Acting like a dog

How to cope with negative attention-seeking behaviour

Q: Our three-year-old son thinks he’s a dog. He barks, howls, eats off the floor and likes to wear a dog leash on his pants to make a tail. He’ll eat dog food and dog treats, if he can get them. We always ask him to stop and even put him in time out, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

A: Think back to what was happening a year ago in your family. Was there a big change in your son’s life? For example, did you have a new baby? Did his primary caregiver go to work after being at home with him? Did he begin a new nursery school? Was the family under stress for another reason? The more you can understand the context in which his behaviour began, the more effective you will be at changing it because you will be able to respond to the needs that prompted him to begin acting like a dog.

Right now, your son is getting attention, even if it is negative attention. Instead, you need to give him positive attention for being a boy and acting like one; he needs to know that you value him for who he really is. So set firm limits on his “doggy” behaviour while rewarding and encouraging “little boy” behaviour. Be careful that you are not inadvertently sending him mixed messages by being amused by his dog antics or by being inconsistent in your limit setting. And if you don’t see a change in his behaviour in a few weeks, consider a consultation with a qualified mental health professional.