There’s a lot we can learn from dogs, from how to improve our sense of smell to how to be empathic.
But the learning curve extends even further to how we approach our children. Dogs and kids, it turns out, are surprisingly similar creatures. “Researchers have shown that dogs hijack our oxytocin loop that is normally reserved for our babies,” says Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, and CEO of Dognition, a service that assesses dogs’ unique personalities. “Just by looking at us, dogs and babies give us a boost in oxytocin, and they get one, too. It’s an efficient way of making us want to take care of them,” he tells Quartz.
Might dog training techniques then teach us something about parenting? Strictly speaking, this should work for human children up to age two to two-and-a-half, though so-called “super dogs” have mental abilities akin to a three-year-olds, says Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at University of British Columbia and author of The Intelligence of Dogs.
“This works both emotionally and cognitively,” he tells Quartz, “so the techniques that will work for a two- or three-year-old child will work for a dog and vice versa.” By the time children reach age four or five, they begin to diverge from dogs by using language and intellect to reason things out.
Here’s what we know about what works on dogs and children:
Give them physical cues
Dogs are notorious for tuning into our every move. Research has shown that they are the only animals that spontaneously follow a human’s social cues, for example, knowing to look where a human is pointing to help them find food. They also know when a hand gesture is meant to say, “Hey, I’m trying to teach you something” versus “I’m looking at my watch,” says Angie Johnston, a PhD candidate at Yale University’s Canine Cognition Center.
Dogs also require a consistent physical signal to focus their attention on a specific task or command. This is also true of human infants, who have been shown to learn better when prompted with social cues to direct their attention (for instance, turning our head or directing our gaze). “With children too,” Johnston tells Quartz, “it’s really important that you call their attention and signal to them that you’re trying to tell them something. Even infants are much more ready to learn when you use special cues.”
Know what they can and can’t handle
Scientists have identified three areas of the brain that are involved in self-regulation: the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher-level thinking, following rules, and impulse control; the anterior cingulate, which adjusts behavior; and the orbitofrontal cortex, a region involved in decision-making and rewards. Typically children’s brains begin developing the capacity for self-control between the ages of 3 and 5, though the process continues until about age 11.
In dogs, “whatever amount of self-control they have must be eked out of a small piece of brain real estate,” says Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University who led a team of researchers to identify the small region in dogs’ left frontal cortex that regulates self-control.
Dogs act out when their frontal lobes are over-worked. That’s why they chew up furniture or bark uncontrollably when left alone to simmer in their anxiety. This is also why young children throw tantrums at toy stores or while waiting for a meal at a restaurant.
Dog trainers like Pat Miller, author of The Power of Positive Dog Training, say in these moments it’s important to distinguish between deliberate and instinctual behaviors. If a dog is intentionally misbehaving, perhaps barking to get some attention, the owner should leave the room to avoid rewarding aggressive behavior with attention.
Instinctual behaviors, like separation anxiety, warrant a different response. Savvy pet owners “learn to anticipate what might trigger an inappropriate behavior” and pre-empt it with, say, a treat-stuffed toy that keeps the dog busy, Miller explains.
The best response to a child’s instinctual behaviors, such as impatience or possessiveness, is similar, she says: “You figure how to engage him in an appropriate behavior before he engages in an inappropriate behavior.” In these situations, distracting a child before they act out is more effective than waiting to punish them.
Use positive reinforcement
Positive dog trainers reject punishing choke collars and other fear-based methods of discipline, and instead advocate for rewarding dogs for good behavior. According to Coren, as a dog gets better at whatever he or she is taught, like walk on a leash without pulling, the treats can be spaced out and eventually replaced by words of praise. “The same thing works for small children,” he says.
In MRI scans of young children, neuroscientists found that negative reinforcement requires complicated reasoning that is difficult for their brains to grasp. In essence, small children fail to understand where they made the mistake. As they approach adolescence, though, negative reinforcement, which takes more complicated reasoning, becomes more effective, though scientists have yet to identify why this change in cognition occurs.
Brenna Hicks, a child therapist who has written about how Cesar Millan’s dog-whispering strategies apply to parenting, says rewarding good behavior offers children the opportunity to learn to choose the consequences of their behavior.
Model good behavior
Dog trainers have learned that dogs can pick up on tasks by imitating humans. Children behave similarly, copying their observations of basic tasks adults and older children do, like putting on clothes and tying shoe laces.
But dogs have a leg up on children in this arena. Johnson recently conducted research at Yale University’s Canine Cognition Center that built on a previous Yale study of toddlers. In the previous study, the toddlers watched an adult run through a series of steps to open a puzzle box and get a prize. One of the steps was completely superfluous, yet the toddlers in the experiment did it anyway, without discriminating between what was necessary and what wasn’t. In Johnson’s study, dogs watched people go through steps to open a puzzle box and retrieve a treat. The people pulled one lever on the box that was irrelevant to the task. When dogs tried to solve the puzzle, they began to skip the lever step as soon as they learned to just open the lid instead.
Researchers believe that children meticulously repeat an adult’s sequence of steps because, unlike dogs, human socializing involves many behaviors that are not directly related to survival. This quirk of human nature can benefit parents, says Johnston, since young children are more likely to mimic their behavior without questioning it. They “tend to copy the modeled steps without needing to fully understand why parents are performing these actions,” she says.
Run with their personality
Dogs develop a wide range of personality traits early, even though we tend to assume that they are all fundamentally the same. Similarly, many parents assume that children should all respond the same way to instruction and their environment. “Kids are similar to dogs—at least before they can talk—because you can’t ask them questions. But you can ask them to make choices, and we can find out a lot about how they see the world when we use this method,” Hare, of the Dognition lab, says. “Some dogs are super communicative, while others might rely on their exceptional memories. You would teach these dogs in different ways, playing to their strengths.”
In children, personality traits go a long way in determining their developmental path. In her popular parenting book, The Child Whisperer, Carol Tuttle argues that “the purpose of parenting is to raise children true to their natures so they can grow up feeling honored, confident, and free to be themselves.” She has identified four key personality types —the fun-loving child, the sensitive child, the determined child, and the more serious child—to explain why children react differently to varies types of discipline and care.
Guide them with calm, controlled authority
Dog experts are quick to emphasize that being positive doesn’t mean being permissive. Setting boundaries and establishing routines helps dogs feel safe and orderly. Children also need (and ultimately want) boundaries, so they can learn to navigate a world that doesn’t cave to their every whim.
The trick is figuring out where the boundaries should be, and how to enforce them. The rules vary based on a dog’s or child’s unique personality, but one thing must remain constant: the authority figure’s calmness and self-control.
The right approach, says Hicks, is, ‘”I’m not going to be flustered, no matter what you do.'” This is one dog-training technique she believes is useful even for wayward teens.
In trying moments, flabbergasted parents often resort to the nuclear option: raising their voice and losing their temper. But this only serves to weakens a parent’s—or dog owner’s—position of authority.