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.

Running with the family

Anyone who knows me understand that I am a runner. Not a jogger, nor a “fitness buff”, but a runner. It is something that courses in my blood, and that I myself don’t even fully understand. What I do know is that I crave the run, and I am not a particularly pleasant person to be around if I haven’t had a run for several days. Naturally, my dogs are also runners.

When I was 6 months pregnant, I had to stop running due to a high risk pregnancy, and it not only depressed me, but threw my dogs for a loop as well. My border collie gained 4 pounds in that time and I was relieved for both of us when I was finally given the thumbs up to resume running.

Now I’m fortunate that I get to run on a regular basis, but my entire process has changed since before the baby. Whereas I used to just put on my running shoes, stretch a bit, then leash my dog and go, now the process is much more complicated. After dressing myself and stretching, I get to prepare the stroller, make sure that I have milk and juice and goldfish crackers or some similar snack. Then I thoroughly sunscreen the kid, make sure she is fully dressed, including shoes, and strap her into the stroller. Then I put on the belt strap and leash up the dog as well as the stroller, so that neither will accidentally run off, nor get me a citation (off-leash dogs aren’t legal around her, after all.) After one last double check to make sure I have everything I need, I’m off.

Equipment check: belt strap with leash and stroller safety strap

The runs are still as much fun as they always have been, but they are different. No longer can I duck under a barrier to get to the other side of a trail. For that matter, narrow trails are pretty much off-limits entirely with the big stroller, as is deep mud. And rainy day runs are mostly a thing of the past. I play “find the window of sunlight” and hope for clear skies so that my child and the stroller may stay dry. The dogs never care if they get wet, but the kid is a different story.

As for the dogs, they don’t seem to mind the change at all. They do great on the waist-attached leashes, and quickly learned to run alongside the stroller without cutting in front of it. If they need to switch sides, they do so behind me. They are also getting very good at their left and right turn cues (yes, dogs can learn directions) which I use to keep from running them over when turning the stroller right next to them.

My girls, ready to go!

As for me, I’ll always be a runner at heart, and regardless of the running partners, my morning runs will always be my favorite part of the day.

Kids and Competition

I’ve been preparing for this weekend’s flyball tournament with team Pawdemonium. As I pack up my van and my gear, I remember how easy it was when all I had were the dogs. Each time I added a new dog to my pack, I would get a bag just a little bit bigger, adding another bowl, another crate fan, another collapsible crate, and maybe a bit more food and treats. Then I had a kid…

With my daughter, I instantly had to triple the equipment that I took to tournaments and competitions. With four dogs, I took 2 bags of gear and three crates. Adding Shelby meant two more bags of gear plus another chair, plus a cooler full of food and milk, plus the stroller, plus plenty of toys and books… Just going to grandma’s house feels like I’m going away for the weekend, and so a tourney becomes a huge production. But, I would not trade it for the world.

Learning to load the flyball box for our smaller team dogs.

Shelby is becoming a natural around the dogs. Under our very close guidance, she is learning not to approach any dog without asking first us, then the dog’s owners. I know the dogs on our team well, and so I know which are OK for her to pet, and which she must steer clear of, and she is getting very good about heeding my requests. Yet, it’s not all about relaxing and having fun. There is also the chasing.

Not surprisingly, like me and my dogs, Shelby also likes to run… correction… she loves to run. Thus, going to flyball tournaments or agility trials or any dog event with her involves chasing her around, making sure that she does not run up to or past other people’s dogs. It can be exhausting, particularly for my husband, who gets to do most of the chasing while I am competing. Eventually, she will get to run her own dog in competitions, but until then, we get to chase her around to keep her safe.

Yet I still would not trade it for anything. Shelby is learning so many valuable lessons at the competitions. In addition to shagging balls and holding our dogs’ leashes, she is getting good outdoor exercise while learning patience, politeness, sportsmanship, social skills, asking permission, helping out around camp …  More significantly, she gets to see firsthand how beautiful working relationships can be between people and dogs. So even if she chooses not to participate in dog sports when she gets older, she will understand good human-dog relationships, and hopefully seek to have them herself.

