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.

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.

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.”

Over protective or overly permissive?

I recently came across an interesting article in the New York Times about the perils of “overparenting” versus “underparenting”.  Among the challenges mentioned included parents who were overly permissive as well as parents who were overly controlling. According to the article, “the happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing; and their parents do not do things for them that satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child.” In other words, parents who balance control with freedom as needed.

There is also a balance with regard to living with children and dogs.  While being overly passive and leaving children unsupervised around dogs is clearly negligent, unless the dog is actually child-aggressive, it is may not be to the child’s benefit to prevent him or her from having any interactions whatsoever with the family dogs. Children need to learn how to behave around dogs, how to pet them, what they should and should not do, etc. Simply telling children that they can never ever go near any dogs has the potential to do more harm than good.

Georgia and her boy

Demonstrating petting at arm’s length.

In my work with dog bite prevention education, I have run into many people with fears of dogs. With few exceptions, they tell stories of how dogs always want to attack them. It appears that fearful people are more likely to be attacked than people who aren’t afraid possibly because of the way in which they react: staring at the dogs, potentially screaming and running away, etc. In children’s safety courses, I teach children to “be a tree or a log” and never to run away.  This is particularly difficult to teach to fearful children.

From www.drsophiayin.com

From Dr. Sophia Yin, here is a classic example

If we instead teach children how to properly pet dogs at arm’s length, allow dogs to approach them rather than approaching the dogs, petting under the chin instead of the top of the head, etc., then they will go out into the world with a clearer understanding of these animals with which we live in our communities. Avoiding dogs altogether is just not really possible in today’s society. They are a part of so many families, and increasingly, venues such as shopping centers, coffee shops with outdoor seating, and even baseball parks are not only allowing them but actively encouraging their presence.  Trying to teach children to steer clear of all dogs would be akin to trying to teach them to steer clear of bicycles or cars; unless you move to a remote island, it just won’t happen.

The same goes for teaching our dogs. While it is not reasonable to expect them to put up with harsh, punishing treatment such as ear pulling and pokes in the eyes, we can teach most dogs to tolerate the presence of children and to choose to walk away when they feel uncomfortable, instead of opting to try to “defend themselves.”

All in all, it is a balancing act: teaching our children respect for dogs – and all living things for that matter – while supervising sufficiently to prevent mishaps. And for our dogs, more “micromanagement” may be needed, all the while protecting them from harm. I’ve said it before and will repeat here: raising children and dogs together is certainly more work than raising children alone, but the long-term benefits for all involved are worthwhile.

Kids Welcome?

I read an article the other day about the “Top 7 Good Habits of Great Veterinary Clients”, which listed, among the others, “The last thing an upset animal patient needs is a rambunctious or ill-mannered child in the mix. There are also safety concerns when small lively kids are roaming around a veterinary hospital or exam room.”

While it specifically states “rambunctious or ill-mannered”, I recognize that it is not always possible to leave the children behind when it’s time to take Fido to the vet. For me, since I work evenings and have my daughter with me during the day, I often have little choice but to take her with me to routine vet appointments unless I have family available to help out. That said, I do understand the sentiment.

A well-behaved child knows not to interfere with the veterinarian or trainer.

In training classes, I encourage people to bring their well-mannered children, and many of my students do bring them. I even wrote an article about this for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ Chronicle of the Dog some years ago, which was re-published in the book, The Dog Trainer’s Resource. When children are well-behaved, they can be an asset to a class, as they provide just enough additional distraction to help the dogs to learn to deal with them. On the other hand, when they are overly rambunctious or out of control, they can pose a danger to themselves as well as to the dogs.

So, what should a well-behaved child do in a vet office or training class, or other dog-centric venue?

  1. The child should absolutely NOT run around the dogs! Sometimes a young child will suddenly realize that he wants to be there and not here, and will run off. As a parent, you should be aware of this possibility and head it off quickly.
  2. The child should NEVER approach dogs other than his or her own! Regardless of the dog’s temperament, a classroom, or especially a veterinary office, can be a stressful place, and a dog’s reaction may not be what he would typically do.
  3. The child should be, for the most part, QUIET. This means no screaming or loud yelling. I realize that many children do not quite have the concept of the “indoor voice”, but at the very least, discourage loud screaming or squealing.

If you don’t have an option but to bring a young child with you to a training class or veterinary office, consider bringing quiet toys to entertain the child and keep him hushed. Books, coloring books, blocks, puzzles, Legos, or even a tablet computer with a nice game and the sound turned down, could go a long way to avoid troubles with a young child in such a setting.

