ClickerSolutions Training Treasures

Using OC with Unruly Children

As a service dog user, I've had to use my clicker training knowledge to diffuse many, many situations where unwanted attention to my dogs has become problematic. As most of you know, our service dogs must remain focused on the handler, to be ready to assist the person no matter how heavy the distractions. This, not the myriad of tasks, is what takes so much time to teach, because the environment offers constantly changing criteria and there is no way we can prepare for every unexpected thing that comes our way.

Other People's children can be very difficult to deal with if we are still thinking in terms of a punishment based model. We do not have the right to physically correct someone else's child, and whether one believes in corporal punishment or not really is a moot point. We simply have no legal right to deal with someone else's child--no matter how ill-behaved--in a physical manner.

But this does not mean we have to put up with inappropriate behaviors,either, it only means we need to look to our intelligence and creativity to find proactive solutions to change the situation and set the children up for success.

I loved the ideas already suggested by list members on how to elicit a child's interest and pull that child INTO the situation in a structured manner, always building on something that can be reinforced. It relieves us of having to "correct" them by some form of punishment, and instead, allows them to become part of the solution.

This is how I have chosen to counter the problem behaviors children exhibit around my dog as well. I could be reactive, but what would this do other than put the child on the defensive, giving him just the fuel needed to become more belligerent or intractable? I find it far easier on my blood pressure, and on my conscience if I find ways to build on some behavior the child IS offering.

We may only have one moment in time to help change that child's perceptions and responses in the future. And to miss that opportunity is something I don't want to do. I believe in the "power of one" to make mighty changes in the world, and in people's lives.

My mother had a saying we lived by: "We drew a circle that shut her out: Heretic, Rebel--a thing to flout. But Love and I had wit to win; we drew a circle that brought her in."

My mom was the first "clicker trainer" I ever knew. She never knew she was, of course, but her approach to communicating with all people--children, adults--was a very proactive one, building on some offered behavior she could find that was worthy of reinforcement. She never used physical punishers; there was simply no need to do this with her always-proactive communication skills.

This does not mean that life was a "free for all" at our home. It wasn't. We had rules, we had structure, and most of all, we learned constantly that there is much to respect and honor in all beings, and our job was simply to find that thing and build on it. This became as natural as breathing for us.

I remember once I had a little girlfriend come spend the night. She had bed wetting problems, and her parent's way of dealing with this problem was to heap punishment and shame on her, and ridicule her in front of her siblings.

This not only didn't work, but it made the problem worse, as each night became a cause of great stress for her, knowing what the next morning would bring when she found her bed sheets damp. She began sneaking out to sleep in the bath tub. She began to stutter each time she was confronted harshly by her transgressions. She began to withdraw into herself.

My mom knew this, and asked me to encourage her to come over and spend the night. I finally talked her into it, but not until I had to sit there and listen to her mother say, "Okay, but she's going to ruin your bed, you can bet on it."

For the sleep over, Mom had one request of that child. She gave her a beautiful homemade rag doll, with a lovely eyelet pinafore she'd made, and asked the girl if she would please sleep with "Juanita" (the doll's name) and keep her company that night.

In private, she told the little girl that she was NOT to worry about that bed, that there was plastic under the sheets, and that if the sheets got wet, it was absolutely no problem at all because that's what washing machines were for. What was important, mom explained, was that she had a GOOD night's sleep, so that she could protect that little doll all night long in her arms.

Around midnight, when we were both asleep, mom crept into the room and crooned into the girl's ear. "Betty...Betty", very softly. Betty shifted in her sleep, but toward the source of the soothing voice. Mom then pretended to be the beautiful rag doll, and said, "Betty, could you wake up and take me to the bathroom? I really have to go. I don't want to get my beautiful dress wet, but I can't get there on my own. Could you please take me?"

Betty stumbled out of bed, the doll clasped to her chest, and sleepily trudged to the bathroom, where both she and the doll emptied out, and went back to bed.

At 4 am, mom woke her again the same way, and again, the child used the bathroom and went back to bed.

Of course, in the morning, the sheets were bone dry and no words were ever mentioned about it. My mom had only one thing to say: "Betty, I can't thank you enough for taking such good care of Juanita. You keep her so safe and dry that I think she needs to go home and live with you. Would that be okay?"

Juanita went home with Betty, and Betty's bed wetting days were over. Betty had a job to do: to keep Juanita dry and safe, and she took that job very seriously.

This long story is meant to illustrate how we can change our own perceptions of how we can change behavior by becoming proactive, and finding things to build on rather than being reactive, and finding things to punish.

And mom's lessons helped me and continue to help me every day of my life, as I counter children without structure and direction, who inappropriately try to interact with my dog. I keep trying to find ways to bring them INTO that circle, to find something I can build on.

If a child is making noises, trying to rudely distract my dog, I might make that an opportunity to turn them into my dog training assistant. I'll hear a rude noise, turn to them and say, "Hi! You make some great distracting noises. I could really use your help. I need an assistant dog trainer like you. Could you make those noises one more time for me? I need to teach my dog to ignore sounds like this, and you could really help me a lot here. I'll walk my dog by you and try to keep his attention on me, if you'll just make those same noises when we pass. Could you do this for us? It would be SO helpful to have an assistant trainer!"

In this way, I have given the child the information that those noises are very distracting, and that I have to train my dog to ignore them. But I've also given them this information in a way that allows them to come INTO the situation, and be part of the solution. I give the child a "job" and this usually takes care of the problem.

It's a bit harder when the child is reacting with meanness or spite. But it's not impossible. When I see a child exhibiting these behaviors, I immediately assume that they have little outlet for their frustrations, and probably have little reinforcement in their lives, but lots of punishment. I may not be correct in my assumption, but it does give me a starting point, a goal: to find some way for that child to relieve the tension, to get out that negative energy and to re-focus on something positive, and earn reinforcement for that.

One child intent on kicking my dog was given the job of kicking a wadded up piece of paper across the floor, while I worked to keep my dog focused on ignoring that movement, which simulated a ball's movement. When I saw the child kick out at my dog, I quickly turned to him and said, "Oh, I see you have quite a strong foot there. I'll bet you're great at football. Say, could you help me out for just a minute?......"

And I'd have that child kicking paper wads all over the place, and with each kick, I'd say, "Yes, That's it! Kick it hard! Make it really go far! Great job!"

And then, after the floor was littered with paper wads, I'd have the child sit on the floor, and I'd cue the dog to fetch those paper wads, and drop them in a paper bag the child was holding. Everyone came out a winner.

But children aren't the only persons who respond inappropriately around my service dog. I have to "shape" adults as well. I usually find the ruse of turning to them, asking them to repeat the distraction under a controlled circumstance, to help me train my dog to ignore the noises, works just fine.

And it allows the person to save face, to become educated without a lecture, but in an interactive way, building on something positive.

There is much in the operant ways we communicate with our dogs that we can use in difficult situations with children and adults displaying inappropriate behaviors. We just need to put on our creative thinking caps and let the dance begin. We can choose to let a situation irritate us, or we can choose to try to find a solution that will have long-lasting results. I choose the latter!

Debi Davis
copyright 2000 Debi Davis


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