, “Dogs practice life skills through play, so how they play is important. This is especially true with puppies, as lessons learned while young will guide a dog for life” (Morn 80). Quoting Playing for Keeps, a national non-profit group focused on promoting the value of constructive play, Rae Pica writes in an article on the Disney Family website, Preschoolers Today, “all of the skills children need to develop into functioning, productive adults originate from play. […] Among the social skills learned, the experts tell us, is the ability to share, cooperate, negotiate, compromise, make and revise rules, and take the perspective of others” (Pica).

A puppy learns to cooperate by obeying your commands, but can he learn to take the perspective of others? Perhaps yes in the sense that he becomes aware that small children need to be treated gently and learns not to knock them down or play too roughly with them. Sadie, an elderly Lab that I own, is an excellent nanny who frets greatly whenever the puppies get rambunctious in their play. In order to distract them from their wrestling, she will go and select a toy from the basket and shove it into their midst, attempting to lure them away from their rough play. Whether she’s appreciating my perspective of not wanting my furniture knocked over or she’s concerned that a puppy might get hurt, I cannot say. As for negotiating, compromising and rule making (or bending), a dog that know he is not supposed to beg at the table will still try to “negotiate” for a sample if allowed.

2. Correcting inappropriate behavior. According to Dr. Miller, in order to stop an unacceptable behavior in children as the behavior is occurring, we should “intervene as firmly as necessary but as gently as possible” (Miller 168). In the case of very young children and puppies, simply redirecting the child/puppy from the inappropriate behavior toward a preferred activity or behavior, such as Sadie’s attempt to distract the puppies with a toy, is one of the techniques both Dr. Miller and dog trainer Morn agree upon (Miller 164, Morn 24). Dr. Miller explains, “The idea is to replace misbehavior with a desired behavior so that the focus is on what the child should do rather than on what the child should not do” (Miller 180, emphasis added). Ms. Morn recommends redirecting, especially in the case of inappropriate chewing, “When [the puppy] does chew something he shouldn’t, take it away and replace it with one of his toys” (Morn 24). Concurring with Dr. Miller’s positive, assertive guidance techniques, Ms. Morn writes that if we pay attention to each new activity a puppy learns, we will “be able to encourage positive activities and discourage disallowed ones before they become bad habits” (Miller 176, Morn 98).

3. Supervision and safety. Whether training a puppy or educating a small child, we must never forget that both are still babies, and in addition to their emotional and intellectual abilities beginning to be shaped, their young bodies must be protected for their own safety. Puppies as well as “Toddlers are still a bit unsteady in their walking, running, and climbing, and they are compelled to taste, feel, smell, and manipulate every interesting object or phenomenon they encounter” (Miller 46). Ms. Morn writes, “There is no logic in what a dog might chew. […] Puppies, especially, discover the world by eating as much of it as possible” (Morn 23). Further applicable to both puppies and young children, Dr. Miller adds that unless they “are constantly and diligently supervised, they can inadvertently swallow objects and poisonous substances, fall off or bump into things, and touch things they should not touch despite warnings” (Miller 46).

As to the environment itself, Dr. Miller recommends, “Rather than struggling to force toddlers to behave safely and appropriately, adults should simply change the child’s environment to make interaction in it safe and appropriate” (Miller 47). Dog expert Morn agrees that the trainer has a responsibility to protect the young puppy and recommends checking for possible dangers by getting “down on your hands and knees, at dog height, and look around. […] If you see something interesting, delicate, or dangerous down there at dog level, you can be certain [your puppy] will discover it, too. You must move temptations out of reach or secure them some other way” (Morn 24).

4. Simple, clear and direct language. The practical application of using simple dog commands such as “sit,” “stay” and “speak” – or “don’t speak” in the case of the classroom – are definitely transferable into the realm of child guidance. Dr. Miller advises, “The younger the child, the more essential simplicity becomes. Toddlers need simple two- or three-word sentences” and “Preschoolers need only slightly longer sentences” (Miller 245). Dr. Montessori shared this same wisdom a century ago when she wrote, “Dante gives excellent advice to teachers when he says, ‘Let thy words be counted.’ The more carefully we cut away useless words, the more perfect will become the lesson” (Montessori 108).

