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Parents advise training your toddler like a dog in controversial new Channel 4 show

Jo-Rosie Haffenden describes her three-year-old son, Santino, as an ‘absolute angel child’. 

He was sleeping through the night at an early age, breezed through potty training, rarely has tantrums and walks to heel like a little Crufts champion.

‘I don’t actually use the command “heel!”’ she explains. ‘But then I don’t use it with my dogs either. The principle is the same. 

'If I want Santino to walk at my side, without running off, he will. You use the same techniques that you do training dogs to get that to happen.’

Jo-Rosie Haffenden describes her three-year-old son, Santino, as an ‘absolute angel child’ thanks to using the same techniques as she does on her dog Ella

He was sleeping through the night at an early age, breezed through potty training, rarely has tantrums and walks to heel like a little Crufts champion, according to the mother (pictured with Santino as a baby)

So, what other dog-training techniques can you use on your naughty pups (human ones, we mean)?

Ever heard of clicker-training, where a dog comes to associate the mechanical clicks from a small hand-held device with the idea that food is coming? Jo-Rosie used it on Santino when he was still in a cot.

‘The first time was when he was a baby and kept losing his dummy. I realised that if I used the clicker, it helped in training him to pick it up again,’ says Jo-Rosie. Gosh. And, yes, her little boy can sit and stay on command. ‘We’ve worked on stationing and recall,’ she states earnestly.

What about enticing him to be a Good Boy by the promise of a chocolate drop? Well, most of the time it’s not needed, but she’s not against using chocolate to ‘counter-condition’ children in tricky situations. ‘Although the idea is that you start with a treat, and then the behaviour becomes automatic,’ she adds.


1) Think about cultivating independence. A happy dog is one who feels secure and knows you are there — without having to be constantly at your feet. Set up a train set in an adjoining room and give your child the choice to play with it, while they can still see you.

2) All animals — human or dog — have to feel in control. Let them. We don’t put a meal down to a dog and say: ‘I will stand here until you eat this.’ Don’t do it with your child.

3) Be consistent. I have seven dogs and the rules are the same for all. Problems arise if you say one dog can go on the sofa and another can’t. It’s the same with children.

4) Routine is vital. A dog has to know its needs are going to be met and that he will get fed and walked at the same time. Children are the same. Routine promotes security.

5) give your child the choice to say no. If I’m walking a dog I don’t like to use a tight leash. It is restrictive, and there will be pushback. Children are happier if they feel they are doing something because they want to. Aim to get to the point where you don’t have to hold their hand tightly. Put your hand out and let them take it. Don’t force it.

6) Don’t be afraid of confinement areas such as a playpen. You are simply creating a safe area because children aren’t able to negotiate things such as plug sockets. And never use it as a punishment.

7) Let them learn from you. Eat with them and use a knife and fork, even if they aren’t at that stage. In terms of toilet training, we often see that in a house where there already is a dog, a puppy will naturally go outside to wee.

8) CONSISTENCY, consistency, consistency. It’s the rule with dog training. It works with children, too.

9) Help, don’t chastise. Teething issues are the same in puppies and babies and chewing things is natural. Babies are exploring their bodies, seeing how they work. Don’t just take things away and say: ‘naughty!’ Look to see what they’re chewing and find an alternative.

10) Think about toys. With dogs, owners often throw a tennis ball into the back garden then complain that the dog still wants attention from them. Dogs need toys that they can play with on their own. So do children.

Is Jo-Rosie barking mad? Her critics certainly think so.

The controversial new Channel 4 show How To Train Your Baby Like A Dog, which airs tonight, is presented by animal behaviourist Jo-Rosie, who advises throwing away mainstream parenting manuals and replacing them with dog-training guides.

The programme has already caused quite a storm. An online petition calling for it to be cancelled has collected more than 21,000 signatures, with objectors arguing that ‘children are not dogs’.

The petition, started by Autistic Inclusive Meets, a not-for-profit organisation for families with autistic children, argues that Jo-Rosie’s methods are ‘dehumanising’. Even the Professional Association of Canine Trainers has dismissed the programme as ‘unethical and sensationalist’.

One of the toddlers Jo-Rosie is drafted in to help has bathtime issues and kicks and screams when put into water. Jo-Rosie’s solution? The clicker — which is used when 18-month-old Dulcie’s feet successfully land on the bath or the floor, to reinforce ‘good’ behaviour — and a packet of chocolate buttons.

Even though it’s just before bedtime, Dulcie gets half a chocolate button when she raises her arms so her mum can wrap the towel around her; none if she kicks and screams. Guess what? Bathtime ends up being a breeze.

Speaking to the Mail, Jo-Rosie shrugs off the criticism. ‘I think a lot of objectors haven’t even seen the programme, so I’d implore them to watch it. A lot of the criticism comes from outdated ideas about what dog training involves. Barbara Woodhouse has a lot to answer for. What I do is a million miles from that.’

So should we be horrified? Or can parents really learn something from modern animal-training techniques?

Jo-Rosie argues vociferously for the latter. ‘I’ve worked with all sorts of baby mammals, not just dogs. Human babies are just baby mammals.

‘It sounds radical, but when you look at it closely, it makes sense. The more I started to implement the techniques that worked with dogs, the more I saw them working on my son.’

Jo-Rosie is known for being a dog-training expert, but she also has a degree in (human) psychology. Until a few years ago, her world was resolutely a doggie one. After working for the Blue Cross animal charity in London, she moved into training assistance dogs.

Then, three years ago, she became a mum and the reality of life with a human baby was quite terrifying.

‘I bought all the books. I looked online. Some of the advice seemed cruel,’ she says. ‘It’s quite a common thing for parents to be told they have to let their babies cry during sleep training. I’d never do that with a puppy.’

