Thursday 19 September 2019

Ruff love: Can you train your baby like a dog?

A new TV show claims parents can apply dog training methods to their kids, but parenting experts have their concerns

Train Your Baby Like a Dog, Channel 4. PIC: Plimsoll Productions
Train Your Baby Like a Dog, Channel 4. PIC: Plimsoll Productions

Arlene Harris

Since time immemorial, parents have been passing on knowledge to their children and teaching them how to navigate the numerous paths they will encounter in life.

Many methods have been used to encourage babies and young children to become happy in their own skin and with the world around them, but a new idea being trialled in the UK has left parents and experts aghast.

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Train Your Baby Like a Dog, which airs on Channel 4 at 8pm tonight, follows dog trainer and animal behaviourist Jo-Rosie Haffenden as she applies dog training techniques to two young children.

According to the show blurb, Haffenden wants "exhausted parents to turn their backs on discipline, and the naughty-step and instead embrace positive dog training for children".

Needless to say, the show has attracted plenty of controversy. Thousands of outraged parents have signed an online petition calling for the hour-long programme to be cancelled. They believe the premise is "cruel", "disrespectful" and "inhumane" - and they think the training methods recommended could have negative effects on children further down the line.

One of the methods used in the programme is clicker training, which is the use of a sound to communicate to an animal that they have performed a desirable behaviour.

Puppy love: Dog trainer Ali Ramsey
Puppy love: Dog trainer Ali Ramsey

Dublin-based dog trainer, Ali Ramsey (aliramseydogtrainer.ie) says this is used to "reinforce that behaviour with something the animal finds rewarding such as a tasty treat or toy".

"In practice we use a small box which makes a click noise and often the reward we use is a piece of food," she explains. "This allows the dog to actively participate in their training as they learn that their actions directly influence the outcome. For example, you ask a dog to sit, its bum touches the ground, you click and treat. Now your dog knows that bum on the ground makes good stuff happen."

Clicker training is nothing new, Ali continues. "It's simply a mainstream use of the concept of conditioning. It works beautifully with dogs as it allows us to be really clear in our communication and also facilitates their active participation, which can only make for a more positive learning experience."

Although Ali, who has an 8-month-old son, hasn't seen the Channel 4 programme, she says she has used clicker training with her child.

"The principle theory behind clicker training requires a commitment to setting up an environment to help the learner be successful and reinforcing the behaviours we want to see more of," she says. "So this morning when my son put his spoon in his mouth I clapped (clicker) and gave him a cuddle (reward). Next mealtime, I will make sure he once again has a spoon and I'll watch for an opportunity to tell him he is doing a great job using it.

"You would be amazed, when you think about it, how often the same principles of learning take place in our everyday lives."

Dublin mother Alison McCarthy has a three-year-old with 'tantrum issues' and says she would try anything to change her daughter's outbursts.

"Leah has always been a bit of a nightmare," she admits. "Since she was tiny she wouldn't sleep through the night, was always cranky and despite the fact that her older brother is so nice to her, gives him a really hard time.

"She gets upset with the tiniest thing. I might leave out the 'wrong' outfit for her or she might want cereal instead of toast for breakfast and will have a fit. I know I'm probably to blame as I have always given in to her desires so she is used to getting what she wants instantly - but I'm really paying for it now. I'm sure some people think using a method for training dogs is a bit odd, but at this stage, I would be willing to try anything."

Many parents will understand Alison's bind, but Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting, urges caution. She says dog training methods are overly simplistic and "downright negligent".

"The emotional right brain of a baby is developing quickly from the first hours of their lives and during the stage of co-dependent development (the first four months) a baby doesn't yet know they are separate beings to their mothers, so when a mother looks at baby with love, baby sees himself reflected back as loveable," she explains.

"This is essential in the beginning to develop that all-important sense of self which will form the basis of future psych-social and emotional development. Young children need reassurance, love, understanding, acceptance and empathy - not treats and clicker methods," she continues. "This said, I'm not suggesting permissive parenting as the alternative, because young children thrive on gentle yet firm, calm, clear and consistent boundaries which are developmentally attuned to where they are at."

Niamh O'Reilly, author and paediatric sleep expert at thenursery.ie is also opposed to using canine training methods on babies.

"My gut reaction is what on earth?" she says. "Children and babies are not animals so we follow a different set of rules when it comes to working with them on any level, be it sleep or dealing with challenging behaviours. Even the idea of getting children to conform makes me feel uneasy - chastising them for not doing what we want them to do isn't helpful or useful.

"Poor sleep for babies is generally not a behavioural issue and so not something which needs disciplinary tactics. And while I understand the desire for ways to encourage and help kids sleep, using very reactive techniques such as treats and the clicker method may result in short-term gains and I wonder about long-lasting psychological effects."

Fellow sleep expert, Lucy Wolfe (sleepmatters.ie) is of a similar opinion. She thinks it's "outrageous to align child development and parenting support with animal training".

"We are living in a world where we know so much more about the negative implications of conditioned relationships and unrealistic expectations of childhood behaviours," she says. "The emphasis on our parenting style must be within a loving, unconditional relationship which has respect for each child's emotional health and wellbeing."

Niamh O'Reilly adds that there are many reasons why babies might not be sleeping and parents should investigate these instead of turning to "extreme" training methods.

"More often than not, poor sleep might be as a result of being overtired, lack of daytime structure, not having a solid bedtime routine or overuse of sleep aids," she says.

As for tantrums, Joanna Fortune says they are "developmentally normal" and even healthy in young children.

"They have limited vocabulary and can struggle to express themselves which leads to frustration," she says. "If your child has what you deem to be a behavioural problem, firstly reflect on whom it's a problem for, what is the context, is there a pattern to it, is this typical behaviour and how long has it been going on."

If the problem continues to be a concern, she advises parents to seek support from a "suitably qualified expert" - and not a dog trainer.

Irish Independent

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