Supervising Dogs and Kids’…. Toys

Just returned from the vet, where my 17-month-old pup spent the day for observation due to a bowel obstruction that looks suspiciously like a bent juice box straw. With a bill surpassing $1,000, I’m just glad that – for now – she appears to be improving. Just praying that with the prescribed bland diet, this all will pass without the need for surgery.

See the obstruction at the top of her stomach in the upper right corner? It’s just left of “Acq Tm” and the time stamp.

I write here in this blog – and repeatedly tell my clients – to supervise their children with their dogs every time they are together. But what about younger dogs in a household with children? Apparently I dropped the ball for just a moment too long. Long enough for the dog to ingest a juice box straw that I didn’t see my daughter drop (Dropped ball #1). She did, shortly thereafter, ask for another straw, which I gave her, but I didn’t think about why she needed it. (Dropped ball #2 – always ask why! She mentioned something about the other straw having broken. I should not have assumed she threw the broken one in the trash.)

I recognize that unless one is fortunate enough to have a full-time housekeeper, it can be next to impossible to have a 100% immaculate home along with children and dogs. Things will be dropped to the ground, and sometimes, it may take a few minutes (or longer) before they are properly put away. Although well-trained, adult dogs can usually handle not getting into the kids’ things, younger or adolescent dogs may find this too difficult.

Ironically, just a few months ago, I shared a link about all the crazy things that dogs ingest. Sad as this is, I find some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one with a mischievous puppy who managed to get a hold of the wrong thing. And I have friends, too, whose pups have gotten into things including a kitchen knife and a needlepoint needle.

Whether or not you have children, the lesson is that puppies must continue to be supervised or confined! This is not just to keep your home safe, but to keep them safe from potentially dangerous items in your home. Even juice box straws.

Children and the High Drive Dog

Due to several life changes in recent months, I have been remiss in writing here. Now that things have settled a bit at home, I’m happy to be back to writing again!


I recently received an email from a colleague out of state, in a quandary over a client who was looking at euthanizing their one-year-old Border collie due to incidents of nipping. They currently have four children, and the dog is nervous, and has nipped people on several occasions. From my understanding, based on the email thread that was sent to me, the dog has not caused any serious damage, and all bites where on a Level 2 of Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale. This means that the dog has caused minor scratches or cuts not requiring medical attention.

Concurrently, as many of you know, I recently adopted a ten-month-old Border collie pup, whom I’ve been training along with my three-year-old daughter.

Tesla meets the family

The pup we adopted, Tesla, was at the Marin Humane Society, and had a note on her chart that stated she was recommended for households with children of at least 10+ years of age. As I mention above, we have a three-year-old, and yet we convinced them to allow us to adopt her due to my training experience.

The first week was a challenge as I, and anyone else who knows herding dogs, would have predicted:

  • Tesla jumped up on Shelby, and Shelby – to my proud surprise, turned away from her each time! Within a week, she has stopped jumping up on her completely, with just one exception when Shelby was upset about something (unrelated to Tesla) and Tes saw her crying.
  • Tesla also exhibited herding behaviors, which included nipping at Shelby’s clothing and legs whenever she ran. I re-emphasized the rule: “No running when you are with the pup”, and between that rule, very close supervision, and several well-executed time outs, Tesla is no longer nipping at Shelby!! In fact, Shelby is now able to run around the yard with Tesla without incident – needless to say, they remain closely supervised!

I keep thinking back to that dog that my colleague emailed about. I don’t have sufficient details about her to make a sound recommendation as to her disposition, but my instinct is that perhaps this was just the wrong placement, and perhaps, with a more experienced high drive dog owner, the dog could potentially thrive.

