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.
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.