February 20, 2010

Everything I needed to know about raising a child I learned from training my dog

When Berkeley was a puppy, we went to a puppy training class. She learned some basic commands, like "sit," "stay," "heel" and "come." I know what your thinking. If you've been following this blog or know us at all, you'll know that Berkeley isn't the most well-behaved pup. But she is extremely smart, and is very quick learner. If I have a clicker and a treat, she'll do almost anything. So she aced that class (and many others since), and one of thing most important things we taught her was her name.

Teaching a dog her name is simple. You wait until she is looking at you, then say the name, click (or say "yes!"), and give a treat. Soon you can say the name when she isn't looking, then if she turns to you, click and treat. Before long, you say her name and she'll come running for that treat. Eventually you can back off the treats. It is simple behavior training using positive reinforcement. During the training period, you also need to be sure to only use the name when you have a positive reinforcement (i.e. don't say "Berkeley, no!"). The name needs to mean good things.

You can then use this to work on the recall. Jeff would put Berkeley on a 50 ft. lead and I'd go to the other end. Then I would say "Berkeley, come!" If she came running, which she usually did, she got a treat. But she also had to learn that it was not an option to not come. If she didn't come running, Jeff would bring her over to me, and then she'd get the treat. Soon enough, we didn't need the lead, and we could actually hide behind trees in the park and shout for her to come find us.

Usually, you don't have to teach a person to respond to his or her name. You naturally say your child's name often and they pick up that it means something. It seems so natural that you turn your head when you hear your name that it feels more like instinct or reflex rather than a learned behavior. So what do you do when you have a child like Moe who doesn't respond to his name? Well, it's back to basics: positive reinforcement.

We've been working on a "response to name" program for a while with minimal success. So we're focusing on it more heavily now. I am supposed to say Moe's name only when there is a positive reinforcement available (treat, desired toy, tickles, etc.). We are not supposed to ever say "Moe, don't do that." And we are supposed to set up situations so that when we do call his name, he has to respond. If he doesn't respond on his own, a second person will walk him over. Even if Moe doesn't completely understand why he has to come or look at you when he hears his name, it can become a learned behavior.

Of course, it isn't as easy with a child. First, try not saying your child's name unless you have an immediate treat of some kind. Second, Moe isn't just motivated by a treat like a dog is. He has complex wants and needs and we don't always know what they are. He tires of the run back and forth to mom and dad game much more quickly than Berkeley does. And, like a lot of things with a two year old, when Moe doesn't respond, it is hard to know if he doesn't understand what is expected or if he just doesn't want to do it.

The good news is, it does seem to be working, though slowly. We've seen some very clear examples of Moe looking right at us when his name is called. Of course raising a child is much more complex than raising a puppy, but in the end, we humans are just animals and we like our treats (in whatever form) just as much as the next creature. I just hope and I can keep my kids off the Clomicalm.

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