Please and Thank You

Visiting with a friend recently, she commented on how impressed she was that Shelby thanked her for something she was given without being prompted. Since she started talking, we have been constantly reinforcing and encouraging her to “mind her P’s and Q’s”, so to speak, and she is generally pretty good at it these days, though there are still times when we do have to remind her.

Once again, I’m reminded at the similarities in working with dogs and children. In her recent newsletter, TV dog trainer, Victoria Stilwell, wrote that while we must be careful not to anthropomorphize too much, there are still many similarities between rearing children and raising dogs within our families.

Let’s take please and thank you as an example. As I recently wrote in the High Drive Dogs blog, many dogs get very pushy in asking for whatever they want. In such cases, it’s helpful to teach them to “work for everything.” Most specifically, rather than just insisting on getting what they want, we want our dogs to ask politely. And if you are thinking that by suggesting that dogs “ask” for things, I’m anthropomorphizing here, remember that any well-housebroken dog without a dog door must know how to ask to go out.

Thank you for the flowers!

But what about please and thank you?  Well, I encourage my clients to teach their dogs to sit politely to ask for things, rather than pushing their way onto us for attention, or barking insistently when they want other things. And for thank you? This can often come naturally in the form of a tail wag.

Then there’s the issue of the “indoor” and “outdoor” voices. We are working diligently with our daughter to teach her not to scream and yell in the house, but that it’s OK to do this outdoors when she’s playing. My dogs, similarly, have learned to woof quietly when they need something indoors, but they are allowed to bark more loudly when they are outside, depending on the setting.

Many similarities indeed, as we raise our children and dogs within our homes. And while we must never forget that they are different species, with different needs and behavioral characteristics, please and thank you serve to remind us of why dogs have come to be such an integral part of our families, and why rules for both dogs and children are crucial in developing polite and well-behaved adults. So train on my friends.And thank you for reading.


I didn’t do it!!

“I was sure she knew she did wrong by the look of guilt on her face when I got home.” How often I hear clients utter such words in reference to some misdeeds that their hapless dogs have done. I was thinking about this the other day as I was reading through some reviews of the latest studies on “dog guilt”.  In one study of note, Julie Hecht led an experiment where dogs were told by their owners to “leave” a treat alone, whereupon they were left alone in the room. In some of the cases, the dogs ate the cookie, while in other cases the experimenters took the cookies from them. In both cases, the owners decided that their dogs actually looked guilty. It is surmised that this “guilty” look is actually an appeasement gesture – an attempt to prevent the other individual from remaining angry at them or (potentially) injuring or leaving them.

Uh... was I not supposed to be up here?

I have no scientific basis for this, other than to reference an article that stated that the average dog has the intelligence of a 2-year-old child, but I tend to think that toddlers and dogs are pretty much on par as far as true “guilt” is concerned. Recently, our daughter scribbled with crayon (fortunately the easily soluble type) all over the floor. Proud of her handiwork, her happiness quickly turned to that “guilty” look as soon as she saw that I was upset. Did she know she had done wrong? Was she feeling guilty? Well, if history tells, I would say, most likely not, considering she did it again a week later, and proudly stated “Shelby draws” as I took a breath and went to clean it up again  (with a mental note to hide the crayons when I can’t be supervising the art project!) Thus, I question whether a child of 2 years has the depth of conception to purposely do something bad and then actually feel “guilty” about it, any more than the family dog.

Emotions are complicated, after all. According to Your Child’s Growing Mind  by Jane Healy, ”intellectual and emotional development are inseparable.”   And while one study showed that dogs may show empathy to crying people  – something that 2-year-old children have also been known to do – this is still a long way from the more complex emotions such as guilt.

I understand that it makes *us*, the “wronged” ones, feel better when we believe that the other individual feels guilty for what they have done – disobeyed us, left a mess for us to clean, destroyed a cherished item. But this does not mean that the guilt is really there. And when all’s said and done, the most important thing is not just what we believe, but how we act. Thus, even if you insist on believing that your dog or 2-year-old child feels guilty for knocking over and breaking your crystal vase, what matters is your response to the event. Will you choose to clean it up and make a mental note not to leave expensive things within reach? Or will you punish the wrongdoer after the fact, for something that they may not quite understand?  I don’t profess to know the answer, but it is worth considering the options.

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.

The Curse of the Good Dog

We had another fantastic, multi-tasking agility training session/play date with our pals the other day. Natasha’s dog, Polly, is one of those stereotypical, mellow and inherently well-behaved labs that everyone sees in the movies and on greeting cards. She is even-tempered and sweet, and will put up with pretty much anything from everyone, including the children.

In conversation with Natasha, we were pondering the challenges of having such a dog with children, and this brought to mind the kids and dogs safety demo that I did at the C-DOG event this past weekend. Since developing the demo 8 years ago, it has, of course, undergone a number of improvements, but notably, I now find myself telling parents that the fact that they have dogs at home means that they may have to be more vigilant with their children than non-dog owning parents.