Recently, Kelly Gorman Dunbar wrote a fabulous article for Bay Woof magazine about how to choose your ideal dog. If you already have a high-energy dog and are experiencing challenges, contact a qualified trainer for assistance. But if you haven’t yet chosen your next pooch, please carefully consider your choice! If you do not have the hours each day that it takes to mentally and physically wear out a high energy Border collie or Australian shepherd, consider a quieter breed instead. Many calmer dogs can still make nice sports dogs while not requiring that your life revolve around them!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to Tesla puppy before she decides to do something naughty…

Kids and Dog Sports

We had a lovely Flyball demonstration at the Cow Palace a couple of weeks ago, in conjunction with the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show.  As part of the demonstration, our daughter had the opportunity to compete in “singles” racing with a teammate’s dog. (Singles in Flyball is one-on-one racing, rather than the usual relay-style racing which involves 4-dog teams). I commented to colleagues that I was more proud and excited than I’d ever been when racing new dogs, and the other moms agreed whole-heartedly. So I got to daydream that my kid would someday be a top dog trainer or a top competitor. Of course, I’ll be happy if she just ends up loving working with dogs as much as I do.

Teaching a child to work with a dog is more complicated than it may appear.  Training is much more involved than simply coexisting safely, and there are many variables that must be taken into account when working with children and dogs together.

In the past, I’ve written that children should train dogs using only the most modern, reward-based methods. This is for many reasons, including that children’s timing may not be as good, and delivering an ill-timed reward would have far less negative impact than delivering an ill-timed “correction”. Furthermore, many dogs are not entirely comfortable with children in the first place, so it is doubly important that all interactions with them remain positive.

We began Shelby’s training with my colleague’s dog, Solo, by having her simply make friends with him. He is a great and stable little dog, but was sometimes wary of children. So we had her throw balls for him on a weekly basis. Over time, he began to bring her balls to throw, and eventually willingly engaged with her in a closely supervised game of tug. Using a toy that he’s accustomed to using, and on which he targets only the end piece, made this task easier and safer overall.

Shelby tugs with Solo

Next, we had to teach them to stand at the starting line together. As you can see, we had Shelby simply put her hand on Solo’s head, while his owner actually held him. This reduced the likelihood of him attempting to take off running with Shelby still holding onto his collar.

Auntie Deb helps Shelby to hold Solo for the race

Choosing the appropriate dog for a child is also important. In addition to being a stable, well-trained dog, Solo is also small enough for Shelby to handle safely. His natural way of tugging is to hold the very end of his toy, so there is little chance of him accidentally biting her fingers during the game. There are many dogs, including two of our own, whom I would never trust in a tug game with a child due to the possibility of little fingers getting too close to teeth. In fact, outside of this type of very closely controlled setting, I recommend strongly against the tug game between children and dogs.

Finally, there is the challenge of assuring that the child follows directions and does not do anything to inadvertently upset the dog. This is fundamentally what I term “Respecting Your Dog”, that is, honoring your dog’s cut-off signals and making sure that what you do with him or her is not needlessly uncomfortable or stressful.

Involving children in dog sports offers so many benefits, including many of the same rewards as other sports, such as learning to cooperate, being a good sport whether winning or losing, and learning how to be competitive. It also involves risks not so inherent in many other sports, and thus must be undertaken with more care and thoughtfulness. Nevertheless, it can be extremely rewarding for everyone involved. I, for one, look forward to more years of Shelby competing with us, though I recognize that she may eventually decide that Mom is just not cool enough to hang out with and decide to go off to a sport of her choosing.

Crates AS Cribs??

Yes, you read that right. Our almost 3-year-old daughter just got her own crate to play in, and she couldn’t be happier. Note the smile on her face in the photo.

Shelby in her very own crate

Hanging out in her new “fort” with all of her toys

It started just a few weeks ago, when she figured out that one of our dogs’ crates had an easy-to-open door. Shadow, the quietest, calmest Border collie you’ll likely ever meet, was my husband’s dog originally, and is now Shelby’s dog in many ways. The two hang out together a lot: Shadow will seek Shelby out and lay down next to her. And when she approaches him, he closes the distance and often gently licks her face (an act which used to upset my husband, but he’s since relaxed back into his dog-loving original self.) Shadow responds appropriately to Shelby’s often cryptic commands, both verbal and hand signals, and wags his tail happily when she gives him treats. His face was not so happy, however, the other day when I turned away for 15 seconds and turned back to see Shelby squished into his crate with him. The look on his face was a mix of despair and “help me, please”. I promptly called him out of his crate, which he reluctantly did, and invited him to lay next to me on the couch instead. Shelby opted to stay in his crate and take her afternoon nap there, face down.  Hmmm…

Step one was to replace Shadow’s easy-open crate with one that has the traditional spring-latch door that is not so easily opened. I was quite pleased with myself, until Shadow left his crate to go outside, and Shelby promptly crawled back inside to hang out there with her Orange Tiger and other stuffed animals, leaving Shadow once again without a home base to return to when he came back inside.

