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.
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.
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.