My family has been fostering Roxie, a young black lab mix, for a few months now and it’s been hectic. We have had a dog before, but that was when my husband was my boyfriend and the kids were nonexistent. I assumed this pup was going to be like the last one, similar temperament and obedient (silly me).
After watching a ton of dog training videos and using up the last of my patience and understanding, I’m happy to report that she’s becoming a polite pup on leash and at home. This process made me wonder if it’s true what they say about dogs and kids: are they really that similar?
The Resemblance is Striking
On face value, kids and dogs are pretty much the same. They both require a lot of attention and guidance to appropriately respond to various social settings, at times expressing their needs in fits of whimpers and shouts or tearing up the house when bored or frustrated. Turns out, there’s a reason for the similarities in behavior.
Security and Attachment
To confidently explore their environment or engage in new situations, children rely on their caregivers to be a secure base of safety and support. Dogs apparently look to their owners in the same fashion. A 2013 study found that pups are much more motivated to get a food reward when their owner is around compared to when they’re only surrounded by strangers, suggesting that their caregiver is critical for them to act in a confident manner. Expanding on this, a 2021 study concluded that dogs (especially those who have been re-homed) look to their trusted owner for security regarding new people and places. This isn’t surprising since the mother-child bond is closely aligned to a pet-owner relationship, sharing similar emotional experiences and brain patterns to elicit care and affection.
Dogs and toddlers display similar patterns in social intelligence. Research conducted in 2017 revealed that two-year-olds and canines comparably outperformed chimpanzees on cooperative communication skills, such as following a pointing finger or human gaze. This isn’t totally by coincidence as dogs have been “man’s best friend” for 15,000 years and their strong social IQ may have been a product of our two species evolving together.
Previous findings are consistent with a dog’s social skills. A 2014 study observed that pooches use similar brain mechanisms to process social information, especially with emotionally loaded sounds (happy, angry, sad, etc). If you’ve ever been in a funk or having a good cry, I’m sure your dog offered you comfort. If you yelped in excitement about that job promotion, they jumped up and wagged their tail to celebrate with you. Yes, that is actual empathy.
Notice I mentioned sounds, not words. Another interesting discovery is that dogs don’t process the difference between two similar sounding words (sit vs. set) which is similar to a toddler around 12-14 months of age.
Same, But Different
So why am I telling you all of this? Because if dogs are not that different from our kids, then many parenting concepts can be applied to caring for a canine and vice versa.
In Cesar Millan’s Better Human Better Dog, he encourages his human clients to be the “pack leader.” That means to understand the reasons behind their pup’s behavior, and work on any past personal trauma they might be carrying into their pet-owner relationship. With trust, consistency, and a calm confidence, dog owners can effectively establish boundaries and give affection to them in a positive, healthy manner.
This sentiment is echoed in Dr. Becky Kennedy’s Good Inside. To be an effective parent that can provide a safe and caring atmosphere for our kids, we must address our past issues and resolve our triggers (we’ll talk more about her book next week).
We can’t successfully guide our children if we are in a state of emotion and stress; the same goes for dogs. Both Cesar and Dr. Kennedy believe that both dogs and kids are essentially good inside and that behaviors are a sign of what they need, not who they are. For example, a scary dog may actually be a scared dog just as an emotional child may be overwhelmed and dysregulated.
So, here’s what I’ve learned in my time with Roxie and how it compares to raising my kids:
- I’m in charge. One major role of a parent is to set boundaries, and the same goes for dogs. According to Dr. Kennedy, a boundary is an action that we will do if a line is crossed. For Roxie, I became the boundary, physically putting myself between her and food that my kids were eating (she would try to jump up and take it from them). For my kids, it would be saying that I won’t let them have snacks before dinner because I don’t want them to get a tummy ache. Both would express their feelings via tantrums and whines, but once they realized my decisions were non-negotiable, the behaviors lessened. No, being in charge is not easy, but being a trustworthy leader never is.
- Maintain calm, assertive energy. Cesar Millan believes that dogs pick up on our energy, essentially affecting their behavior or how they read an environment. By displaying calm confidence, you maintain an energy balance. The concept can be applied to children as they need a calm and collected adult to feel safe when expressing their thoughts and emotions.
- Redirect. When puppies nip or when babies cry, redirecting their attention or behavior to something else seems to help. When Roxie first came to us, she was also about play nipping. The yelp tactic didn’t seem to work and while ignoring was a bit better, she’d nip more to get my attention. But redirecting her play bite to a chew toy worked wonders.
- Challenge accepted. Both kids and canines need to be mentally and physically stimulated. It feeds their brain, reduces boredom, releases excess energy, regulates their arousal level, and builds their strength and coordination. Just like kids, dogs need about an hour of physical and mental play daily. Our current favorite activities are 30-minute walks, Hide and Seek, Keep-Away, and Chase the RC Car.
- No substitutions. Doesn’t matter how many toys you shower your kid (or dog) with, it does not replace valuable time with you. Much of Roxie’s toys require some form of social interaction, dropping them when no one wants play with her. My kids, regardless of what toy they played with, want to show me their creations, games, or how cool the toy itself is; they want to include me and know that I care.
- Live in the moment. Dogs don’t dwell on the past or think too much about the future like we do and neither do little kids. That means both dogs and littles ones are coding what they are experiencing in the moment, not what they did 3 hours ago or how they’ll feel about it later. With that said, reprimands must occur immediately following an incident. It also means that any disconnect you had can be remedied by being in the moment with them, holding their hand as they go through their feelings, or letting them know that you love them unconditionally as they do you. Being in the moment allows you to reconnect with your kids, your dog, and yourself.
I hope you liked our fun little side topic this week. We hope both dog parents and kid parents could get something out of these posts and bring a new awareness to their roles as caregiver.
MacLean, E. L., Herrmann, E., Suchindran, S., & Hare, B. (2017). Individual differences in cooperative communicative skills are more similar between dogs and humans than chimpanzees. Animal Behaviour, 126, 41–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2017.01.005
Horn, L., Huber, L., & Range, F. (2013). The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e65296. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065296
Stoeckel, L. E., Palley, L. S., Gollub, R. L., Niemi, S. M., & Evins, A. E. (2014). Patterns of Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study. PLoS ONE, 9(10), e107205. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0107205
Cimarelli, G., Schindlbauer, J., Pegger, T., Wesian, V., & Virányi, Z. (2021). Secure base effect in former shelter dogs and other family dogs: Strangers do not provide security in a problem-solving task. PloS one, 16(12), e0261790. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0261790
Kennedy, B. (2022). Good Inside. HarperCollins.