Birthday Party for a 4 year old: A comparison to Dog Training

I was lucky enough to attend my favorite four year old’s birthday party last weekend. This post is not about dog safety tips or parenting with dogs. These two are the best parents I have ever seen. (No unwanted parenting advice. I’ll call you out.) This friend and I have many conversations about behavior and it’s antecedents, its consequences and manipulating all of the above. She is not a dog trainer, she’s a teacher and a parent. I know that dogs are not children and should not be treated as such, but the similarities are there.

As a dog trainer, it is my job to observe and note all the things. This is how I avoid getting bit by my clients, and design training plans that work for the individual in front of me. Just because I have an idea of what should happen in a situation, does not mean that it is going to happen if my contingencies are not there. As a parent, it is also your job to know your child. What motivates them, what drives behavior, and how to manipulate the antecedents to get the behavior you want or avoid behavior you don’t want. The other, most important aspect is to look at what is actually happening in front of you.

Back to my birthday party.

Now, it’s difficult not to trigger stack a 4 year old. 4 year olds also think they want to do things that maybe they aren’t quite ready for. (sounding familiar?) There was an inflatable water slide at this birthday party, complete with a hose at the bottom. (where was this stuff when we were kids?) Now, this 4 year old was really excited to play on this slide. I watched her run outside with her friends, and climb the ladder to the top. Once at the top, I could see the mood change. Suddenly, the slide was a long way down, and that pool didn’t look quite so inviting. Her friends were there cheering her on and after some hesitation down she went, straight into the hose spraying water in her face. And we were done.

Now the fabulous parents that my friends are, unemotionally, swooped in and asked her what was wrong, settled her into a towel, and she sat and watched the slide happen for a good 20 minutes. Once she was in a better state of mind, playing inside with her new toys was a much better way to spend her party.  Everyone is happy again.

Now let’s look at how this could have gone differently.

These parents could have forced her down the slide again to “get her over her fear.”

They could have done nothing and let her continue her meltdown in the pool.

Instead, they chose to treat her fear as something legitimate at the moment, but address it in a way that she could learn from. Meltdowns don’t happen for no reason.

What does this look like in our dogs? (This is a dog training blog after all)

Let’s operationalize what a meltdown for our dogs looks like. This would be the barking, lunging, spinning, and otherwise embarrassing behaviors that we as owners work very hard to avoid.

Face your fears: This is the “lets get closer” approach.  Your barking, lunging, dog is now forced to approach the scary thing to see that it is in fact, not scary. Think about something that you are afraid of. For me it’s snakes. If you dragged me over to see a snake to prove that it was not scary, I would punch you in the face. This also would do absolutely nothing for my fear of snakes.

Do nothing: This is what most people opt for because they have no idea what to do in this moment. (Keep reading! I’ll be giving you some tips!) Just like the birthday girl, ignoring the meltdown is going to break the trust that she has in the people who are supposed to protect her. Her fear is real to her in the moment. So is the fear your dog is feeling. It’s real in the moment, and he needs you to tell him that you are going to protect him.

So what do we do?

First, we pay attention! Get really good at reading stress signals. Walking your dog is your time to bond, it’s not the time you catch up on phone calls, and emails. If we wait for the embarrassing behaviors, we are too far gone. When your dog is worried about something, he’s going to look at it for a bit longer than normal. That is when the reassurance kicks in. Talk to your dog and when they turn to look at you, there you are with a snack. Can your dog take the food? Yes? We are okay, can we look at it again and move on? Yes. Great!

Can’t take the food? Uh-oh, we are drowning a bit and need to get away. Happily move your dog farther away from the thing. Here he can process from a distance that is comfortable for him. Once we can take the food and dismiss the thing, then we can move on.

Now, this is a very simplified way of looking at fear and counter conditioning. This seems simple, but I work with people for months to get their dogs to a point where they feel confident walking down the street.

Every dog is going to meltdown at something at some point in their life. Have a plan in place to deal with it. Always have your food on you, always be paying attention. These two quick tips will help you avoid a much more embarrassing moment later on.