Originally posted July 2013, updated and edited
When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks. The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now. We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more. My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together. I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right. That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me. I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.
As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training. Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was. Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child. This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs. The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.
How can we make this more successful for the kids? For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids. Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with. We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class. Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.
As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world. It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse. Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses. We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work. When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse. When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges. By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.
|This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony). She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment. The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved. We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse. Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class! Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo|
This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs. When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together. When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.
In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively. Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part. Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating. By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things. It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat. It helps with your timing. It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity. Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.
When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training. When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training. You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children. Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows. Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat. This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer. When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog. This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment. When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once. I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.
Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat. When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours. The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning. It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.
I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape. Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal. Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay. Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with. The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down. Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat. If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down. Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.
Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child. Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently. You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom. Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team. These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged. It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.
|This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do. The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance. If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!|
Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context. This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer. If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities. You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down. Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog. It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.
Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child. Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog. We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated. It is better to teach your dog the behaviours you want him to learn and then repeat those behaviours in class with your kids. You can step in if you need, but generally, if the dog knows the behaviour the kid can retrain that easily and successfully.
When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone. Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too. As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes. From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart. Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!
And what about the child who takes a class and is successful? When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need. Then the child gets what I got as a child. A magic relationship with another being. That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.