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.

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.

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?

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 (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.