Dr. Miller also recommends being authoritative and consistent when giving instructions, cautioning, “Children quickly identify adults who do not really mean what they say [… when adult inconsistency teaches them] that adults cannot be relied on to do what they say, no matter how many times they insist that ‘this time I really mean it!’” (Miller 245). Dog trainer Morn tells us to be clear and firm, but not loud, in giving commands and not to beg or cajole the dog because “Handlers often make the mistake of repeating themselves. This tells the dog that he isn’t really expected to listen [… the first time, and] Some dogs learn to shut out the owner’s echoing voice altogether” (Morn 55). The Volhards also instruct to give a command once and in a normal tone of voice because “Repeating commands teaches your dog that he can ignore you, and changes in inflection from pleas to threats don’t help, either” (Volhard and Volhard 32).

5. Importance of nonverbal communication. Both young children and puppies are extremely sensitive to nonverbal communication which includes facial expressions, body language and touch. As dog expert Morn writes, “Facial expression is a strong communication tool for both dogs and humans. Tiny muscles around lips, cheeks, eyes and ears create subtle changes in expression that are important for clear communication; slight differences in facial expression send significantly different messages” and that “touch is important to dogs when communicating and bonding with pack members” (Morn 59). Dr. Miller adds, “Infants pay attention to the touch, facial expressions, and sounds of their caregivers to interpret the adults’ moods and expectations” and that “as children reach preschool age, they gradually pay more attention to the actual words in adults’ speech, but they are still very sensitive to nonverbal cues” (Miller 258).

A belly rub for a puppy and a hug for a child are two examples of touch that express caring. Both a young child and a puppy observe body posture and can tell the difference in mood between a smiling adult with arms open to hug or pet and the one wearing a frown with their hands on their hips. When my terrier-mix, Sparky, was young, he was extremely reactive to my facial expressions. I used to play a game with him where I would very animatedly make an “unhappy face” with big frown and furrowed brow, hold it for a few seconds, and then switch to a bright “happy face” with wide open eyes and big smile looking like something exciting was about to happen. Sparky reacted to the unhappy face by putting his ears back and slightly lowering his head and to the happy face by pulling his ears straight up and forward and tilting his head as though awaiting good news. I could go back and forth a dozen or more times, and he would react exactly the same way to each change of expression. For a small child, a tense expression on his parent’s face may belie the adult’s reassuring words; thus, Dr. Miller’s advice warns that the child will react more readily to the adults’ body language than their spoken language (Miller 47, 258).

6. Patience and persistence are key to success. Ms. Morn writes, “The handler’s job is to help the dog understand what is required and motivate him to act” (Morn 61). Dr. Miller explains, “Positive, persistent assertiveness is considerably more painstaking and time-consuming than bullying and intimidating children into compliance by scolding, screaming, or spanking” (Miller 3). Speaking to the need for patience as an educator, Dr. Montessori writes, “Who does not know that to teach a child to feed himself, to wash and dress himself, is a much more tedious and difficult work, calling for infinitely greater patience than feeding, washing and dressing the child one’s self?” (Montessori 98). The Volhards offer, “Training your dog is a question of who is more persistent – you or your dog. Some things he can master quickly; others will take more time. If several tries don’t bring success, be patient, remain calm, and try again” (Volhard and Volhard 31).

7. Be specific with encouragement and praise. According to the old adage, more flies can be caught with honey than with vinegar. With regard to training a puppy, Ms. Morn writes, “Dogs, like the rest of us, are motivated by the desire to attain certain objects or outcomes” (Morn 52). Dr. Miller differentiates between simple praise and recognition with encouragement when she notes, “To recognize and encourage a child, we might say, ‘I noticed that you wiped the table with a sponge. The table is clean and beautiful. Thanks!’ The recognition is very specific (tells exactly what the child did) and encourages the child by letting him know that we appreciate the action” (Miller 218). Dog trainer Morn continues, “Your happy, pleased voice is music to your dog’s ears. Praise is a strong reward on its own [and the trainer should] Praise first to mark the behavior you liked” (Morn 52). She specifies, “The praise phrase (‘Good sit!’ for example) both marks the behavior and rewards it, because your dog will enjoy hearing your pleased tone” (Morn 63).

