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.

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.

When Helping Isn’t Helpful

Our daughter is at an age now where she wants to be involved with pretty much everything that we do. She likes to “help” us with chores including sweeping, cleaning, making the bed, and feeding the dogs.  When walking the dogs, she insists on holding the leash. So I’ve adopted the “two-leash” system of dog walking, with her holding one and an adult holding the second leash, both attached to the collar. This morning, she even helped us set the course for an agility demo at a local dog event for the Humane Society Silicon Valley.

The two-leash system

The two-leash system assures control while allowing the child to “walk the dog”.

While I truly appreciate that she enjoys picking up after the dogs – something that she only “gets to do” supervised – her helpfulness can also slow things down considerably.  And at times, helpful could simply get in the way.  In feeding the dogs, for instance, if I’m in a hurry to get out of the house in the morning, I’ll often feed them in stealth mode before she gets up, so that she does not hear me and insist on helping, which can triple the time it takes to get it done.

Picking up poop at Grandma's house

Helping to pick up after the dogs.

The other day, after feeding our pack (they are fed in crates) I briefly left the room to let them finish. I heard a suspicious noise in the front room – anyone with a toddler understands about suspicious noises – and I went in to find that our 2-year-old had let my husband’s dog out of his crate and was taking his bowl out to put it away. We are very fortunate that a) he was done eating, b) he never guards food and c) he is the most tolerant of our dogs around her. Nevertheless, I made a mental note that the dogs in “closed” crates need more supervision.  Fortunately, the other crates have different latches that are difficult even for adults to open, much less a toddler. We’ve also discussed changing out my husband’s dog’s crate for a similar model.

The point is that even in the most benign of settings, a completely well-meaning child may put himself in danger. I recently read an article from Animal Behavior Associates describing a tragic situation in which a previously “good with children” dog was pushed beyond his limits. They go on to describe how this heartbreak could have been prevented; all in all, it comes down to more supervision, not just for the child’s safety, but for the dog’s as well.

Well-meaning dogs can also present problems. I have heard many stories of overly exuberant dogs accidentally injuring children by knocking them down or scratching them. And stories of dogs “protecting” (which is often actually resource guarding) children to the detriment of visitors or passersby.

Having children and dogs together is a decision that should not be taken lightly, regardless of how “rock solid” our dogs are, or how well behaved our children are. Good intentions are not always well-received by dogs or by children. We must remember that, as parents and dog guardians, our job becomes all the more demanding in order to keep everyone safe and comfortable.

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.

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.

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 ( 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.