Picture this: Guests arrive at the front door and as you open the door to greet them, your 5-year-old son or daughter runs wildly at your company, screaming and pulling on their arms and clothes for attention. This is unacceptable behavior for our kids, so why do we allow our dogs to do it?
Whether you’re a pet parent or a pet sitter, it’s not a very good idea to treat your dog like a baby. But it is a good idea to treat our furry friends like you would a 5-year-old child. That means teaching them boundaries, manners, and discipline. Dog behaviorist Beverly Ulbrich preaches this motto with her San Francisco clients, and we’re outlining the reasons why it works.
From Family Protector to Family Member
If you think, “my dog is my child,” you’re not alone. The dog’s role in the home has evolved greatly in the past 100 years. A majority of dog owners now consider themselves ‘pet parents’ rather than ‘pet owners.’ Nearly three-quarters of them talk to their dogs and many buy their dogs birthday treats or even gifts for Valentine’s Day.
Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, details the changing roles in his book “The Modern Dog,” explaining how we’ve seen dogs go from herding, hunting, or guarding dogs to full-blown family members just in the past century.
Dr. Coren cites two main reasons why we now view our dogs as our kids instead of our property: we’re living longer and the family unit isn’t as intact as it used to be, with extended family spread out over the country or even beyond.
“We have a version of empty-nest syndrome,” Dr. Coren explains. “Humans have a need to nurture and feel there is somebody or someone that depends on you. A dog tends to fit this very well because he’s socially responsive where a cat tends to be somewhat elusive.”
Not that he sees anything wrong with treating our dogs like kids. In fact, there are some advantages, as long you have the right expectations.
“Recognize the dog is not a child,” Dr. Coren clarifies. “Pet owners who admit treating their dogs as children also tend to give their dogs responsibilities. They expect in some way or another the dog has that level of understanding and if you overestimate that, it will damage the relationship.”
With the right expectations in mind, let’s explore the reasons why treating your dog like a child can be a good idea.
For Their Own Safety
Our number-one priority as pet parents is to keep our canine kids safe. But if your dog won’t listen to you inside the home, you can bet he won’t listen to you on the street where there are serious risks like passing cars.
“If you can’t control your dog in the house under calm circumstances, you aren’t going to be able to control him when he’s excited or distracted,” Ulbrich says.
Knowing commands like “stay” and “come” can save your dog’s life, and obeying them is not an option.
“You should only say a command once,” Ulbrich explains. “In an urgent situation where there can be dire consequences, you only get one chance.”
Commands like “drop it!” and “off!” are equally important to keeping your dog child safe, especially since dogs are naturally inquisitive and will put pretty much anything in their mouth, like a young human child.
“It’s important to teach your dog not to pick up certain things,” Ulbrich suggests. “Things like chocolate, chicken bones, and poop—if they get it into their mouth and ingest it, it could be fatal.”
On that same note, you should also be able to take your dog’s food, treats, or toys away at any given time without him snarling, growling, or lashing out at you.
“It’s a natural tendency for dogs because if you think about survival of the fittest, the dog who ends up with the food survives,” Ulbrich explains. “Our job is to train them that we feed them twice a day and give snacks, so they don’t have to worry about protecting their food.”
If your dog does snap at you for trying to take his food, you should consult a professional to help instead of trying to handle it yourself.
For Good Manners and Obedience
Do you find yourself asking your dog to go to bed multiple times and then finally bribing him with a cookie to comply? You wouldn’t give your 5-year-old $5 to just go to bed, so why do the same for your fur baby?
If you have to coax your dog to do what you ask, you are not establishing a respectful relationship. You also won’t ever have full control of your dog.
“If you tell your dog to do something, he should just do it,” Ulbrich says. “You’ll run into trouble in an urgent situation if you don’t have a high-value cookie in your hand. And even then, your dog may decide the squirrel is more exciting than your cookie.”
Does your dog paw at you for attention or start whining to get it? A good dog mom or dad should never give in, which would encourage this bad behavior.
“Both children and dogs should learn to self-soothe, meaning they should be able to be alone for a half-hour and do their own activity without needing the attention of an adult,” Ulbrich says.
For Proper Socialization and Skills
It would be weird if you kept your child locked in the house all day and never introduced him to another kid to play with, or only let him play in the yard. But some people actually do this with their dogs out of fear their dog may get into a fight at the park.
“Dogs, just like children, need to learn social skills and cues to know when they’re being invited to play and when they’re being told to leave someone else alone,” Ulbrich says.
Your dog needs to interact with groups of people and dogs alike to learn skill sets and how to take direction. If you have a skittish dog, you can make it easier for him by being a strong leader, as a dog looks to their pet parent for security the same way a child does.
“You should go outside the house first, go into the dog park first, and pet another dog first,” Ulbrich explains. “Show them leadership so they can see you are checking it out and making it safe for them so they don’t have that burden on themselves.”
Of course, if your dog has major issues interacting with other dogs, you should consult a professional trainer for advice on how to socialize him.
For Learning New Tricks
Imagine your kid wants to try playing baseball, so you take him down to the park and throw him a couple pitches. He swings and misses so you throw your arms up and walk away because obviously he’s no good at baseball.
This is exactly how we treat our dogs when we get frustrated if they don’t immediately learn a new trick. Some people assume their dog isn’t smart enough when he doesn’t pick up the trick instantly.
“It’s not because of their limitations, it’s because we don’t work with them,” Ulbrich says. “If a dog is used to learning, it’s easy to teach new commands.”
Spend some time on the floor with your dog teaching new tricks, which is easier once you find his motivation to learn.
“All dogs are motivated by something,” Ulbrich says. “Dogs are motivated by toys, balls, treats, and almost all dogs are motivated by affection.”
Remember, dogs don’t speak English. Part of pet parenthood is learning how to communicate with your dog to avoid frustration on both ends.
“Dogs can follow body language and hand motions very easily,” Ulbrich explains. “They have the ability to learn words are associated with objects or tasks.”
The Bottom Line
Treating your dog the same as your 5-year-old has some advantages. Ask yourself, “Is this behavior rude or unacceptable for my child?” If the answer is yes, it’s probably also rude and unacceptable for your dog child.