Good boy! Can you train a baby like a dog?

Review: As one of the ‘desperate parents’ to whom this show is pitched, I’ll try anything

Jo-Rosie Haffenden, dog trainer and mind reader

Jo-Rosie Haffenden, dog trainer and mind reader

 

There’s something about treating a person as if they were an animal that seems, well, inhumane.

Whistling right over any such concerns from the imperative of its title to the breeziness of its presentation, Train Your Baby Like a Dog (Channel 4, Tuesday, 8pm), extols the benefits of clicker training, rewarding treats, positive reinforcement (good boy!) and scratching your baby behind the ear while vigorously rubbing its tummy.

Well, perhaps not the last one, but as one of the “desperate parents” to whom this show is explicitly pitched, I can be relied upon to try anything.

Viewers in a similar situation can survey this programme and take some succour from the fact that at least your impossible toddlers aren’t that bad and that, for all the vast deficiencies of your lame parenting, you have the good sense to never display them for the benefit of a camera.

Jo-Rosie Haffenden, an animal behaviourist (or, if you like, dog trainer), with a degree in human psychology (or, if you like, mind reading), combines her studies with such a confident, outdoorsy spirit that she even wears her riding boots and padded jacket when invigilating an infant’s suppertime or bath time. (Actually, that’s not such a bad idea.)

Haffenden’s own technique is to raise her son, Tango, as she did her most loyal canine, Santino. Both are such models of placid obedience that I may have confused their names. Sure, both seem to respond well to clicker training (a noise-based reinforcement of particular behaviours that even Pavlov’s dogs would have found insulting) and simple, reassuring compliments (“Sit!” Haffendon tells her actual human son. “Good boy!”).

But, years from now, which of them is more likely to revisit this in a viciously acid memoir?

Attending her first desperate household, Haffenden finds an unruly situation of flagrantly bad behaviour and mortifying acting out. Which is to say the parents are a disaster. Even Tango, who comes along for the ride, doesn’t need to sniff too hard to find the cause of three-year-old Greydon’s chronic screeching and violent rage, later showing his harried parents, Jo and Garrett, a video of their child’s growing frustrations while they barely engage.

“We’re, like, totally dismissing him,” realises his father. “We look so unkind,” worries his mother. You’re not supposed to do it to a dog, but Haffenden is really rubbing their noses in it. Still, it works; shamed and brought to heel, the parents learn to alter their behaviour and head off Greydon’s tantrums before they begin.

The real effort here, then, is not to use the simple, disarming lessons of animal rearing to train the baby, but actually to train – oh, you’re way ahead of me! Good reader! Who’s a good reader? You are! Yesyouare!

“They all want to be good boys,” says Haffenden, with the insufferable assurance and casual gender-indifference of someone convinced she has all the answers. “They all want to be patted and loved for doing the right thing.”

The same goes for parents, she knows, for whom every sleepless night and supermarket aisle meltdown is a step deeper into a Philip Larkin poem. In such circumstances, who wouldn’t embrace the consoling words of someone who says, “settling young mammals is something I’ve done so many times”? You’d be an invertebrate to doubt her.

So 14-month-old Dulcie, a chronic non-sleeper, is given a healthier, more varied supper than her mother Rose’s daily instalment of deep-fried chips, and later soothed through bath time with clicks and chocolate. The high promise of the programme, which leaves Rose weepy with gratitude, is that Dulcie subsequently drifts off in just 30 minutes.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure working with you guys,” Haffenden tells a similarly house-trained Jo and Garrett, as they in turn roll over for her. “I think she’s just made us rethink what it means to be a parent, really,” barks Garrett.

Good boy!

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