I had a conversation about this with our roommate, my good friend, and she reminded me of how much fun “forts” were to make when we were younger. We recalled the various ways in which we had made forts for ourselves when we were kids, and it occurred to both of us that perhaps Shelby really needs a fort of her own. Since there is never a shortage of extra crates in our household, we thought, what better option than to give her Shadow’s old crate, which we knew was already comfortable for her?

When I asked Shelby if she’d like her own crate to hang out in, her face lit up like a Christmas tree. She was so excited that she helped me to clean and scrub it, then put her own big blanket in it. She could hardly wait to cram all of her favorite toys (mostly stuffed animals) into it, and crawl in alongside them to hang out. Problem solved… unless CPS comes calling? Hopefully they are dog-lovers with crate trained dogs, and then they will certainly understand!

So now Shelby gets to hang out in her crate and Shadow has his hallowed den back as his safe space to get away from the kiddo if he needs to. But best of all, his crate door latches solidly shut so that I can comfortably leave the room if I’m doing chores without worrying about how Shelby might annoy him next. Sigh… peace… at least for now.

Watch me, Watch ME!

Wow – it’s been a crazy holiday season! Lots of work, lots of play, some short travels, plenty of time with relatives and not quite enough time with some friends… It is certainly good to be back in the swing of regular work!

Posing for the camera is easy – sometimes too easy

Through the holidays, as we were visiting people and their pets across the state, a constant challenge we faced was the kiddo doing whatever she could to get our attention. At one point, I recall reminding my husband to ignore her for something annoying but harmless that she was repeatedly doing to gain our attention. “Bad attention is better than no attention at all.” Sure enough, we walked away from her and it stopped… then she went on to the attention getting thing.

Rewarding for the good things, ignoring the bad, attention-seeking behavior is something that can work for both children and dogs. Recently, a colleague posted a note to our group seeking recommendations to divert a child who was repeatedly pestering her elderly dog. This is a child who has been taught since infancy what is appropriate and inappropriate with dogs, and could explain it to you if you asked. However, after some discussion within the group, someone suggested that it may be attention getting behavior on the part of the child. Bingo! There is a 9-month-old sibling as well as multiple dogs in the household with whom to compete for attention, and this appeared to be a successful attention-getting tactic, much to mom’s dismay. So mom determined that discussion-free time-outs would follow, along with diversionary tactics to give the child the attention she was seeking for doing appropriate behaviors.

How often I tell people in basic dog training courses to remember to reward the appropriate behaviors and ignore attention-seeking behaviors. This does not mean to ignore all bad behaviors; of course, if a puppy is destroying furniture, then a sharp interruption followed by a redirection would be better suited to protecting the furniture as well as the well-being of the pup. However, there are so many things that our kids and our dogs do to get our attention, with the thought that “bad attention is better than no attention at all.”

Yet, sometimes, ignoring the attention seeking behavior can prove extremely challenging. For the child who is screaming, or dog who is barking for attention, ignoring it could lead to a serious headache before the behavior finally goes away. What’s more, before a behavior disappears permanently, the appearance of an extinction burst may occur. An extinction burst is a sudden increase in the undesired behavior, or sometimes, a recurrence of the behavior after it appeared to have been extinct already. This is a natural part of the training process, and if the trainer or parent is consistent in not inadvertently rewarding the unwanted behavior, it will eventually go away completely.  I have used this process with dogs as well as with my daughter with great success, though that extinction burst can be an exhausting challenge!

