Everything I learned about parenting, I learned in puppy school

Turns out dogs and kids aren't so different. Here are six golden (lab) rules from puppy school that work equally well on kids.

Photo: Julie McCann

When I got my eight-year-old son, Quinn, to brush his teeth using a command we’d just learned in puppy class, I made a life-changing discovery: Puppy training doesn’t just work on puppies.

It was late evening (that is, way past bedtime), and Quinn was drumming his toothbrush against the mouthwash bottle with one hand while flying his Lego spaceship around the sink with the other. I was exasperated, and we were both exhausted—it was time for this guy to be in bed. I took a deep breath. “Watch me,” I said, as I mimicked holding a treat between my eyes. Quinn stopped moving. “Watch me,” I repeated, as I popped a toothbrush in my mouth. He laughed a bit, but he looked me in the eyes. Then he put his brush in his mouth and followed along as I did a slow-motion re-enactment of a thorough brushing.

It wasn’t my intention to use our dog trainer’s very first lesson on my child. “You need your dog’s attention so that you can teach her,” she had told our class just an hour earlier. I had no treat for my son and we both knew we were play-acting, but he paused long enough to breathe and focus on me. When he rinsed his mouth afterwards, I jokingly patted his head. “Good boy!” I said. He yipped and giggled.

Puppy school has done so much more than help our bitey, barky and jumpy puppy, Mabel, become a more respectable member of our family; the experience has been a great parenting refresher, too. Unknowingly, I’d already been using many of the dog trainer’s techniques on my two human puppies, Quinn and his 10-year-old brother, Casey, all along. But dog classes have served to sharpen those lessons into parenting gold.

Alt textThe debate: Is getting a dog a good idea when you have little kids?

1. Stay committed to good cheer
Turns out, puppies don’t learn to stop nipping at your socks if you’re crabby. You may need to redirect them to their chew toy 67 times an hour, but a deep breath and a smile get far better results. The same thing applies when your little high chair occupant refuses to munch on her steamed broccoli or your six-year-old won’t wear his tuque. Lightness and brightness are crucial when you’re trying to coax someone into seeing things your way. You don’t need to believe your cheer, but you must commit to an upbeat and motivating performance.

2. Consistency is vital
Puppies need to know that if they want a pat, they need to sit first. If they want to go for a walk or get their food bowl, yup, they need to sit, too. School-aged kids learn that peace and order are won at home when they hang their coats on their hooks, put their knapsacks in their designated spots and pop their lunch bags on the counter after walking through the front door. Although both types of creatures may need repeated reminders in the early training days, the results are worth it.

3. Rewards work
Our dog is very motivated by food, which, as we discovered in puppy class, is incredibly useful. Mabel will do just about anything for a treat, including lying down and wearing the head halter she hates. For a preschooler who has a tough time with transitions (leaving the park, saying goodbye to the museum), learning that he can have something small and yummy at home time can be miraculous. Today, I carry chicken kibble, but when my spirited boys were small, I always had Ziploc bags of yogurt-covered raisins with me that were reserved for departures only.

4. You are in charge
The puppy is not my boss. In the early days, Mabel often thought she was, but she was wrong. We aren’t negotiating what you can chew or who you can jump on. At bedtime on a school night, parents don’t negotiate. The stairs to a preteen’s bedroom may sometimes get a stomping, but we can take it. Thanks for the reminder, puppy class.

5. Be in the now
One of Mabel’s ongoing challenges is that she pulls on her leash during walks. When she is solo with one of us, though, she does better. With one person and one dog, there is no chatting—only walking. Together, there are squirrels to spot and frozen puddles to investigate. A walk with a three-year-old may require a bit of wrangling, too, but the act of staying small and present (a pine cone!) can make the walk smoother and lovelier for both of you.

6. Pack time is a good time
Meeting in a semicircle with Mabel’s equally squirmy classmates and owners felt reassuringly like parent-and-baby yoga or toddler swim. While socialization is good for dogs and babies, it’s vital for grown-ups, too. With our pet people, we swapped horror stories about chewed baseboards and compared night-time pee schedules. I felt less alone—and less like a complete doggy-care failure. When you’re home with a six-month-old baby, hibernating instead of going to a playgroup can seem tempting. But parents need packs, too. Be sure to join one.

Read more:
How to keep toddlers and dogs safe around each other
5 best pets for kids (and 3 to avoid!)

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