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…

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.

She Started It!

When I was in college, I had a sweet cat, Scheida, and my roommate had a lovely dog, Bixby. They got along well, since I got the kitten while the dog was young and they basically grew up together. One evening, as we were watching a movie, Bixby repeatedly chased Scheida out of the family room into the back bedroom. Each time, my roommate reprimanded Bixby, insisting that he leave the cat alone. Later, as we were chatting after the movie ended, we happened to watch: Scheida walked right up to Bixby and whapped him on the nose three times then ran away. As Bixby got up to chase her, he looked at us, knowing he’d be reprimanded. At that moment, I really wanted to tell him to go get that cat! She was, after all, the instigator.

While at the surface, this story could speak to cats as troublemakers, (remember Lady and the Tramp?) the fact is, cats are not the only ones who can behave in this manner. Like the old school trouble-maker who lures classmates into trouble, I have seen dogs and children behave this way as well.

Among dogs, I’ve seen plenty of instigators as well: dogs who nudge and nudge at a dog that is clearly giving “cut off” signals, until they have to be reprimanded loudly. In many such cases, I’ve seen the growling dogs reprimanded, when in fact the other dog was the one who had instigated the dispute.

Similarly, children often do not intentionally start things, but do things because they do not know better. I am often called to work with dogs that have bitten and/or threatened children.  While not in all cases, I have encountered a number of situations where the children had been allowed (or unsupervised) to do things that the dogs did not like. In one case that dropped my heart to my stomach, the dog had snapped at the 2-year-old and grazed his face. While the cut was truly just a scrape, there was concern about the dog. When I asked the child what had happened just before his dog bit him, he said to me “I squished his face”. His mother’s face went sheet-white as she heard this, and wondered why he hadn’t told her this part.

In other cases, I’ve been told that the dogs had previously allowed the children to climb on them or pull on their ears and tails, and then “one day, out of the blue, started to growl at them.” This case is so very common: the dog endures all manner of abuse (yes, pulling on one’s ears can hurt) and then one day decides that he’s had enough, and people are appalled that the dog now growls. The sad part is that after this, it can be a steep, uphill battle to convince the dog to once again trust children.

So, what is the solution? To start, we know that children must be closely supervised around dogs. They often do things that they do not even know are bad or painful. The child who “squished” his dog’s face did so in the same room with his mother, who was busy on her computer.

Classic example: the little girl means well,but the dog is uncomfortable
In such a case, call the child away

Unsupervised, children may do things to dogs that we would never even consider, such as sticking things into their ears, pulling their tails, climbing on them, or hugging them too hard. It is not fair to insist that any dog should endure this kind of treatment. In addition to interfering to protect a dog, I recommend teaching dogs that leaving a situation is a perfectly acceptable – in fact preferable – option: flight over fight. Give your dogs a place to hide where the children know they are off limits. When you’re unable to supervise closely, separate them. And when it comes to reprimanding bad behavior, make sure you get your story straight first!

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I was chatting with a friend the other day, and we came to the topic of what we would or would not want to do in front of our children. At my home, I’m fortunate that my husband and I do not have a lot of “bad habits” that we wouldn’t want our daughter to pick up. Nevertheless, we still have to be mindful of certain things, such as our language, or a decision to run across the street to grab something out of the car.

When it comes to interactions with our dogs, (as well as our cats), we really do find that we have to watch ourselves. For instance, I love kissing my dog, Claire, on the face. My favorite photograph of the two of us was taken right before our first sheep herding trial. I was a nervous wreck, and bent down to kiss her on the nose, while she gently licked my chin. It was a magical moment, but not one that I’d like to see our two-year-old daughter try to emulate until she’s substantially older, and can understand when a dog is OK with this and when it is not.

My husband kissing his dog at our wedding.

I was not present when my daughter kissed this puppy, but I would have discouraged it, in spite of his young age.

Unfortunately, sometimes other people don’t share this understanding and they encourage children to kiss dogs on or about the face. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the “curse of the good dog” and this can add to the challenges, as “good” dogs often let children get away with things that they should never do to dogs. And thus, people often grow even more complacent.

In a recent webinar that I attended, this very subject was discussed. Even those of us who do not use traditional, correction-based training methods still do many things with our dogs that children should never do. To keep myself mindful, I wrote up the following list of things that I now try to do outside of my daughter’s presence:

  • Grooming – my Pyrenean Shepherd, in particular, requires a great deal of grooming to keep his coat from becoming matted. I used to love to groom him in the evenings while watching television. Now, I must wait until after our daughter is in bed (which is usually a time I reserve for working) or have him groomed professionally in order to keep him comfortable.
  • Face kisses – Let’s face it, so many of us love to kiss our dogs on the face. It is a way for us to show affection, but it is not something that children should be doing, as they are unable to understand when a dog has had enough, which could result in terrible consequences. (For that matter, I have seen adults bitten by dogs in this way as well.)  It’s just not worth the risk, so children should be prohibited from ever trying it.
  • Snuggling – like face kisses, a child runs the risk of missing important social cues from a dog. Furthermore, children are naturally clumsy, and a well-meaning toddler may accidentally fall upon or step on a dog in an attempt to cuddle, resulting in an injured and/or very angry dog deciding to defend itself.

Unfortunately, not everything can be hidden from the kids. Following are things that I do not allow my daughter to do, but which she must sometimes witness. In every instance, I remind her that she is not to do this and that it is a “grownups only” activity.

