3 Reasons To Raise an Obedient Toddler

“Obedience” sounds awful in the context of parenting, doesn’t it?

At least, to the North American ear it does. We want our kids to be free to discover themselves, to think for themselves, to feel loved and valued.

“Obedience” makes us think of stern 1950s style fathers holding belts in a threatening manner, or Von Trapp family style repression of all things joyful.

You vill obey me and you vill be miserable about it!

You vill obey me and you vill be miserable about it!

But in dog training, obedience is pretty standard. Everyone wants an obedient dog.

In fact, stern dog trainers like Cesar Millan have built multi-million dollar businesses around teaching people to physically and mentally dominate their dogs.

I have always wondered why people seem to value letting their kids act like drunken yahoos, but then worship a dog trainer who often kicks, strangles and otherwise bullies dogs into submission.

Be assured that when I talk about obedience, I’m not thinking of applying any of that crap to our children.

I wouldn’t even apply that to a dog.

Obedience is not about cowing the spirit out of someone.

It isn’t about using special choking equipment or punishing them for simply doing what comes naturally to them.

Reasonable dog trainers mean this when they talk of obedience training:

Von trapp better

Much happier. Still obedient.

  • Setting high but reasonable expectations.
  • Maintaining firm but loving boundaries.
  • Rewarding appropriate behaviour.
  • NOT rewarding inappropriate behaviour.

Not only can obedience be achieved without any whistles, forced marching, or grim frowns, but it should be achieved if you want your toddler to become a tolerable human being who wins the Nobel Prize and can afford a really swanky old age home for you some day.

Three Reasons Why Obedience Can Change Your Puppy’s Toddler’s Life

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Weaning Off Treats

Treats have an important place in training.

Not only do they give some extra motivation when you’re teaching a difficult new skill,  but they provide instant gratification, a way of really marking a success as something to celebrate and be happy about.

But once the skill is acquired, treats are no longer motivation.

They are bribes.

Many parents have used candy treats during potty training. But as an adult, if your mother is still popping by your house to give you a brownie whenever you successfully manage to avoid wetting yourself, then I have to take my hat off to you and ask you what your secret is.

(Besides, after giving birth to a child, wetting oneself seems to be less a matter of training and more a matter of physical inability to hold one’s urine.I have wet myself more times in the last three years than I did have since I was a small child. Bright side: Recently my son caught me changing my pants and reassured me, “it’s okay, Mommy. It was a accident. Oh well. That happens.”)

The key is to reduce the rewards slowly and gradually, as the puppy or child gets in the habit of performing the new skill.

So, at first, you give your puppy a big treat and lots of praise whenever it lies down on command.

However, once your puppy can do it reliably every time, it’s time to get rid of those treats. If you don’t, you’re going to turn into one of those people who needs to offer a treat to their full grown dog just to convince it to obey a basic command that it has known since puppyhood.

*head shake*

…You aren’t one of those people, are you?

If so, you really need this post.

How To Wean Your Puppy Toddler Off of Treats

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Capturing Behaviours

One of the secrets to having a child who does sweet, adorable things (instead of appalling and annoying things) is to really try and capture the behaviours that you love most.

“Capturing” is the word behaviorists use for encouraging natural behaviours. It’s a way of clicking “save” on that adorable thing your puppy/kid just did.

It’s very simple. When you see if, and if you want it to happen again, reward the ever-loving hell out of it.

Want to teach your dog to sneeze? Throw a party and give him lots of treats every time he does it, and soon you’ll see him trying to figure out how to do it on purpose.

Want to teach your dog to take a bow? Wait until he stretches and celebrate. Soon he’ll be bowing every time he sees a treat in your hand.

I taught my son to sign “milk” when he was 9 months old by capturing the behavior.

One day he happened to develop a fascination with opening and closing his hands. He wasn’t trying to sign “milk”, he was just like “look! Fingers! I CAN CONTROL THEM WITH MY MIND!” But it happened to look like the ASL sign for “milk”.

Every time he did it I picked him up and plunked my boob in his mouth.

After this felicitous occurrence happened several time in a row, he took to opening and closing his fist while watching me intently. Sure enough, I immediately offered him a chance to nurse and that was that.

Next thing you knew, he was opening and closing his fist frantically and constantly, and waiting for me to acquiesce to his demand.

cmillman chicken baby

Food has always been a powerful motivator with this kid.

Anyway, “milk” was his first and only sign until he was 14 months old or so. It also because his sign for “mommy” because basically I was just a pair of milk jugs in his eyes.

As his speech improved, that sign faded, but even at two and a half, long after he had forgotten that he had ever used sign language, my son still unconsciously opened and closed his hand when he really wanted something.

