I guess it should have occurred to me when breeders would stop taking my calls after I let slip we had an 18 month old, that puppies and toddlers are not a good combination. I guess I also should have listened when seasoned dog owners politely suggested I get an older dog as a first pet. But we wanted the fun of a puppy. So we got one.
And it was fun. For about two days. Before the novelty of a newborn wore off, and we found ourselves in a bewildering state of puppy-dom which in a strange way mirrors the major milestones of the first 18 months – sleepless nights, relentless oral fixation and potty training but all in a matter of weeks. We were at ground zero. And what’s worse just as the toddler had mastered independent play. Adult supervision was now required at all times to prevent puppy from nipping toddler or toddler from pulling puppy dog’s tail.
Sheer Hell. I am not going to lie. I wanted to give the dog back. We’d made a terrible mistake. But this is America, where dog’s have their own cupcake bakery (Yes, I am talking about you Three Dog Bakery) and things get ugly fast on Nextdoor when anyone posts a pet for sale post – how dare you give up on a member of your family?! So for the sake of social conformity, we hit Amazon Prime and ordered every conceivable puppy training book out there in a bid to raise a puppy we could live with. The advice was spookily similar to many parenting books out there. Here’s my 5 tips for surviving puppies and toddlers.
- Calm Assertive Energy – Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer’s “Be the Pack Leader” counsels owners to generate calm assertive energy when handling their dogs. Avoid raising your voice and to issue commands with meaning. This didn’t come easily to me, but I finally got there by looking into my dog’s eye and trying my best at telepathic communication. Eventually, these techniques paid off, and I realized this is similar to the Jedi mind tricks my husband uses when we fly long haul home to New Zealand with our son. When we “feel the force” and expect good behavior – it manifests itself. When we steel ourselves for a rough ride however, we become that family no one will make eye contact with.
- Reward Positive Behavior – In those early weeks, all it felt like we were doing was correcting bad behavior. Don’t pee there. Get off there. Don’t bite the dog. Stop licking the toddler’s feet and so on. It was exhausting. And then disheartening to read that all that negative verbiage was never going to lead to the behavior we wanted. Instead, according to How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With we needed to reward the behavior we did want with praise, pats or a treat. And most importantly we needed to be verbally specific about the behavior e.g. good sit, good down. Turns out the same goes for child behavior according to Pocket Parent or Carol Dweck’s Mindset – the more we can get specific about good behavior rather than just saying “good job” but more “good sharing, I like how you shared your train with Tommy,” the more likely it is to be a regular good behavior trait.
- Re-Direction – When your dog chews your freshly painted window sills potentially exposing lead to your toddler, your first instinct will be to scream. But see tips 1 and 2 above. Take a deep breath. Direct your mutt to chew on a plastic chew toy, and phone your decorator. Same goes for when your toddler starts scaling your liquor cabinet. Your reaction is everything. The worst thing you can do according to pediatrician and Happiest Toddler author, Harvey Karp is reward negative or potentially dangerous behavior by overreacting to it and turning it into a game. Instead, wave something shiny in the opposite direction while locking the cabinet and hiding the key.
- Social Stimulation – At first I thought all those doggie daycares were another sign of American excess. And with names like Pooches Paradise and Canine Resort who could blame me? But whatever you think of the names of these places, dogs like kids need to play with their own kind, to build their socialization skills. For the dog, it’s about finding his place in the pack. For your two year old, learning to wrench toy trains from one child’s hand, only to lose it minutes later to another child is an essential part of growing up and learning to share.
- Physical Exercise – Daily dog walks are non-negotiable for the Dog Whisperer and should happen at the same time each day for best behavior results. You don’t see the same advice in parenting books, despite increasing obesity rates in toddlers. But in my experience and those of my friends, a good run around for toddlers is critical for better behavior and leads to decent naps, which then becomes its own virtuous circle. My good friend sets up an obstacle course for her four year old and conducts time trials – her kid loves it!
Disclaimer time. Despite the similarities in dog and child psychology, I am not advocating you raise your child as a dog for vice versa. There are definitely some things you should never do – crate your child when you leave the house for one, or leave your baby with a complete stranger for training while you go on vacation for three weeks being another. The latter of which we did, for our fur baby despite all our reading, in a final act of desperation. Fortunately, the professionals at Gentle Dog Training helped mold the obedient dog we love and cherish today.
If only it were that easy to train the other baby. That is still a work in progress. So back to Amazon. Anyone got any good toddler parenting recommendations?