This photo made my heart stop, and sparked discussion among colleagues.

I so often hear of people with dogs that allow all manner of things to be “done to them”, even in spite of parents’ threats to children to leave them alone. Natasha mentioned how her older, male Labrador was harassed by children (under another parent’s supposed supervision) and. she went running to him when he barked loudly. She arrived to see him surrounded by harassing children who had been crowding around, poking and prodding him, while he sat quietly and took it until he decided to call for help. After an appropriate tongue-lashing to the parent of the children, Natasha thanked her lucky stars that her dog was so tolerant because, unlike many unfortunate parents, Natasha understands dogs, and knows what is appropriate, what is natural and normal, and what parents should NOT allow children to do to them.

Within the various lists to which I belong, I often see photos that are downright shocking – people letting children kiss dogs on the noses, when said dogs are very clearly uneasy with the interactions. They are posted in the name of “cute”, yet those of us who are trainers and understand dog body language cringe when we see them.

This dog is not comfortable with the baby's kiss

Nevertheless, those of us who have “good” dogs, do have the luxury of worrying just a little bit less about our dogs. We have two such dogs, out of our four. Shadow allowed Shelby to crawl into his crate with him the other day – when I didn’t realize that I had not completely latched it closed before going to the kitchen for a moment. I would never have relaxed so much had it been one of the other dogs. He and our boy, Flash, also tolerate hugs and close petting with quiet sighs and otherwise relaxed looks. I know the difference between Shadow’s body language and my girl, Claire’s when they are about to be hugged by a child, and I stop the hugs immediately with Claire. And believe it or not, I’m grateful for Claire, who is helping me to teach Shelby that not all dogs like that close contact – in fact, most dogs do *not* want to be hugged. I constantly remind her to keep her face away from other dogs, don’t pet any dog unless it approaches you first (all of our dogs will do this, but not all the time) and under no circumstance should you “ride the dog like a pony”.  (Yes, it is frowned upon in this establishment as well!)

But what about those families with the overly tolerant dogs, or big dogs that just don’t care or even truly love children? Those parents, believe it or not, may have it harder in the long run. They will have to teach their children that other dogs are NOT their dogs; other dogs do not want their attention; other dogs do not take treats nicely or even wait until treats are offered; other dogs will jump up on you if you squeal and run…

Shelby enjoys playing in the crates when the dogs are outside.

I was at a park a few years ago and had my dogs on down-stays. They were patiently watching me as I watched and winced as a young child went right up to them and tried to pat them on the back. I ran toward him and stopped him before it happened, as his hapless mom told me “oh, he has dogs at home, so wants to pet them all.” What?? I couldn’t understand why she didn’t even try to stop him?

And therein lies the curse – not all dogs are like “your” dog, and this is a tough lesson for a toddler. Heck, it’s a tough lesson that a lot of adults even have a hard time learning with, as anyone with a reactive dog who has endured dirty looks from others can attest.  Just a short glance at the D.I.N.O.S. Dogs in Need of Space page will show you plenty of stories of such grown-ups, as well as a few children.

Cursed though you may be, thank your lucky stars, and then get to work teaching your child how to properly behave around any and all dogs that are not part of the family. It could be a life-saver, not just for your child, but for someone’s beloved dog as well.

Kids and Dogs – a comparison of equipment

Talking to my husband the other day, as we were preparing for an outing, I referred to my daughter’s diaper bag as her “gear bag”. I didn’t think twice about it until he asked in confusion to what I was referring. This got me to thinking about how similar much of the equipment is between the two, and also reminded me that some things can actually cross over.

Following is a run-down of some of the items that are available for dogs and their corresponding children’s versions.

Poop bags / diaper disposal bags: We were shopping in a local department store some months ago, and had occasion to visit the pet department, followed by the baby department. While we were not looking for poop bags, I did notice them on the shelf. Then, in looking for diapers, we came upon the diaper disposal bags. The packages were nearly identical, with different label names on the top and – most interestingly – significantly different prices! My hot tip to all of my clients now is to buy dog poop bags in the baby section of their local department store.

To save money on poop bags, get them in the kids' department!

Kongs / “Baby kongs” – My friend’s blog turned me on to the fact that they do actually make feeding toys for babies! We all know that both children and dogs need plenty of mental as well as physical stimulation, and feeding toys are often a great way to achieve this mental stimulation with dogs. For the kids, the feeding toys are more about management (i.e. not spilling cheerios all over the floor), yet they will still spend plenty of time trying to figure out how to get their treats.

Toys – We all know that children’s toys and dogs’ toys are similar. I have clients who buy children’s toys for their dogs on a regular basis, and I have personally given dog toys to my daughter that we have won at dog sports competitions. (Actually, I tell her that they are from whichever dog won them.)  And when it comes to safety, we look for similar traits: no removal parts that may be easily swallowed, non-toxic materials, and no sharp edges.

Dog toy? Child's toy? Which is which?