  • Tug game – my daughter joins me at flyball and agility practice sessions, as well as competitions, so she sees me playing tug with my dogs all the time. She often asks for my end of the tug toy to play with, and I always decline to give it to her, telling her that it’s a game for just mommy and the dog. Then I hand her a ball to toss for the dog if we are someplace where this is appropriate.
  • Drop it cue – this important cue can come up at any time, and often must be addressed in the moment.  My dogs all have highly reinforced “drop it” cues, and I continue to reward them for drop its in order to keep this behavior strong. But whenever my daughter is present and I have to take something from a dog, I remind her that *only mommy or daddy* can do these things.
  • Running around the dogs – In child-dog safety seminars, I teach children “don’t run by a dog, be a tree or a log.” However, I run with my dogs all the time in flyball and agility, as well as on my daily exercise runs. This is a tough one, but I explain to her that if the dog is not already running alongside her, then she must not run past it. Again, this takes a lot of management, but the potential alternative is not worth the risk.

Walking grandma’s dog

There are other interactions which come up as safety concerns, but these are the principal issues that I see on a regular basis. Of course, our daughter will not be unsupervised with our dogs, so that I may watch her every move to make sure she learns what is and is not allowed with them. But, like every parent, there will come a time when I will have to let go, and trust her to have learned. Meanwhile, I will continue to emphasize the rules of safety and hope and pray that they really stick.

Please and Thank You

Visiting with a friend recently, she commented on how impressed she was that Shelby thanked her for something she was given without being prompted. Since she started talking, we have been constantly reinforcing and encouraging her to “mind her P’s and Q’s”, so to speak, and she is generally pretty good at it these days, though there are still times when we do have to remind her.

Once again, I’m reminded at the similarities in working with dogs and children. In her recent newsletter, TV dog trainer, Victoria Stilwell, wrote that while we must be careful not to anthropomorphize too much, there are still many similarities between rearing children and raising dogs within our families.

Let’s take please and thank you as an example. As I recently wrote in the High Drive Dogs blog, many dogs get very pushy in asking for whatever they want. In such cases, it’s helpful to teach them to “work for everything.” Most specifically, rather than just insisting on getting what they want, we want our dogs to ask politely. And if you are thinking that by suggesting that dogs “ask” for things, I’m anthropomorphizing here, remember that any well-housebroken dog without a dog door must know how to ask to go out.

Thank you for the flowers!

But what about please and thank you?  Well, I encourage my clients to teach their dogs to sit politely to ask for things, rather than pushing their way onto us for attention, or barking insistently when they want other things. And for thank you? This can often come naturally in the form of a tail wag.

Then there’s the issue of the “indoor” and “outdoor” voices. We are working diligently with our daughter to teach her not to scream and yell in the house, but that it’s OK to do this outdoors when she’s playing. My dogs, similarly, have learned to woof quietly when they need something indoors, but they are allowed to bark more loudly when they are outside, depending on the setting.

Many similarities indeed, as we raise our children and dogs within our homes. And while we must never forget that they are different species, with different needs and behavioral characteristics, please and thank you serve to remind us of why dogs have come to be such an integral part of our families, and why rules for both dogs and children are crucial in developing polite and well-behaved adults. So train on my friends.And thank you for reading.


I didn’t do it!!

“I was sure she knew she did wrong by the look of guilt on her face when I got home.” How often I hear clients utter such words in reference to some misdeeds that their hapless dogs have done. I was thinking about this the other day as I was reading through some reviews of the latest studies on “dog guilt”.  In one study of note, Julie Hecht led an experiment where dogs were told by their owners to “leave” a treat alone, whereupon they were left alone in the room. In some of the cases, the dogs ate the cookie, while in other cases the experimenters took the cookies from them. In both cases, the owners decided that their dogs actually looked guilty. It is surmised that this “guilty” look is actually an appeasement gesture – an attempt to prevent the other individual from remaining angry at them or (potentially) injuring or leaving them.

Uh... was I not supposed to be up here?

I have no scientific basis for this, other than to reference an article that stated that the average dog has the intelligence of a 2-year-old child, but I tend to think that toddlers and dogs are pretty much on par as far as true “guilt” is concerned. Recently, our daughter scribbled with crayon (fortunately the easily soluble type) all over the floor. Proud of her handiwork, her happiness quickly turned to that “guilty” look as soon as she saw that I was upset. Did she know she had done wrong? Was she feeling guilty? Well, if history tells, I would say, most likely not, considering she did it again a week later, and proudly stated “Shelby draws” as I took a breath and went to clean it up again  (with a mental note to hide the crayons when I can’t be supervising the art project!) Thus, I question whether a child of 2 years has the depth of conception to purposely do something bad and then actually feel “guilty” about it, any more than the family dog.

Emotions are complicated, after all. According to Your Child’s Growing Mind  by Jane Healy, ”intellectual and emotional development are inseparable.”   And while one study showed that dogs may show empathy to crying people  – something that 2-year-old children have also been known to do – this is still a long way from the more complex emotions such as guilt.

I understand that it makes *us*, the “wronged” ones, feel better when we believe that the other individual feels guilty for what they have done – disobeyed us, left a mess for us to clean, destroyed a cherished item. But this does not mean that the guilt is really there. And when all’s said and done, the most important thing is not just what we believe, but how we act. Thus, even if you insist on believing that your dog or 2-year-old child feels guilty for knocking over and breaking your crystal vase, what matters is your response to the event. Will you choose to clean it up and make a mental note not to leave expensive things within reach? Or will you punish the wrongdoer after the fact, for something that they may not quite understand?  I don’t profess to know the answer, but it is worth considering the options.