This teaching is all about puppy love: National Pet Month

30th March 2012 at 01:00
Animal psychologist Roger Mugford has coached the Queen's corgis - he argues positive reinforcement works for children, too
  • National Pet Month, 7 April - 7 May
    • None of us ever starts off as a perfect parent. We usually make our worst mistakes with the first child and hopefully improve with each subsequent offspring. Fortunately, my experience as an animal psychologist shows that raising a puppy can be a great way to discover how to become a better parent - and even a better teacher. Puppies have hygiene issues, are impulsive, have an apparently non-existent attention span and love to play - all characteristics shared by small children. The two spheres of training have been influenced by many of the same social and psychological theories. For instance, in the 1960s, psychiatrist John Bowlby gave us attachment theory of child-parent interactions, while in the same decade John Scott and John Fuller explored similar issues of socialisation and attachment in puppies.

      In dog training, we have adopted much of the terminology you will find in educational textbooks - albeit relating more to schedules of reinforcement, chaining (shaping behavioural sequences), extinction (undoing learned responses) and associative learning (ie, mimicry). Certainly, the puppy owners who consult me share many of the ambitions for their developing dog that parents have for their children. Today, dogs are overwhelmingly seen as members of the family rather than simply as "pets".

      I will not pretend to be an expert on the ideal objectives of educating children, but I take it to be about creating capable, well-rounded citizens who can thrive in an ever-changing world. With dogs, the aim is to make them confident and friendly, while teaching them to behave within clearly defined limits. We need children who will grow up proficient in language, maths and manipulative skills; and we want dogs that can cope with a range of environments, will respond to key words and are tolerant of, even friendly towards, others.

      Traditionally, we have wanted dogs to "obey". Yet this concept is now regarded as being somewhat old-fashioned. More enlightened trainers and animal psychologists believe that dogs should conform to a person's reasonable expectations about how the world works and should learn the significance of human signals: our voices, gestures, facial expressions and even body language. Great emphasis is placed on learning social skills in puppy classes, just as it is with preschool children.

      There have been some extraordinary reversals in the philosophy underlying dog training. From Victorian times until well into the last century, the emphasis was on ensuring that a dog did exactly as it was told, or else. Such training relied on the dog's fear of a harsh voice or the pain of choke chains, the stick or even shock collars. In Victorian times, many of these same attitudes extended to the raising and education of children.

      However, people have always known that both dogs and children learn faster and develop better social attitudes if their successes are rewarded rather than their failures punished.

      In the 1980s, behavioural biologist Karen Pryor bought about a change from the traditional Barbara Woodhouse school of thought, replacing it with reward-based "clicker" training. In her book Don't Shoot the Dog, Pryor introduced a style of training that was underpinned by operant learning theory and the mantra "you only get what you reinforce". This method ignores bad behaviour and reinforces the good with a "click" from a handheld gadget (the clicker) and a treat. The dog learns to associate the sound of the click with a treat. It is a quick and accurate way of praising a dog and flags up desirable behaviour in a more consistent and immediate way than vague "good boy" verbal praise.

      Teaching with acoustical guidance (Tag) is the human equivalent of reward- based clicker training for dogs. Based on reinforcement of good behaviour as opposed to punishment for bad, it uses a step-by-step, short lesson structure. Tag and clicker methods have been evolving in parallel for the past decade or so, and practitioners can draw on a faster, more fun way of learning for young dogs - and for children.

      But as in human education, there is always a lively debate between the various schools of thought in dog training. On the one hand, there are the "treat-only" trainers who would like to remove all sanctions or penalties for "failure" and non-compliance. At the other extreme, there are those who prefer to impose unforgivingly strict rules reinforced by penalties and have a relationship with the dog that is hierarchical - the trainer always being "top dog".

      My approach lies between the two. I recognise that certain behaviours by a dog (or a child) are unacceptable and should invite a well-timed and appropriate penalty. In a child, the unacceptable behaviour may range from theft to setting something on fire, whereas for a dog it could be biting, barking or chasing livestock. Dogs are very quick to recognise the balance between pay-offs and penalties, so behaviour modification can be faster and more effective than it may be for recalcitrant pupils.

      The key challenge with dogs is to guide them towards developing good social skills - best achieved by structured early learning that begins when the puppy is between two and three weeks old as they start to hear, see and, most importantly, smell the world around them. From six weeks old, the puppy is highly receptive to learning about the complex man-made world in which he lives. So-called "puppy playschools" teach little dogs to live with large dogs, to divert threats, share resources such as food and toys, and learn healthy social interactions through play. An effective puppy class is like a well-run kindergarten.

      This parallel evolution in educational (training) philosophies for little humans and young dogs neatly reflects the comprehensive humanisation of canine character. Dogs have evolved cunning strategies to obtain food, shelter and protection from humans, in exchange for unquestioning love and loyalty. But delayed parenthood in humans - and fewer children per family - have contributed to a major change in the role of the companion dog who is now seen as being a member of the family rather than merely an adjunct to it. As children learn from their parents, so puppies learn from exposure to adult dogs. But there are also lessons that the two species can learn from each other.

      The ideal for parents and teachers is to ensure that children learn the good things about caring for a dog - by taking personal responsibility for their actions, about the importance of routine, good husbandry and shared games. Parental management should control the risks of either dog or child being abused and each will benefit from association with the other.

      Roger Mugford runs the Company of Animals training centre in Surrey ( For further information on dogs and their use in educating children, see www.thebluedog.orgen.


      The calming influence of dogs can counteract the nerves felt by children when they are learning to read, according to the Bark and Read Foundation.

      Set up in November last year by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, the foundation visits schools and organises reading days at the Kennel Club Library.

      It says there is evidence that children gain confidence from reading to dogs because the animals listen without judging or criticising. Careful choice has gone into the selection of animals; greyhounds are a favoured breed owing to their calm nature.

      The scheme is run in conjunction with Pets As Therapy's Read 2 Dogs programme and the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (Read) programme. Find out more at

      WHAT ELSE?

      Key stage 1: paws to learn

      Dogs Trust shares a compendium of colourful activities covering how to play with your dog.

      Key stage 2: design a dog

      More puppy fun from Dogs Trust with this crafty task.

      Key stage 3: instinct or learned?

      An interactive whiteboard lesson shared by sheepie55 asks how animals and humans come to perform certain actions.

      Key stage 4: conditioning

      Lesleywhittle translates Pavlov's dog experiment into an activity about young people and brands.

      Key stage 5: behaviourism

      Characters from The Simpsons take students through behavioural theories in granvilleey's presentation.

      In the forums

      Can anyone help a teacher train their class to be obedient?

      Find all links and resources at


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