So, if your child or dog, or both of them together, are doing annoying or inappropriate things just to get your attention, take a breath and remember to ignore it (or give a silent, non-interactive time-out.) To quote Edward Counsel: ”Patience is stronger than force.” As challenging as patience can be sometimes, I will do all I can to remember that.

Safety Aside, What Happened to Respect?

Recently – as happens at least weekly – I came across yet another of those “adorable” photos of a child mistreating a dog, with a caption to the effect of “what a great dog” he was to have such patience with the baby. The poor dog in this particular photo was clearly tolerating the smooch of a toddler who appeared to be grabbing part of the dog’s eye with his little baby fingers. While we professional trainers were up on our high horses, discussing how ridiculous people are in allowing such risky behavior to continue, it occurred to me that even if the dog were completely safe with the children – as some extremely tolerant dogs seem to be – why aren’t the people concerned about the treatment of the dogs themselves?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece in my High Drive Dogs Blog about what I call “respecting” your dog, that is, recognizing dog body language and allowing your dog to get out of uncomfortable situations whenever possible. Now it occurs to me that perhaps this article missed a large piece of its mark. To quote my esteemed colleague and kids and dogs expert, Madeline Clark Gabriel,

I ask why the definition of a good dog is often, ‘You can do anything to him.’ That wouldn’t make any sense if phrased in terms of other relationships: ‘I have a really good wife. You can do anything to her.’ Creepy!

In my home, we work constantly to teach our daughter to respect the dogs and other pets in our household (which include cats, turtles, and fish.) We reward her for appropriate behaviors, and sternly remind her to be nice when she makes a mistake. She is never allowed to pull hair, tails and ears; never allowed to hit or shove them; never allowed to sit upon them (I know one dog who sustained a back injury due to a child sitting upon him.)

Boy and his dog

A boy and his dog – mutual respect.
Photo courtesy of Natasha Gelfand

I find it troubling that some people are so determined to prove how great their dogs are, that they seem to forget that these dogs have feelings too! And I don’t mean just emotions, but physical feelings of pain and discomfort. Granted, sometimes we don’t have a choice but to suffer discomfort or pain, as with doctor visits or vaccines, but when we can prevent discomfort, why don’t we? I tell my clients not to allow their children to do anything to a dog that they wouldn’t allow done to themselves. Would you let a child pull your earlobe until it hurt? Or bite your forehead with his little baby teeth? I can tell you that my tolerance for that would be low. Of course, I wouldn’t injure the child, but I would make it stop and redirect the child to something less painful, such as chewing on a teething ring. Similarly, if you see a child doing something like this to your dog, redirect the child. If your dog learns that you will step in to protect him, then he will not need to ever defend himself, and he will be able to remain the great dog that you know him to be.

We must never forget that dogs do feel, and thus we must strive to treat them with the respect with which we wish to be treated ourselves. As Matthew Scully so eloquently states:

“Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

Motivation, Part 2: Play!

I was out with my 2-1/2 year old the other day, walking across a big open space when two other small children ran by her. She immediately forgot about me and started to chase the other girls. As I watched her in surprise, I was reminded of a similar incident that I observed with a friend several years ago, as she was running her dog along an agility course. The dog was running perfectly, following every cue, until a low-flying crow crossed her path. As if caught on a hook, she instantly forgot her handler and followed the crow as it flew to the other side of the field. She only stopped because there was a fence at the end.

I know how much people hate it when we compare children to dogs, yet we are constantly reminded of how similar their reactions can be.  When working with my clients and their dogs, one of the mantras that I continually repeat is that they have to do what they can to remain “more interesting than dirt” to their dogs. We all know how interesting dirt can be, with all its smells and hidden information to them. As it turns out, with children, we may not be competing with dirt, but definitely with the environment.

Playing at the beach

Running and chasing is good play

Going for walks through the neighborhood, the dogs stop to smell every bush and leaf that we pass, checking their “pee-mail” as many people lightheartedly say. The youngster stops at each flower, or to pick up pretty rocks or cool sticks along the way. To keep her interest and keep her moving along, I tell her stories and point out other interesting things further along the path. And there is plenty of praise to reinforce her for moving along and following my instruction.  Similarly, when my dogs are moving along on a loose leash, I reinforce them with plenty of praise and positive feedback.

