Lessons from a Canine - Kimberly Thompson

Taking my dog to obedience training has been enlightening! Although I knew a lot about behavior modification in human children, applying those same principles to my dog has clarified a lot of things for me. With my newfound clarity, I present to you some important principles of behavior modification that (properly applied) will make your life so much calmer and simpler.

1. Reinforce desirable behavior and do not reinforce undesirable behavior. Simply stated, reinforcement is something that comes after the behavior that increases the likelihood that the individual (either child OR dog) will do it again. If your child is persisting in undesirable behavior, examine what she is getting out of it. There is something happening that is reinforcing that behavior. Eliminate the reinforcement.

2. Make sure you are reinforcing the right behavior. Dogs do not have language or complex reasoning skills, so you have to make sure that you apply the reinforcement immediately — within seconds. The same could be said for very small children — keep it simple and immediate. Around the age of 3 or 4 they are beginning to develop an autobiographical memory and can keep a visual image of a reward in their mind for a little while … but don’t stretch it too far.

3. Keep the reinforcement varied and of a value that motivates to keep learning. You give a high-value reinforcement for new behavior that is challenging … but back it down once you are getting the behavior consistently. Reserve the high-value reinforcements for behavior that is in progress. You give a dog rotisserie chicken while she is learning something hard, like navigating an agility course. You give them a little dog treat for sitting on command.  Applied to children — figure out what they value the most and reserve that for behavior that is really hard for them and that they are still learning to execute. Actually, for both dogs and kids, you have to figure out what is meaningful to them.

4. Food should not be the only reinforcer in your tool box. A dog values time with you, exercise, praise, and petting. Not too far off from kids. Kids value time with you, energetic play time, praise, and physical touch. Not everything needs to be rewarded with a promise of ice cream. In fact, that sounds to me like a high-value reinforcement that should be reserved for difficult behavior that has to be sustained over a matter of days, or weeks if your child is older.

5. Your dog and your child are both more pleasant to be around when they are well-behaved.  They are also safer when they reliably obey your commands.  Eventually your child will internalize the rules she has learned during these early years, and if you have reinforced socially acceptable behavior, this lays the foundation for good people skills for a lifetime. This does not mean little robots. Both dogs and kids have their own personalities and that should be celebrated. However, remember that you and your mate are not the only people your child will interact with. In fact, some day you will only be a memory. The social skills you are beginning to teach when your child is little will enable them to continue forming positive relationships long after they have grown up.


     I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I work with mothers and their children to help them heal, grow, and live their most vibrant lives. My particular expertise is pregnant and postpartum women, and moms of “littles.” My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is available on Amazon and from Praeclarus Press. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face; if you live anywhere else in the state of Texas, you can work with me via online therapy. Send me a message if you need more information, or call my office at (806) 224-0200 if you’re ready to book an appointment.