Behaviour definitely captured.

Eliminating Disobedience

In my previous post, I talked about discovering your puppy’s/toddler’s motivations.

Once you know their motivations, you need to eliminate other ways of getting what they want.

There’s no point in insisting that they jump through hoops if they are given other alternatives.

After all, no puppy is going to sit for a cookie if she can just snatch one off the table instead.

Similarly, a toddler will not wait in his chair for a snack if he can yank open the fridge and grab it himself.

Operant conditioning only works if your way is the only way for him/her to get what he/she wants.

If you want to train a rat to press a lever, for example, then you make it that the lever MUST be pressed in order for the rat to get a drop of sugar water. If the sugar water is just sitting there in a bowl, the rat is never going to press that lever.

So, once you have set up an if-you-want-that-then-you-must-do-this rule, you need to make sure that no other avenues are left open.

Put the dog treats out of reach, or put the puppy on a leash so that she physically cannot get to them. Put a child lock on the fridge (a good idea in any case) or buckle your toddler into his high chair.

Say your puppy wants freedom at the park, and you call him over to you. If he doesn’t turn right around and come back to you, make sure he loses that freedom (attaching a long line is a good way to go about this, that way you can just step on the line and reel the dog in).

If he does come back, praise him and turn him loose again.

Say your toddler wants to run amok at the mall, and you tell her to hold your hand. If she doesn’t allow you to take her hand, chase her down and pick her up (don’t tell me you can’t outrun someone whose legs are a third the length of yours, unless you are in a wheelchair, in which case, a long line might be a good idea).

If she wants to walk in the mall, she can do it holding your hand, or she doesn’t get to walk at all.

If a dog learns that he can just ignore you when you call, of course he won’t come to you. If a toddler learns that she can just run away giggling and have a great time when you insist she hold your hand, of course she’s never going to hold your hand.

Remember, the rule always has to be if-you-want-that-then-you-must-do-this.

If they don’t, they lose their chance to get what they want.

Win-win, or lose-lose.

Those have to be the options.

Finding The Right Motivation

Before you can start teaching your puppy or toddler, you need to know what they want. After all, if you don’t know what they want, how can you get them to do what you want?

Pretty much everything we do, we do because there is something in it for us.

We may go to work for the money, volunteer for a charity because we want to help others, or clean the house because we’re afraid that otherwise the maid will judge us.

Everything we do is motivated by SOMETHING – either because we want to gain something, like financial freedom or a piece of cheesecake, or because we’re afraid of losing something, like our house or our self respect.

Once you figure out what motivates other creatures, you can make them do whatever you want in order to get it.

Take dogs. Dogs are pretty easy to understand.

Any dog will likely be motivated by at least three things on the following list:

  • Food
  • Play
  • Affection
  • Attention
  • Exploration

If you can control your dog’s access to food, play, exploration, affection and attention, you have him pegged.

Getting control of those things is pretty easy, too.

You control when and what he eats, when and how he gets to go on walks, and when and how you pat and speak to him.

Dogs learn really fast how to sit for treats, wait at the door for a walk, and roll over for the sake of another throw of the ball.

Really fast.

And your average toddler is smarter than the average dog, so they can learn just that much faster. You just need to know what motivates your baby.

The average toddler will be motivated by at least two or three of the following:

  • Being Held
  • Attention
  • Food
  • Play
  • Exploration
  • Security
  • Independence

You can and should use those above motivations to alter how your baby behaves.

This is not a matter of withholding love unless your tot does a bunch a parlor tricks. It’s about motivating your child to behave in a way that you like so that she can get what she wants. That’s the win-win rule.

I want you to think carefully about your toddler and what really motivates her. Does she value her independence? Insist on constant cuddles? Love to explore? Is she obsessed with puzzles?

This knowledge is your key to controlling your child. Because unless you want to become and angry and fearful task master, controlling what he loves and then showing him how to get it really is the way to go.

Once you have worked out what your child loves, try to figure out how you can set it up so that you both get what you want.

The Equation For Mutual Happiness

My puppy/toddler training originates almost entirely from the principles of operant conditioning. But you don’t need to worry about learning all that, because it can get really dense.

(For example, in university, I once had to do a literature review about developing an equation for what a rat will do when faced with a certain complicated scenario. The whole argument comes down to a tiny difference in the coefficients of the equation, and the behaviorists on either side of the argument won’t speak to each other at conferences.

People are nuts.)