Of course, it’s may be more intuitive to play with human children than with dogs, since we are humans after all, adapted to rearing children. But the concepts are similar. I tell people to play with their dogs in order to strengthen the bond, and thus have dogs that want to work for them and are more focused. As parents, we are encouraged to play with our children as well, to improve our relationships and help them feel special.  I have noticed that, outside of our close family, the people whom our daughter most enjoys are those who play little games with her or do interactive things with her.

So get out there and play with your dogs and your kids! There are games and activities that you can all play together, such as fetch. Whatever you do, have fun and you’ll find that your kids and your dogs will prefer your company over others.

Motivation – it drives all species

In my dog training business, I’m often asked about how to handle “stubborn” dogs. To such questions, I always reply that the dogs are not likely to be stubborn, but rather, insufficiently motivated. While we are more likely to insist that our children do things that they don’t want to do, I believe that the manner of convincing them can be similar in many situations.

Playing with our turtle, Oogway, a few weeks ago, I was very surprised to see how quickly he was able to move to catch a live cricket that I was feeding to him. In spite of his slow and deliberate movements most of the time, I realized that he was able to move fairly quickly when sufficiently motivated.

I remember years ago, at my niece’s birthday party at around 6 years of age, someone gave her a gift with a lot of that Styrofoam popcorn in it. Like a typical 6-year-old, she purposely emptied it all over the living room floor. From then on, every bit of paper and wrapper and packing material was strewn on the floor. It was quite a mess, and I was thinking that my poor sister would have to clean it up when she called everyone’s attention. Handing out two large bags, she challenged the boys versus the girls to see who could pick up the most trash off the floor. Within about one minute, the floor was completely cleaned, and the winning team enjoyed their special toys shortly thereafter.  This was not about force, but about motivation!

Shelby helps Aba

Sufficiently motivated, a child may even clean up after the dog!

In traditional (old school) training, “correction collars” were used to convince the dog that doing the wrong thing is bad, therefore they should do the right thing. But, we have since learned, that this is going about it wrong! (Pun intended.) What do you suppose would have happened if my sister had threatened the kids with a punishment (i.e. no cake) if they had not picked up the wrappings? I suspect that they would still have picked it up, but I’m also quite certain that they would not have done so in record time.

Training is about motivation; motivation can be in the form of punishment or rewards, and both can be effective. However, as demonstrated above, motivation by potential rewards often produces much more enthusiastic results, with learners who are more inclined to do what you ask the next time because it was so much fun the last time. And this doesn’t just apply to children, but to dogs (and other species) as well.

A common misconception among trainers who do not understand modern methods is that positive equals permissive, but this need not be the case! Rewarding good behavior does not mean that we cannot punish bad behavior. However, rewarding good behavior should reduce the incidents of bad behavior, and thus allow us to punish less. Furthermore, punishment does not need to be physical or painful in order to work, as evidenced by the power of time outs, or removal of rewards, for both children and dogs.

Michael training Mancha

With proper motivation (and supervision), a child can train a dog.

Whether you are working with children, dogs, chickens, cats, turtles… consider your tactic the next time you meet any resistance. I’m not saying to become permissive, but remember to reward the positive, and, whenever possible, encourage rather than coerce. Then you’ll be well on your way to getting enthusiastic responses to your requests from the two legged as well as the four legged members of your family.

Sometimes she has the attention span of…. Oh look, a squirrel!

With the holidays fast approaching, and many children’s movies premiering, we have been considering taking our 2 ½ -year-old daughter to a movie theater for the first time.  I’m apprehensive about her attention span, which often appears to be about that of a butterfly, though she has been improving since beginning preschool. Keeping her seated throughout an entire family meal, for instance, is a constant battle, as is sitting through a church service.

The topic of short attention spans does not escape my dog loving friends, either.  While older dogs may be able to focus in on things for longer periods, younger dogs are often flighty and it can be a challenge to maintain their focus. Put young children together with young dogs and the challenge more than doubles!