Nap time with Daddy at a flyball tournament

Yes, it is a different upbringing than the average “soccer kid”, but it offers a nice balance that will hopefully have long-term, positive effects on her, and on all of the “junior handlers” that we cheer on in the lanes. Did I mention that I would not trade it for the world?

Fun and games for kids and dogs

Had a great training session last evening with a lovely little rescued cocker spaniel who had forgotten how to play. I often see this in older rescue dogs who were previously backyard dogs, or for whatever other reason did not get to play with their people into adulthood. By the end of the session, this little dog was comfortable enough to offer me a couple of play bows and some playful pounces on a toy, which made my day.

Since part of my specialty is working with high drive and sports dogs, I spend a lot of time teaching people how to play with their dogs. Teaching play is part of my class curricula, and I encourage clients to bring toys to class. But while tug and similar games are perfectly appropriate and beneficial (http://helpingpetsbehave.com/post/18535186476/scientific-study-dispels-tug-myth) for adults to play with their dogs, there are limitations as to how children should play do with dogs.

My daughter, at just over two years old, loves to watch me run agility and flyball with our dogs. She cheers us on enthusiastically, yelling “Mommy, Claire, running!” And then she asks to play with the dogs herself. On a number of occasions, she has asked me for my end of a tug toy to engage with a dog, and I have had to turn her down. For, while I love the idea of my dogs playing with my child, I do my best to remain safety conscious at all times, and tug is just not safe between a dog and a toddler.

So, what are appropriate ways for children and dogs to have fun together? Well, of course it does depend on their ages. But there are several options for the closely supervised child and dog, including:

Fetch: As seen in the above-linked video by my friend, Natasha, there is a minimum age at which this game can begin, but pretty much as soon as a child is able to throw a ball, they can do so for a willing dog. The key is to be sure the game is controlled, and the dog is not one that will grab at the ball as the human is going for it. If you have such a dog, then I highly recommend the use of a chuck it or similar toy to keep fingers away from the ball. Ideally, I like to teach a dog to drop the ball, then back away some distance for the child to pick up the ball. I discourage my daughter from picking up the ball if it is still between the dog’s paws, and to wait until the dog has backed away from it. This ensures that the dog is really ready to give it up for another throw, and won’t grab it, accidentally biting little fingers. And as the dogs learn that she won’t throw it again until they back up, they willingly comply.

Chase games: Most dogs naturally love to run. Mine will “zoom” on cue when I say “run!” Typically, they run away from me, and I give short chases as they tuck their tails and zoom in circles past me. Once a dog has been trained by an adult to zoom on cue, then pre-teen or older children can play this game. While I do teach dogs to chase after adults in my sports classes, I don’t encourage dog-chasing-human games with children younger than teenagers, in order to avoid the risk of their being knocked over or otherwise hurt.

Then there are tummy rubs!

Tug: This is my favorite game to play with dogs, but it is not age-appropriate until quite a bit later due to safety concerns. I generally recommend that children be at least in their early teens, larger than the dog in question, and using a very long tug toy. I also recommend that parents first teach the dog a solid “drop it” as well as teaching the dog the rules of tug (i.e. teeth to flesh = game over) prior to allowing the children to play.

Dog sports: Many sports now have “junior handler” divisions and even awards. The AKC has a complete page dedicated to juniors in companion events including a variety of dog sports. In agility, there are also a variety of Junior Handler programs. And in flyball, I have seen children as young as three years old run well-trained dogs with an adult to closely manage the racing, and Junior Handler Awards being given out at tournaments.

North American Flyball Association’s Junior Handler pin

Clearly, games are good. A recent study looking for the effects of tug on dogs’ behavior actually demonstrated that dogs that were played with (tug in this instance) sought more attention from and were more attentive to their handlers.  Isn’t this what we want in relationships between our dogs and our families? So I say, play on, my friends, play on, and keep it safe.