Southern Spain. A rural location we will call, to use the correct overblown reality TV lingo, “an oasis of canine calm”. “Sit!” instructs Jo-Rosie Haffenden, an animal trainer, behaviourist and owner of a degree in human psychology and many spookily obedient creatures. Two beautifully trained bottoms go down. One belongs to Haffenden’s cocker spaniel. The other to her three-year-old son. “Good boy!” Haffenden says … to her son. It is a shocking sight.
For Haffenden, what is really shocking is that we are not all using dog training on our children. She believes: “If everyone parented the way we train dogs, we would end up with more confident, compassionate and curious human beings.” She is willing to put her reputation on the line for it. Her controversial methods include using clickers and treats. She thinks that “kids are a lot more like dogs than people like to think”.
As deliberately button-pressing Channel 4 programme titles go, Train Your Baby Like a Dog comes from the same irony-clad but structurally unsound stable as Wife Swap, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, The Undateables and so on, ad offendum. What are we to make of a show advocating the treatment of babies like animals? Is it funny? Absurd? Actually quite sensible beneath all the sensationalism? Or is it disturbing? Dehumanising? Dangerous? A cue, for anyone in their right mind, to call social services?
According to a change.org petition, it is all of the latter. “Cancel Train Your Baby Like a Dog,” which at the time of writing had nearly 25,000 signatures, points out, pretty uncontentiously, that “children are not dogs!”. It claims that clicker training – which we see Haffenden successfully using to reprogramme a 14-month-old’s fear of bathtime – is dehumanising and potentially traumatising. Initiated by an autistic-led organisation in London, the petition states that clicker training is used in Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy to redirect the behaviour of autistic children. As the parent of an autistic child myself (and, full disclosure, an intermittently obedient dog), who, as with many others, finds ABA as upsetting and unethical as LGBT+ conversion therapy, this is profoundly disturbing stuff.
And yet Haffenden’s parenting advice is neither as dubious nor as extreme as all this might lead you to expect. With three-year-old Greydon, prone to tantrums, aggression and attention-seeking, her techniques include making him a play room (dogs act up when they are bored) and rewarding good behaviour instead of punishing bad, which is the mantra of positive reinforcement dog training. It works. Greydon starts saying “Please” and “Thank you”. He becomes more independent. Happier. The real breakthrough is his parents focusing on him more.
The fact that Haffenden’s methods can be intuitive, effective and kind doesn’t justify them, though. Worse, it shows that standard advice around parenting styles – from, broadly speaking, attachment to crying it out – means we might be treating pets more humanely than children. Take Dulcie, the aforementioned 14-month-old, whose distress at bathtime is connected to her terror of bedtime. Every night her mum puts her in her cot and she screams for hours. Her equally distraught mother runs back and forth trying to soothe her. Eventually, they end up passed out on the sofa in a sweaty, traumatised heap. It is horrendous, for both of them.
“You wouldn’t allow a dog to get into this state,” Haffenden observes, watching remotely as Dulcie howls in the dark. “It’s inhumane.” Ouch. But also, yes, it really is torturous to witness. Her solution is to change everything. At dinner time she offers the human equivalent of the “doggie tapas” she feeds her animals. Basically, cheese and apple. At bathtime, she uses a clicker and white chocolate buttons. “It’s almost like giving a dog a treat,” her mum comments. But then the transformation at bedtime is a pleasure. “We only leave the room if she is settled,” Haffenden instructs. “We’ve got to really teach her to trust you again.” So when Dulcie cries, her mum picks her up, cuddles her, puts her back down again. Within half an hour she is fast asleep and they leave the room. No one is crying. Dulcie’s mum declares Haffenden a child whisperer.
A disclaimer at the end of this often troubling, occasionally sensible, and ultimately indefensible programme states that all techniques were approved by a clinical psychologist. Maybe so, but many will not approve. What a show like this, and for that matter plenty of parenting advice, tends to forget is that children are neither animals nor some special category of person. They are us. Humans.