Fetch game

Fetch is a great way to capture kids’ and dogs’ attention.

To my students, I recommend that they keep their dogs’ training sessions to a maximum of 3-5 minutes in length. While many dogs can concentrate for longer than that, the majority – particularly the younger dogs – start to show what we call “displacement behaviors” such as scratching at imaginary fleas, or suddenly finding some interesting smell on the ground directly in front of them when they are feeling overly pressured. Additionally, for the dog to want to work, it is ideal to keep sessions short, leaving the dog wanting more, rather than working them to mental exhaustion.

Similarly, time outs, for those who use them, should also be relatively short. For a child, it is recommended to time them out for as many minutes as their age in years. For dogs, a 30-second to 2-minute time out suffices. Given that dogs are estimated to have the intelligence of approximately two-year-old children, this certainly makes sense.

All smiles

The triple “watch me”

But what about working with children and dogs together? When I take my daughter to sports practices such as agility and flyball, I make certain to bring a variety of toys along to keep her entertained. For while she loves watching the dogs work, she can only focus on them for so long before she becomes bored and looks for other things to do. So I do my best to divide my time between her and the dogs so that I can keep everyone appropriately occupied throughout the training sessions.

As mentioned above, to teach my dogs to increase their attention spans, I try to leave them wanting more of the things that I like to do with them, such as flyball, agility, and tug games.  I’m not certain that this will work with a toddler, but it is a harmless tactic that may be worth a try. Meanwhile, I’ll monitor her attention span, along with my dogs’, and attempt not to bore them all too much with my desire to keep on working.

Sick as a dog…

Well, I’m finally back at the top of my game, after over two weeks of being on-and-off sick as a dog, following a flu shot, which turned into what I called the “fake flu”. As if that weren’t enough, as I was recovering from that, I got a nasty cold that ended up derailing everyone in my household along with me. Fortunately, the kiddo got the least of it, and her reaction to the flu shot was not nearly as bad as mine. While I was barely able to keep up with my regular work, much less my writing, I did have plenty of time to reflect on illness and training.

Sick Dog image from

Being sick is no fun

Back in my single days, I remember getting ill with a flu that knocked me down for 4 days – VERY long, considering that I don’t usually get that sick, flu shots notwithstanding. On the third day, as I was lying on the couch wishing for the fever to finally break, my border collie, Claire, decided that she needed to play. When dancing her front feet on the couch next to my head proved ineffective, she took to dropping a Kong toy on my head. I’d like to say that was also ineffective, but I’d be lying, as it did serve to get me up and start a ball-throwing game in the yard with her despite myself.

While children may not be quite as bad – and mine does show sympathy for other people’s “owies” – most still don’t have a complete appreciation for Mommy’s (or Daddy’s) illness. On the day after our flu shots, our 2-year-old was feeling as down and out as I was, so we spent the day on the couch together, sleeping off the mild fever. Recovering quickly, she was raring to go the next day. Unfortunately for me, I came down with the bad cold several days later, and needed to spend another day off resting (which those who know me understand to be a rarity.) I am convinced that if it had not been for my husband’s intervention, our kid would have been dancing on my head to get me to play with her, too.

The fact is that parents – and particularly parents with additional jobs outside the home – don’t get the luxury of taking a lot of sick days. I have made meals, cleaned the house, fed the dogs and other beasts, responded to emails, and even taught dog training classes while feeling under the weather. It’s just something that I assume as my responsibility, and so I take it. I have a hard time explaining to people that I am a full-time mom during the weekdays and full-time business owner during evenings and weekends. Add dogs to the mix, and the schedule does not get any easier.

The upside is that I love all that I do; I love being Mom to our little girl, I love being a “dog-mom“, and I love the work that I do as a professional dog trainer and behavior counselor. So I suck it up and power through at times, with the trade-off being that I seldom feel like complaining about having to go to work, or having to clean up after a messy youngster. Life, overall, is good, and I am, for the most part, happy for the paths that I have chosen.