Examining Classroom Management Techniques: Exploring Commonalities Between Training Dogs & Teaching Children

Frederick  G.  Jaeschke. III,  Augustana College, Rock Island, IL

Reprinted from the summer 2016 issue of the Bluegrass Music News, with permission from the Kentucky Music Educators Association.

Frederick G. Jaeschke. III
Frederick G. Jaeschke. III

Dogs have a long history of interaction within the human society in the role of a protector, playmate, service animal, and a loyal family member.  Beyond all the fun and frolicking, the element of training a dog is an important part of any pet’s success.  The idea that dog training and teaching children share common elements is not a novel idea.  Judith Grimes, in her article, “The Similarities of Training Dogs & Teaching Children” (1983) identified various similarities between training dogs and teaching children.  She found that both have “a contagious enthusiasm, prefer positive reinforcement, and learn best with a consistent approach to training (1983).  A similar point of view expressed in The American Kennel Club’s official publication, “The Complete Dog Book” was that “Dogs, (like young children) are curious and love to explore, and they experiment with different ways of attracting your attention” (The American Kennel Club, 2006) .  Alex Williams, in a New York Times article (2009), noticed that some parents, and even child therapists, have found themselves taking mental notes for inspiring discipline, order, and devotion from Cesar Millan, otherwise known as the “Dog Whisperer”.  Williams quotes Amy Twomey, a blogger on parenthood for “The Dallas Morning News”, where she relates Mr. Millan’s philosophy of exercise, discipline and affection to raising her own three children.  The daily blog “DaddCast” devoted a podcast episode to discussing how “Dog Whisperer” philosophies can be applied to raising children.   The suggestion that the Dog Whisperer is also a “Child Whisperer” of sorts has appeared in parents’ forums, blogs, online discussion boards, magazines, Twitter feeds and podcasts. According to Williams, some parents are starting to take notice and borrowing a lot of dog training ideas for their own children.

The link between animal and human behaviors was scientifically explored in B. F. Skinner’s acclaimed studies in “operant conditioning”. Although the model was originally applied to animal learning, it has been commonly applied in educational settings as well. Skinner determined that animals learn best by associating an action with a consequence. Boiled down and applied to humans and canines, operant conditioning relies on encouraging and discouraging behavior with immediate consequences; for example, giving a treat when your dog sits.  The premise is that behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences tends to be repeated and thus learned. On the other hand, “behavior that is followed by unpleasant consequences tends not to be repeated and thus not learned” (Alberto & Troutman, 2006).  Operant conditioning has long been a method for teachers to achieve behavior modification in order to improve classroom management and facilitate learning.

Within operant conditioning, the four basic forms can be distinguished:

  1. Positive reinforcement: when a reward, sometimes called a reinforcer, is given for a specific desired behavior. Examples of positive reinforcement include getting a cookie after finishing a reading assignment or receiving an allowance after weekly chores are completed.
  2. Positive punishment: involves presenting an unfavorable outcome following an undesirable behavior. This might take the form of receiving a detention for being tardy to class or a ticket for speeding in your car.
  3. Negative Punishment: taking something good or desirable away in order to reduce the occurrence of a particular behavior such as being grounded for coming home past curfew.
  4. Negative reinforcement: response or behavior is strengthened by stopping or removing a negative outcome or aversive stimulus. This takes place when you put on your seatbelt to stop the “dinging” chime noise in your car or when you follow the laws to avoid jail.

In the world of professional dog training, distinct personal philosophies exist in the application of operant conditioning.  The two well-known “Dog Whisperers”, Paul Owens and Cesar Millan, outline their specific training approaches through their books, DVD’s and in the popular National Geographic Channel’s program, “Caesar’s Way”. Cesar Millan promotes the importance of dominance and being a strong pack leader, or “alpha dog”. His “calm-assertive energy” approach uses positive punishment as a way of forming discipline.