She ditched the guides and started to use her own instincts and experience.

Watching her in action is mind-blowing. Let’s take her own child first. Santino — a normal inquisitive toddler, who can be as boisterous as they come — walks to heel when she wants him to. How? ‘It took a while,’ says Jo-Rosie. ‘In the park one day, I told him we were playing a game. If he wanted to go off and play on the climbing frame he had to come and first tap my hand with his. When he did that, I told him what a good boy he was.

‘The next time, he had to hold his hand against mine for a little bit longer, then longer again. Now when I ask him to come, he’ll stay by me for as long as I need him to, with his hand just brushing mine. It’s the same training my dogs got.’

At the heart of all her techniques is the idea that good behaviour is rewarded with a ‘marker’. This can be a sweet, a treat, a click from the clicker, or even just a word of praise.

Unsurprisingly, the introduction of a clicker unsettles human parents, including those she helps in the show.

Jo, 39, a yoga teacher from Brighton, sought help after reaching the end of her tether with Greydon, three. Jo and husband Garrett are expecting another child and say Greydon’s tantrums have pretty much destroyed family life.

Desperation led them to Jo-Rosie and her dog Tango — the best-behaved dog you could meet — who is on hand to demonstrate.

If Tango wants to play with a football in the park, he will approach the ball and lie down next to it, touching it with his nose, until Jo-Rosie’s says he can have it. Can the methods work with a screeching child who has an utter meltdown if he doesn’t get what he wants?

Out comes the clicker. Jo-Rosie shows the parents how to use it. A game is arranged where they sit around a table with some Play-Doh and when Greydon wants a particular piece, he must ask for it.

A controversial new Channel 4 show called How To Train Your Baby Like A Dog, which airs tonight, is presented by animal behaviourist Jo-Rosie, who advises throwing away mainstream parenting manuals and replacing them with dog-training guides

Every ‘please’ is met with a click, after which his parents are encouraged to praise him. In this case there are no chocolate buttons (‘there doesn’t always have to be’) but it still works. His behaviour becomes calmer almost immediately. ‘But I’m not using the clicker to train him,’ Jo-Rosie insists. ‘I’m using it to train the parents.’

In the dog world, most training revolves around ‘positive reinforcement’, meaning that good behaviour is noted and rewarded.

‘With children, it’s often the other way round. We punish bad behaviour. The naughty step idea is about enforcing a certain type of behaviour — but it’s a negative thing,’ she says. ‘This way is about teaching the child what is right.’

As in the show Super-Nanny (which introduced many parents to said naughty step), cameras are installed in families’ homes so Jo-Rosie can study them. The first thing she does with Greydon’s parents is to order a replanning of their home. ‘When my clients get a new puppy, I get them to puppy-proof the house. We expect puppies to make a mess. But when toddlers do it, we chastise them.’

She says she was astonished that Jo and Garrett didn’t have appropriate toys for their son or a place he could play freely. ‘He’s a Star Wars fan and there were things like light sabers around — but Greydon wasn’t allowed them. His toys were not appropriate. That was the first step, getting the environment right.’

Greydon’s tantrums, she assessed, were a result of frustration. Desperate for the attention he wasn’t getting, he was kicking off.

Like a puppy who rips up the carpet out of boredom, Greydon was becoming destructive to the point where he couldn’t be left on his own. Jo-Rosie employed a technique she uses with her dogs: an egg timer. She set it for two minutes, and gave Greydon a task — collecting all the yellow toys he can see — left the room, then returned after two minutes.

Jo-Rosie argues: ‘I’ve worked with all sorts of baby mammals, not just dogs. Human babies are just baby mammals'

Puppies and children suffer separation anxiety, she insists. ‘They need to know they are safe, that their primary care-giver is coming back. It’s a basic in dog training.’

There are some weepy moments when Jo and Garrett watch the videos and realise they are, in fact, ignoring their son when he’s screaming out for attention. But with daily practice over three months, the family’s life is transformed. The Greydon at the end of the programme is a calm and seemingly contented little boy.

‘It’s a thousand times better,’ says Garrett of their family life now. ‘Everything she told us was spot on.’

All’s well that end’s well then, and C4 is keen to point out that all the methods used in the programme were approved by a clinical psychologist. So why the controversy?

The Early Years Alliance has said it is ‘concerned’ at the thought of a programme which suggests training a baby like a dog — although it pointed out it hadn’t watched the entire show.

Melanie Pilcher, its policy and standards manager, says: ‘Children should not be treated in the same way as dogs. Children’s social and emotional development is grounded in the way adults respond to and nurture them. They need consistent messages, clear boundaries and guidance to manage their behaviour through self-reflection and control.

‘Rewards such as praise or treats may provide immediate results for the adult but do not teach a child how to act when a prize is not offered, or provide them with the skills to manage situations themselves.

‘Instead a child is taught to be compliant and respond to meet adult expectations in order to obtain a reward or for fear of a sanction. Rewards and sanctions need to be used very carefully.’

Rubbish, says Jo-Rosie, although she does point out that clicker-training should be used with care. She defends the idea that children should be made to ‘comply’ with an adult’s wishes, pointing out that the alternative is actually dangerous to the child. ‘With my dogs, there’s a responsibility for me to train them to be safe. It’s non-negotiable.

‘It’s my responsibility as a dog-owner. People get their knickers in a twist when we apply that to a child, but to keep them safe, we have to.’

The point that could well be missed in the hoo-ha over this programme is that Jo-Rosie is no ordinary pet owner. Her own dogs are treated better than many children are.

The pay-offs, she says, are happy, balanced pets — and a child to match. ‘He’s a little legend,’ she says of Santino.

Train Your Baby Like A Dog is on Channel 4 at 8pm tonight. 

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