When you are able to focus on your child, you could take advantage of the great learning opportunities: explaining what the various dogs are doing, what types of dogs they are (OK, maybe this one is just a dog trainer’s custom) and emphasizing why they shouldn’t try to pet them. In the habit of turning everything into a learning exercise, I engage in counting games with my toddler, ask about big and small, color identification, and remind her not to approach any animal without first checking in with me, and then asking the owner.

In the end, it is not just about polite manners and keeping the stress levels down for all of the pets in the vet office or training class, but also about safety for everyone involved. By remaining vigilant and teaching our children good pet manners, we can help our children to be welcomed in more dog-centric venues.

Where is common sense?

Last week, in one of the trainers’ forums which I follow, somebody posted the following photo:

Selma Blair straddles her son over her boxer.

In discussions over the photo, all agreed that this was not appropriate to be teaching a young child, since riding a dog is not good for the dog and potentially dangerous for a child should the dog object. We also agreed that, based on the Boxer’s body language in the photo, he was uncomfortable about having the child on his back, though he appeared to be tolerating it.

While I understand and completely concur with the concerns about this photo, my deeper concerns were about the tone in which some of the critics posted. The comments of the trainers in the discussion ranged from “what was she thinking” to more scathing and enraged remarks regarding parents who should absolutely know better. Ms. Blair is not necessarily a bad parent, and she apparently really loves dogs; she just needs better information.

Years ago, the owner of a dog training school for which I worked complained incessantly about how ridiculous people were when training their dogs, and how they “should know better.” Completely indignant, she expected everyone to naturally understand how dogs learn and what the latest training methods were. I was uncomfortable whenever she made such comments, because I wondered how on earth people could possibly know what was right unless somebody told them. With children, as with dogs, we don’t expect them to automatically know what is right. Instead, we spend time diligently teaching or training them regarding the rules. Yet in many aspects, adults are expected to naturally understand what is “right” and “wrong”. And in today’s technologically driven society, this expectation is driven even higher. However, when it comes to dog training, animal behavior, and even parenting with children and dogs, many of the messages are, sadly, very mixed.

Our parents were very different with their dogs than the way we are today. Even many of our childhood dogs lived differently than today’s pampered pooches. “Back in the day”, the dog that misbehaved or bit someone was either put to sleep, or labeled as a “biter” and kept away from people. Today, we have trainers and behavior counselors and veterinary behaviorists to help rehabilitate many of these dogs. Yet, the mixed messages persist, making it difficult for the average parent with a dog to know what is best. We see frightening images in the media touted as “cute”, fall prey to their “adorableness”, overlooking the fact that the situations represented are potentially dangerous. Then we are shocked on the rare occasion when the inevitable happens and someone is actually injured.

This series of photos has been making the rounds for years, and it still terrifies me.

But, if people can’t be expected to automatically “know better”, then what are we to do to keep our children safe? To start, gentle education can go a long way toward remedying the profusion of misinformation. Encourage your friends to look to science instead of “hype” when it comes to dog behavior and training. And when someone is doing something dangerous, rather than condemning them outright, politely show them what is appropriate. If you can’t convince them, then is the time to be more forceful.

Meanwhile, focus on your family, friends and those close to you. It is much easier to have an impact on friends than strangers – or movie stars, for that matter! With social networking as powerful as it is these days, share your trusted child and dog sites with everyone you know, and let them share with those they know. Sites such as Family Paws, Living with Kids and Dogs, and KADIE offer solid, reasonable advice for living safely with children and dogs. And if you’re still unsure, join a forum such as the Crates and Cribs Facebook page, or other groups for parents with children and dogs.

And don’t stop studying. Every day, we learn more about dogs and dog behavior through the research of fantastic experts such as Patricia McConnell, Roger Abrantes and Brian Hare. Then, when someone comes to you with a new training technique, or some trick that their child is doing with their dog, you can look at it objectively, and make the decision for yourself as to whether you want your child to do this with your dog. Then share with your friends yet again. And if anyone out there is friends with Ms. Blair, share this with her as well and encourage her to join Crates and Cribs or a similar kids and dogs group.

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!

I See You!

Saw the cutest toddler photo the other day with the header: “Silence is golden… unless you have a toddler… then silence very very suspicious.” Funny as the statement is (it’s funny because it’s true) It gave me pause when I thought about how this might apply to interactions between a dog and child – the truth is, a child should NEVER be left alone with a dog, even for a short moment.  And yet, in many households, this could be a tall order at times.

