Dog Trainers Guide to Parenting

What I learned about Parenting from Training My Dogs.

I am a child psychologist and play therapist, and for the past 15 years have had a canine assistant in my office.  I have trained them, with the help of some fine dog trainers, to be actively involved in the play with children.  The process of training a puppy to be engaged but not intrusive in the play has been challenging and rewarding.  Early on, I noticed that much of what I was being taught to effectively discipline and train my dogs was what I hoped parents were doing with the children they brought to therapy.  I also discovered Harold Hansen had the same idea and wrote, the Dog Trainer’s Guide to Parenting.  As parents are approaching summer and more free time with their kiddos, I thought that you might appreciate some of the wit and wisdom from this resource to practice.

“What Love can and cannot do.” We love our dogs but loving them does not keep them from jumping on or frightening the neighbors or biting small children.  The same with children:  we love them so much we are often afraid if we set boundaries, or don’t give them everything they desire, they won’t love us.  I learned from my dogs and my kiddos, love means setting limits.

“Get Results not Angry.” Ever notice how frustrating teaching new skills to a puppy or a toddler can be?  Even the smartest dog or youngster in the world takes time, repetitions, and parental patience to learn a new task, predictably and consistently.  Losing your cool will not get results, it will only induce fear and resistance.  As they say in dog training, “If your dog eats your socks, it’s your fault.”  Take a deep breath, simmer down, start again.

“Plan rather than react.” Expect that your child (or your dog) will do what children and dogs do.  You can depend on your 2-year-old to throw a tantrum right in the quiet moments of church, just as you can bank on your lab puppy bolting for the outdoors whenever they have an open door.  In play therapy, we suggest parents “be the thermostat, not the thermometer.”  Playfully respond to the environment with a prepared, corrective action, rather than just react emotionally.

 “Training and Discipline” Housebreaking and toilet training are essential to being able to live happily together as a family. So are other types of training! Children and dogs need to learn not only how to behave but also when to behave. Our job as parents is to train our children how and when to behave in different settings and to model those behaviors ourselves. ‘Mind your manners!” Doesn’t work as a direction if kiddos don’t know what manners are. Discipline is not punishment. Discipline is both for children and parents: guidance, consistency, and patience; rituals, standards, and expectations. When children
and dogs learn discipline, they earn respect and gain freedom. Parents with a plan are disciplined and model that for their children.

“Saying it once” Not repeating yourself multiple times communicates to your children (and your dog) that your expectation is that they will comply.  It conveys your respect of them and your confidence that they will do as you ask.  ‘Saying it once’ requires parents to be disciplined, patient, and consistent.  It also means making sure that you take time to be fully present (like not with your attention on your phone) and that your child’s attention is on you, before expressing your expectation.    “Get their attention first, say [the command], wait, and reward,” is what I was taught in dog training, using voice inflection that indicates my expectations.  It’s good advice for parents, too.


Dr. Susan M Carter, PhD is a child and family psychologist, and Registered Play Therapist – Supervisor, in private practice in Kalamazoo, MI.