Victoria Stilwell, John Bradshaw and Karen Pryor are advocates of science-based dog training promoting positive reinforcement techniques.  Stilwell and others reject the dominance-based, traditional training techniques, promoting positive reinforcement or reward-based training techniques.  They believe positive punishment is unnecessary, and using positive reinforcement techniques give better results.

The effect of positive reinforcement on student behavior was outlined in B. F. Skinner’s classic 1954 article “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching”. Following the work of Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning and his work with dogs, Skinner’s noted comparisons between animal and human behavior with reward given after the behavior.  Skinner urged school systems to move away from negative reinforcement because “Positive reinforcement can be as effective as negative reinforcement and has many fewer unwanted byproducts (Skinner, B. F., 1954).  Prior contends that when we teach children or train animals, we often use reinforcements or punishments inappropriately; we threaten, argue, coerce, deprive, and we are harsh and impatient. “Whatever the training task, whether keeping a four-year-old quiet, housebreaking a puppy, or coaching a team, it will go faster, and better, and be more fun, if you know how to use positive reinforcement” (Prior, 2006).

Numerous studies and articles have further examined the application of Skinners operant conditioning to the classroom.  Classroom management techniques have found that both positive and negative reinforcements have been effective in encouraging good and wanted behavior while deterring bad and unwanted behavior.   Although dog trainers, educators, and parents acknowledge that there is a big difference between training a dog and a classroom of emotionally complex children, an examination of the commonalties between the two may be helpful for classroom teachers as they consider their own approach for classroom management.

Rules and boundaries:

Many educators, parents, and dog trainers acknowledge that it is important to establish initial guidelines or rules of behavior. According to Millan, a dog that knows how to live with rules and boundaries is a confident, safe, and secure dog.   Allison Pearson, author of the novel “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” explained how parents would naturally envy the authority of dog trainers.  She believes that unlike modern parents, “Dog trainers know that discipline does not equal being mean.  Trainers understand that dogs are happiest when they know their position in a hierarchy” (Pearson, 2002).  In this view of dog training, this hierarchy begins with the pack leader or “alpha dog” who assumes the authority role and leadership of the pack.  Many experts believe that the human family and the classroom are not much different when considering the role of a pack leader.  Many classroom teachers find success when the rules and boundaries are clearly established and when the teacher establishes their role as the “pack” leader.  Twomey believes that with dogs and children, being a pack leader is all the same, simple concept.  Problems with pack dynamics occur when this hierarchy breaks down. In the classroom, when the hierarchy is not clear, when there is not a calm, assertive energy established by the teacher, good eye contact, or there is weak body language, the chances for disruptions seem destined.

How do pack leaders express these boundaries or limits, kindly and fairly?  “The alpha dog or pack leader does not bribe with treats, and does not whine or cajole, but maintains a calm but assertive energy”, using their body language and eye contact (Millan, 2010).  In a similar sense, a good animal trainer does not yell or hit, but uses firmness and positive reinforcement.  Most training guidelines advocate offering this “kindness and compassion”, instead of “fear and force”.  Many parents and teachers agree that children live and learn best when they understand their limits and boundaries, ones that are clearly expressed without anger or instilling fear.

According to Jaymi Helmbuch, (2014) “Dogs want, need, and love having rules. You might think having strict rules makes life boring or unhappy for your dog. But dogs really want to know what’s what according to their leader (Helmbuch, 2014).   Is this similar for humans?  Children seem to thrive best when they have a consistent set of rules to follow, and they do less well in environments that provide them a free-for-all. Rules make life a lot more predictable, a lot less confusing and a lot less stressful.

Lee Canter, in “Assertive Discipline” found that effective teachers proactively develop a systematic plan of classroom rules, to include positive support strategies and disciplinary consequences.  According to Canter, these are “rules that students must follow at all times such as keep hands to yourself or no name calling” (Canter, 2009).  He contends that a system of “supportive feedback” should be implemented that students will receive when they follow the rules. This could include positive notes to students, notes and calls to parents, and classroom privileges and rewards.  The guidelines that teachers might establish also include corrective actions that would be applied when students choose not to follow the rules.  Examples would be reminders, five minutes away from group, or a call to parents.  The purpose for creating a plan of rules and boundaries is that it builds consistency and assures fairness.  When students can rely on fair and equal treatment, they will accept rules and directions more readily, thusly disciplinary efforts will be more effective, and this can build positive relationships.


