Tue, Dec 08, 2009 - Page 16 News List

Leaders of the pack

Can dog-whispering techniques used to control canines also work with children?

By Lucy Atkins  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


On parenting blogs, Web sites and Twitter, the guilty admissions are all the same: the training techniques of Cesar Millan, aka “The Dog Whisperer,” work on kids too. Millan has published four books; his show runs on a perpetual reel on the National Geographic channel. “As I watched him work with an extremely aggressive pit bull,” admits a woman called TheMentorMom on Minti.com, “I saw that some of his techniques and philosophies applied to teaching children.”

While a push on the neck or a loud “Sshht!” could cause raised eyebrows at the toddler group, the notion that dogs and children share a need for calm, assertive “pack leaders” and that both need exercise, discipline and love seems reasonable. No wonder such theories are challenging the trend for indulgent “helicopter” parenting.

“Today’s parents have less time for their children, so when they do see them the last thing they want is confrontation,” says psychologist Aric Sigman, author of The Spoilt Generation. “But parents are finally realizing that the tail is wagging the dog. Authority is a good thing.”

Parenting coach Judy Reith used the Dog Whisperer’s techniques on her terrier, Ollie. Now she applies them “every day” to her three daughters (aged 18, 15 and 10). As with her dog, she says, “I sometimes have to assume an air of quiet confidence with my children, even if I don’t feel it inside. Parents just want to be their [kids’] friends because they hardly see them. But it’s no good being their friend. You need to be unpopular sometimes and lay down the law.”

Sigman points to universals in “behavior modification techniques” across the animal and human world: a bear cuffing her cub, an elephant in effect “shouting” at a straying calf. Even in adolescence, he says, “Teens still want you to be the pack leader, if only to rebel against you.”

But other experts are more skeptical. “Using Dog Whisperer techniques on kids infantilizes kids and adults,” says Frank Furedi, author of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating. “Quick-fix techniques like this distract from the important task of creating a relationship with a child.”

Surely, though, a quick fix is better than chaos? So I try the technique at home. When my out-of-control Labrador snatches a sausage from the table, I tell him “Ssshh” then, in a calm, firm tone: “Go to your bed.” He looks at me, quietly defiant. I scream it, and he obeys. My three children Isabella, 10, Sam, eight, and Ted, five, meanwhile, seem surprised when I explain with calm authority that TV time is over. They don’t whine for long when I snap it off. However, my eldest finds the idea that she has anything in common with the dog a bit offensive. “Dogs can’t learn on their own so they need more help,” she says. “But kids need to be a bit naughty sometimes. If parents just take control all the time then we’ll become too sensible too early in life. And sensible people are no fun.”

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