Both Ms. Morn and Dr. Miller agree that using a nonspecific phrase such as “Oh, what a good boy you are!” tells the puppy and child nothing about the behavior you are encouraging and may even cause confusion (Miller 218, Morn 52). To cement understanding, Ms. Morn again emphasizes, “Be specific with praise. Use a short phrase that includes both praise and the command [he] obeyed [… because] A praise phrase tells [him] exactly what you liked about his behavior” (Morn 52). Dr. Miller counsels, “Recognition and encouragement focus the child’s attention on internal rewards, feelings of accomplishment, pride and self-worth. Internal rewards build the child’s capacity for self-control and self-direction” (Miller 218).

8. Teamwork not competition. “All training, including play-training, should remind your dog that you two are a team and you are the captain. Raise [your puppy] with games and toys fostering cooperation rather than competition, so habits he forms while playing will improve his relationship with you” (Morn 80). Dr. Miller also strongly discourages use of competition among children because “competition also stimulates friction rather than cooperation” (Miller 63). She continues, “Learning to be a collaborative team member is an important pro-social skill for children to learn during these [early] years” (Miller 64).

Many more examples of similarities in human and canine early educational practices abound, such as for toilet training a child and house-breaking a puppy, positive reinforcement for desired behavior instead of punishment for undesirable behavior, need for exercise of mind and body to prevent boredom-induced misbehavior, and the consensus that enrollment in a professional educational setting can contribute greatly to the overall well-being of the young child and puppy alike. Trainer Morn writes, “One of the best ways to help [your puppy] gain confidence and social skills is to enroll him in puppy kindergarten. […] Early training around other dogs and their owners will give him a good start” (Morn 42). Dr. Miller also urges, “An early childhood program is a training ground in which very young people acquire and practice the skills needed for effective living” (Miller 3).

Outcome of study.

The very first time I served as a substitute teacher was for the latter half of a day with a Second Grade class. The teacher introduced me to her class and instructed them to be on their best behavior lest there be dire consequences to them should I leave a bad report. A sea of silently bobbing heads nodded in obedience. As the door clicked closed behind her, a phenomenon I can only describe as popcorn occurred as spontaneously over half of the seventeen students popped up out of their seats and crowded around me, all chatting excitedly, tugging on my skirt and introducing themselves. As the afternoon wore on, I can recall varied demonstrations of many of the misbehaviors cited in Positive Child Guidance: interrupting others, pushing, unkind words, crying, not sharing, tattling, infringement of others’ rights, lying, instigating, wandering around the room, throwing things, showing me all sorts of boo-boos and loose teeth, running, and not staying in seats, and generally disobeying my instructions.

Since my goal in taking the Child Guidance course this semester was to build up my skills in working with First-, Second- and Third-Graders, I must evaluate whether my confidence when faced with a room full of young children has increased or whether trepidation still reigns. A few years have passed since that initial surreal experience, yet first impressions are lasting ones. The forgiving nature of small children, however, matches my experience with the trusting nature of puppies in that no matter who has ever gotten in trouble on my watch, each and every time I walk down the halls in the elementary school, I am accosted by hugs and gleeful children running to see me despite being chided by their teachers for breaking out of line. What I have learned therefore has neither been crowd control techniques nor recommended behavioral modification procedures, although those insights have been helpful.

The most valuable thing I learned was something I already knew: just like my puppies, small children respond best to lots of love, encouragement and one-on-one attention that challenges them to grow as individuals without alleviating their need to take on responsibility. I still smile and think of the younger grades as roomfuls of Sparkies, but I am less nervous facing them in their classrooms now. If nothing else, my belief that guidance of the very young has little to do with species and everything to do with love and respect has only been reinforced and affirmed.

Works Cited

Miller, Darla Ferris. Positive Child Guidance. 6th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.

Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method. English translation. Ridgefield, CT: Roger A. McCaffrey Publishing, 1912. Print.

Morn, September B. Training Your Labrador Retriever. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1999. Print.

Pica, Rae. “The Value of Play: Why Kids Just Need to Be Kids.” Preschoolers Today. Disney, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <>

Volhard, Jack and Wendy Volhard. Dog Training for Dummies. 2nd Ed. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2005. Print.

1 Comment

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One response to “Parallels in raising puppies and small children

  1. Suzanne

    My original 2009 post about Sparky and the Second Graders is here:


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