In “The Complete Dog Book”, the authors write, “Children love structure, the same as animals love structure” (The American Kennel Club, 2006).   Experienced teachers know that without an established routine or good planning, there is a good chance for chaos.  When working with dogs, one simple task and command is given at a time.  A sure sign of inefficient training is the repeated command, usually delivered in a steadily rising voice, which is only reluctantly obeyed by the dog, if at all.  Children and students at all levels appreciate simple directions and clear instructions, articulately delivered.  Most children quickly lose interest during long winded, rambling explanations without a sense of purpose and direction.

The Teacher Voice:

In many approaches to dog training, the view is that a dog is never punished, it is corrected, and any corrections should always be mild and non-violent.  Experts contend that your voice is the primary corrective tool, and the basic commands should be delivered with clear authority and with as much volume only as deemed necessary.  The best approach, according to trainers, is not to convey panic, anger, or annoyance, but it is by being sufficiently authoritative.  Most importantly, and what also seems to work well with children, is the understanding that authority comes from the “tone” of your voice, not its volume.

Canter found that effective teachers have developed a “strong teacher voice” needed to manage a group of students. They know how to assertively say what they mean and mean what they say so that they have the respect and authority needed to take charge of their classroom.  Teachers who have not developed their voice often speak in a meek or nonassertive manner, which communicates to their students that they are not confident in their ability to lead the classroom. Effective teachers speak in a decisive, firm, self-assured manner, leaving no question in the students’ mind as to who is running the classroom.

A good suggestion for using the “teacher voice” is to project your voice so that every student can hear each and every word you have to say.  When the teacher’s voice fills the room in an assuring and calm manner, it can be used to both maintain the classroom structure as well as to praise.

Calmness and Patience:

Successful dog trainers know that they cannot use fear to train a dog; “It is not advisable to hit or threaten as this tends to produce a dog that cringes at any raised hand” (American Kennel Club, 2006).  Williams, in a New York Times article, cites Brenna Hicks, a child therapist who writes an advice blog, “The Kid Counselor”, as adapting Mr. Millan’s central idea that “dogs take their cues from their masters, and misbehave only when the masters fail to carry themselves, in body language and tone of voice, like pack leaders” (Williams, 2009). In her post, “Raising Kids: Wisdom from the Dog Whisperer,” she asserts, “When we present nervous, angry or scared energy in front of our kids, they pick up on those emotions” (Hicks, 2007).   It is clear that dogs sense this; people do as well.

Many teachers confuse having an assertive tone with being controlling or hostile. The difference is that good teachers believe that they are only able to help students be successful when they establish their authority as the leader in the classroom.  This is different than the need to stay in control.

Canter suggests that when managing disruptive students it is important not to yell, nag, or threaten.  Students quickly learn to ignore yelling, and they know that most threats are empty.  Teachers quickly discover that students continually test them to confirm their authority.  Sometimes students succeeded in causing the teacher to get angry or violent, and this is where they lose all respect for the teacher. The best approach is to assertively restate your expectations. In a calm, firm manner, simply tell the students what they are to be doing, and if inappropriate, remind them of the disciplinary consequences for their behavior as outlined in your classroom rules and guidelines.


The deadliest enemy of good canine training is inconsistency; it destroys the secure world in which all dogs seek to live.  A well-trained dog knows what behavior is acceptable and what is not, and this is only established with consistent reinforcement.  In dog training, if you set a boundary or limitation, the rule is “don’t waver from it”.   The signals and commands use for training, as well as body language must remain consistent.  This approach works similarly in the classroom when the teacher creates a positive and secure environment by applying rules consistently, fairly, and equally to all students.