That aside,  all you need to know is that the entirety of ‘operant conditioning’ can be condensed into…

Two Simple Rules

  • If doing something gets us what we want, we probably will do it again.
  • If something doesn’t get us what we want, we probably won’t do it again.

You can use this to your advantage by creating two baisc household rules:

  • If you do what I want, good things happen.
  • If you don’t do what I want, nothing good happens.

Do you see your dog sitting? Give him a treat. Did your child remember to say please? Tell her yes, she can have an extra big glass of milk because she asked so nicely!

The best thing about this kind of behavior modification is that it is win-win.

You don’t have to feel bad that you are manipulating your dog/child. If you get what YOU want, they get what THEY want.

That’s just teamwork.

Now, let’s look at the second rule. Your dog won’t bring the ball close enough? Then you don’t throw it again. Your child won’t go upstairs without a fuss? Then no bed time story. This isn’t being mean. This is teaching basic consequences.

Have you ever run into one of those people who doesn’t seem to understand that their actions have consequences? If you have ever worked in customer service, I am SURE you have. As a dog trainer, I can tell you that MOST of the dogs I get called to see never learned this simple lesson, and that turns them into jerks.

Life has consequences. If you don’t do your job, you get fired. If you don’t wipe your counters, you get ants. If you don’t go upstairs in a timely manner, there’s no time for bed time stories.

That’s life, and it’s better to learn it at age 2 than to learn it at age 30.

Because we DO learn.

Dogs learn fast that if they don’t drop that toy when told to do so, that the toy will be taken away. But if they DO drop the toy, they’ll get a treat and the toy will get thrown again.

Soon they’re practically chucking the toy in your direction.

Toddlers learn fast that if they scramble upstairs fast, they get an extra story, but if they fuss and drag their feet, they get no stories at all. Soon they’re racing you upstairs at bed time.

And then everyone’s happy.

Note! Do not confuse this with bribery!

Many people end up using bribes to make their dog or child behave. Proper training does not require bribes. Instead, make use of natural consequences, both good and bad.

Bribery introduces a prospective reward as a sort of dangling carrot to convince the other person to behave. The two household rules I mention above simply provide positive or negative consequences for behaving/misbehaving.

“If you sit still, I will give you a cookie after dinner” is bribery.

“You must sit still if you want to eat your dinner. If you don’t sit still, we will have to leave the restaurant and you will be hungry,” is not.

What I want = What you want

What I don’t want = what you don’t want


You Can Use Operant Conditioning On Your Toddler Without Being A Schmuck

please do not use on your baby.

please do not use on your baby.

If you associate dog training with the Barbara Woodhouse type of training, then you’re probably appalled by the concept behind this blog.

Don’t worry.

I’m not that kind of trainer.

Instead of force-based tactics, I use positive reinforcement and occasionally negative punishment, which are psychobabble terms for rewarding good behaviour and taking the reward away for bad behaviour.

It’s all part of operant conditioning, and that’s what I use to train dogs and babies alike.

Much of modern dog training comes from the science of operant conditioning, also known as “using subtle mind games to change people’s behavior.”

The principles behind operant conditioning are simple.

Basically, since every living thing goes through life trying to get what they want while avoiding what they don’t want, we can use this to manipulate them. If you’ve ever given a dog a treat for sitting, or handed your child a cookie when she said please, you have engaged in operant conditioning.

The big name in this field is B.F. Skinner who was this guy in the 50s who wrote a LOT of books and research papers on the subject.rat-maze-cheese

He trained pigeons to play ping pong, rats to press levers, gave them superstitious beliefs, and did all kinds of other crazy stuff.

He also watched his children very closely and tried to theorize about how operant conditioning affected their learning and behavior as they grew up.

If that sounds a little strange, you should know this:

When I first took a behavior modification class in university, my text book’s examples on how to apply the principles of behavior modification almost exclusively referenced… humans.

It talked about how to get kids to behave in the classroom, how to train autistic adults out of bashing their heads against the floor, and how to train yourself into finishing your research paper. Nary a mention of a rat to be found.


A big name in modern dog training is Karen Pryor, the former dolphin trainer who wrote a book called Don’t Shoot The Dog, which describes in detail not only how to apply operant conditioning to animals other than dolphins, but also to your guests, coworkers, father in law, and even your spouse!

Since you can’t FORCE a dolphin to do anything, her methods are strictly positive, and they work great on all species.

This is the kind of trainer I am.

It is also the kind of parent I am.

So don’t feel bad if you try out some of my dog training techniques on your toddler.

They’re already being used on humans by teachers and care workers and sneaky dolphin trainers all over the country.

I promise, I won’t recommend any choke chains or rolled up newspapers.

…For dogs OR children.