Sports classes – The inspiration for this group came at an agility trial, when I met up with another mom from my daughter’s Little Gym class. After we recognized one another, we got to chatting about classes and realized that not only do we train with our children in the same class, but we also trained at the same facility with our dogs. For either class, we each have our gear bags with all the relevant equipment, including drinks and treats.

Crates and cribs – not surprisingly, the name of this group is also an area where dog equipment and children’s equipment can be very similar. At our first flyball tournament after Shelby was born, I walked into camp and asked “where should I put Shelby’s crate?” in reference to her pack-and-play.  Many of my dog mom friends who later had children also similarly refer to their children’s cribs and travel equipment.  And after all, I’ve yet to meet a dog person who does not have at least one photo of their child happily in one of their dogs’ crates!

Shelby loves hanging out in the dogs' crates

I’m sure there are many other overlapping areas with regard to dog equipment and children’s equipment.  Do you have any to add?

The Passing of a Beloved Pet

It is with a heavy heart that I write today, as we had to put down our housemate’s nearly 17-year-old beloved pooch, Gopher, or as my 2-year-old daughter affectionately called him, “Dofers”.  I have known Gopher since he was 5 years old, when I first joined Pawdemonium Flyball Club with my then 10-month-old border collie, Claire. He was a spry and fairly fast runner then. Believed to be a golden retriever and border collie mix, we often called him the “fake Duck Toller”, as he looked very much like them, and loved water just as much.

Gopher's Smiling Face

Over the years, I have grown to know and love Gopher, and for the past year or so I’ve had the privilege of getting to live with him. My daughter has also been growing up with him, alongside our three dogs and our housemates’ other border collie.

Shelby loves dogs. She knows each dog’s name, including the dogs on our flyball team as well as the dogs of our various other friends. She enjoys giving them commands (under close supervision, of course) and tossing them cookies or toys or a tennis ball when they obey – which is most of the time.

While Shelby has not inquired as to Gopher’s whereabouts yet, I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for that moment. One part of me wishes that we had allowed her to attend the euthanasia, to say her goodbyes and see him go. But as peaceful and loving of an experience as that was, surrounded by friends, I recognize that at just 2 years, she is too young for this.  Yet, I realize that not addressing the question at all could be doing her an enormous disservice as well.

When we were at the veterinarian, the doctor recommended that we try to help Shelby understand by relating to something with which she is familiar, such as a bug which has died, but since we have a turtle to whom we feed bugs, I decided quickly that although this kind of reference would be ideal for her level of understanding,  it would not be an ideal explanation based on her experiences. My mother, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, suggested telling her that “he is up in heaven (or in the sky) now”.

According to The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, “bereavement in children too often has been trivialized or given inadequate attention”.   On their very informative website, they describe the different ways in which children grieve, based on their ages and corresponding maturity levels.  They recommend, at any age, being completely honest and telling the child that the pet has died and will not return. They also recommend that adults allow themselves to show their feelings of sadness to children in natural and normal ways, to help them better understand the process of bereavement.

Mancha with Michael

We have decided to tell Shelby that Gopher has “died and gone to heaven.” I’m sure that, like my niece who baked imaginary cookies and then tossed them skyward for my father after he passed away, Shelby will eventually understand what really happened. My goal is to prevent this moment from being traumatic in any way. My niece still mourns the loss of her beloved grandfather, but she does not seem angry at anyone about it, and while she wept at the loss of her hamster last year (her first pet) she was not visibly traumatized by this loss.  Clearly, her lessons have been positive.

In the end, we will do what we can to make this transition easy on Shelby, while helping her to understand what she can, based on her maturity level.  Ultimately, our goal is help her to have as many positive learning experiences as possible. I suppose that, morbid as it may be, this may be another advantage to pet ownership for families.  And, sadness notwithstanding, I would not give this up for the world.


Welcome to Crates and Cribs

This blog, along with it’s associated Facebook Group, started as a networking site for dog owners who became parents of human children. How is that different from parents with dogs? Well, it is difficult to explain, but the blog post of one of my friends is a start.

As anyone would tell you, dog people can be kind of different. While we all love our dogs, dog people often consider them “fur kids”, and even after having children, while we recognize that dogs are dogs and different from children, we still love our dogs as second children. True dog people who have children do not banish their dogs to the backyard when the human kids arrive.We incorporate them into our lives with kids, take them along to the park, bring the kids to our doggy events, and raise our children understanding that the dogs are a part of the family.

We do keep our children safe, via baby gates, crates, and yes, sometimes the dogs are in the yard when we cannot supervise the kids and dogs directly. But a principal difference is that, while our children are young, they are joining us at competitions and practice sessions with our dogs. Our daughter comes with me to flyball practice every weekend, and to agility practice sessions that I share with another dog mom.

In this blog, I hope to share not only great experiences with my child at dog events, but also safety tips and recommendations. And I hope that you, my readers, will also offer your suggestions for managing the kids and the dogs together at competitions, practice sessions, and other dog activities.