“This is how to scratch her belly”

Our daughter, for instance, has learned to open my husband’s dog’s crate. It is the type of door with the turning knob instead of the traditional stiff spring pins. I used to think that Shadow’s crate was the best ever, but I’m not so happy with it now, and we’re actually considering getting another of the less expensive type that a 2-year-old can’t open. The good news for us is that Shadow is our “good dog”, who is least likely to get irritated by her; he really does appear to like her, seeking her out and kissing her face. Nevertheless, unsupervised visits with him are forbidden, so my ears have become attuned to the sound of a crate door opening.

As much as I prefer to live with loose dogs in the house all the time, crates really are the best resting place for dogs in a house with a loose toddler. In the crates, the dogs are actually safer themselves as well, since a toddler can’t accidentally jump on them, try to ride one “like it’s a small horse”, or otherwise annoy them. It’s the best option when I need the dogs inside but can’t be supervising 100% with the toddler.

When I do have to leave the room and a dog is loose with our daughter, I will always call the dog to join me. While it is not usually my preference, I’ve found that it is often MUCH easier to recall a well-trained dog than even the best trained toddler. Usually, when the dog joins me so does the toddler, which makes things even easier. The point is to keep an eye on them both.

Having dogs and children together is not always fun and games. It is often more work than one would expect. But the rewards are worthwhile for those of us who love dogs and want our children to grow up with the joys of having them in their lives.

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.

Children Training Dogs

 

There has been much discussion lately within the dog trainers’ network to which I belong, regarding the variety of training methods that are in use today. While there are arguments for and against any method, the science of learning theory tends to support the idea that, for safety reasons as well as others, modern, reward-based training techniques are the best for children to use. These methods are non-confrontational, and emphasize encouraging correct behavior, rather than punishing incorrect behavior.  Sarah Kalnajs, renowned trainer and author, recently wrote a detailed note about the merits of modern training methods. As a cross-over trainer myself, I understand how each style of training works, and recognize the substantial benefits of the more modern methods.

According to recent studies, punishment-based training methods are not only more difficult to execute effectively in terms of timing and technique, but they can be downright dangerous, as they may increase the likelihood of a dog becoming aggressive. Regardless of whether you subscribe to such techniques in training your own dogs, I still strongly advise against it when it comes to children.

More pet friendly techniques are not only safer and less potentially harmful if one’s timing is a little bit off, but they are also better for improving the relationship between the dog and child.  According to Dr. Ian Dunbar, a pioneer of reward-based dog training methods, one good way to start working with a dog and child is to have the child stand in front of the adult, asking the dog for a behavior (i.e. sit). The adult standing behind the child would then reinforce it, and the child would then deliver the treat, ideally by tossing it to the ground in front of the dog (to prevent nipped little fingers.)  Over time, the child should easily be able to give the dog commands to respond to, and even play with the dog. I started with this method early, and at under two years of age, my daughter was already training with our dogs. They now respond beautifully to her commands, at least when they understand what she’s trying to say.

Another consideration when teaching children to train dogs is that not all dogs understand from the beginning that children are actually little humans, to be respected and loved. Unlike my colleague’s Labrador retriever, who tried to get her 3-month-old son to throw a toy for her, many dogs actually have aversions to children due to the differences compared to adults: their faces are naturally closer to dogs’ faces (which can appear threatening to the dog who is already uncomfortable), they often squeal and yell, and their movements are short and choppy in comparison to adults. For these reasons, as well, traditional methods would be contra-indicated; a dog may react negatively to a “correction” from a child should it feel compelled to defend itself.

The classic: a boy and his dog

Finally, with regard to timing, it is difficult to really hurt a dog with bad timing using reward-based training methods. With traditional, correction-based methods, bad timing could lead to a confused or even fearful dog as well as an eroded relationship with his human. By contrast, one of the worst things that can come of bad timing using modern methods is an overweight dog who doesn’t quite understand what is expected of him. More importantly, the relationship between the dog and human could remain intact. In fact, treats from children in any situation could improve a dog’s perception of them. My own dogs clearly love my daughter, and always look to her expectantly, tails wagging, when she appears because more often than not, she’s ready to give them something yummy. (Though as a side note, I have trained solid “leave it” cues to my dogs, just in case of inappropriate treats!)

Regardless of the philosophy of dog training to which you subscribe, I urge you to consider more modern, science-based and dog-friendly methods should you decide to work with your children to train your dog. They are far safer, and will undoubtedly be more enjoyable for both dogs and children.