With both dogs and children, it is not always easy to “stick to your guns” when establishing rules or consequences.  “Dogs, like children”, the writers suggest in The Complete Dog Book”, “eagerly test their world in a variety of ways” (American Kennel Club, 2006). We understand that while maintaining discipline is important, either with a leash or in a classroom, it can be both difficult and very emotional to administer.  When it is necessary, successful trainers find that reinforcement is best delivered with your voice, not with physical contact.  Threats, especially empty ones, are meaningless and especially easily recognized by children.  A good rule thumb is not to make a rule unless you are prepared to back it up with a consequence.   If you do have to follow-through, just remember that when the short reprimand period is over, that you avoid holding a grudge, and make sure all interactions end on a positive note.


Caesar Milan suggests that no matter how rebellious your puppy, child, or student may be, prove to them that nothing in their behavior can rattle your calm-assertive authority.  Parents, teachers, and trainers all know that this takes a great deal of determination and energy.  How much easier it is to let a dog or child have their own way!  Unfortunately, trainers, parents and teachers soon learn that they end-up paying for this mistake in the end.  Holding steadfast and resolute to the rules and boundaries initially set-up, may well be one of the most challenging elements for trainers, parents, and teachers.


Giving praise, whether to dogs or children can have a tremendous effect on motivation and performance.  To be successful, the manner in which the praise is given is critical.  In studies of dogs conducted by Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne (2012) and Colley McIntire (1967) they concluded that verbal praise as a reward in the form of a happily spoken “Good dog!” was the least effective method of teaching a dog.  Their research found that food reward, not petting or verbal praise was a much better motivator for dogs.
Most educators and parents offer verbal praise to children because they believe it will build self-esteem and improve performance.  Numerous studies have shown that praise can be a positive motivating force.  But according to evidence gathered by Mueller and Dweck (1998) praise also has potential dangers to children’s learning and motivation.  Studies have shown that praise can actually undermine performance and self-esteem in many contexts, and the effects of praise can vary significantly depending on the way praise is given.    Dweck’s research on overpraised kids discovered that “image maintenance becomes their primary concern; they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down” (Dweck, 2007). Additional studies confirm that a child’s performance worsens if they always hear how smart they are. Kids who get too much praise are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge.  Dweck suggests to avoid excessive praise especially when students are doing what is expected.

When giving praise, researchers found that it is most effective when carefully presented with these guidelines:

  1. Praise the child or person’s behavior or effort, not the person’s intelligence or attributes. Students who are praised for intelligence do not seek challenges. “Contrary to popular belief”, Dweck writes, “praising children’s intelligence did not give them confidence and did not make them learn better.” Statements such as “good boy” or “smart girl” are not only subjective but have very little teaching value. Although this kind of praise might “give pleasure to the child, it might undermine motivation and create a fixed mindset” (Dweck, 1999, 2009).
  2. University of Auckland professors Helen Timperley and John Hattie highlight the importance of supplying learners with specific information about what they are doing right or wrong.  For example, feedback like “Great job!” doesn’t tell the learner what he did right, and likewise, a statement such as “Not quite there yet” doesn’t give any insight into what was done wrong or how things can be improved in the future. Instead, researchers suggest using “process praise” to provide learners with information on what exactly they did well, and what may still need improvement. For example say, “Nice job making that block construction, or “Good work following instructions so carefully”.
  3. Sooner is better: Numerous studies indicate that feedback is most effective when it is given immediately, rather than a few days, weeks, or months later.  In one study that examined delayed vs. immediate feedback, Opitz, Ferdinand and Mecklinger (2011) found that participants who were given immediate feedback showed a significantly larger increase in performance than those who had received delayed feedback.

Many studies have examined the effects of praise, feedback and rewards on motivation and behavior and offer a variety of solutions.  An approach that has proven to be very effective is “honest optimism”, where in positive comments are offered with a truthful dose of reality (Hoffer, 2000).

Educators know that there are no simple solutions when working with students in the classroom. Teaching a child of any age is full of complexities and subtleties, and a classroom full of students increases the challenges exponentially.  Although there are many approaches to classroom management, it is hoped that the reader will find the aforementioned points helpful in constructing a method that works best in their own situation.


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