WE GOT HIM FOR THE KIDS!

Originally posted April 2013

The family dog probably has one of the world’s most difficult jobs.  Compare life as a family dog to life as a herding dog.  Every morning, the herding dog wakes up with the sheep, guides them to pasture and moves them from place to place.  Between times, the dog rests and relaxes and at meal times goes up to the house to get a meal.  The family dog however gets up with mom or dad earlier than the kids and likely goes out to the bathroom, and for many family dogs, that is the last predictable thing that happens all day.  The kids get up, and Michael, eight, who is supposed to feed the dog,  has a throat infection.  Sally, ten, has a report due at school and she wants to spend time finishing that instead of taking the dog out for his morning play session.  Mom has to reschedule her morning meeting with the lawyer so that she can take Michael to the doctor and she is busy hustling Sally through her report and breakfast so that she can make the bus.  Dad is in the kitchen making breakfast so that Sally and Mom can get their mornings started but the griddle won’t heat up and he has a bowl full of pancake batter sitting on the counter and all the other frying pans are dirty.  He puts the pancake mix in the fridge and gets out cold cereal, all while Michael is complaining that he can’t eat because his throat is sore.  Meanwhile, the dog is bugging Michael for his breakfast and Mom and Dad are so frazzled that it doesn’t immediately occur to them them that Michael is feeling so crummy that he hasn’t gotten to feeding the dog.  The day often devolves from there.

Yes, the dog gets fed and he gets walked, but often the expectations we have for family pets is a little out of line with reality for the pet.  Often I hear “Fluffy belongs to the kids, and she is their responsibility”.  I am certain that most parents don’t really think that Fluffy is entirely the kid’s responsibility, but too often it is presented as though the dog is their whole responsibility.  If we re-framed this about a younger sibling things would look much different.

Imagine for a moment we weren’t talking about Fluffy but rather Ryan, Michael and Sally’s younger sibling.  Imagine for a moment that Mom and Dad got up in the morning and changed young Ryan’s diaper, and then it was Michael’s responsibility to feed young Ryan and Sally’s responsibility to get him dressed and ready for the day.  The idea that an eight  year old and a ten year old would be responsible for a young child is appalling, and yet we hear this regularly in our puppy classes.  In one family, if the child did not feed the dog, he went hungry.  And if the other children didn’t toilet the dog outside, they had to live with the mess inside until one of the children took it upon themselves to clean it up, usually with much nagging and screaming on the part of the other members of the household.

I am a person who strongly believes that we don’t give your youth enough freedom and responsibility in our society.  As a Scout leader for many years, I was constantly faced with boundaries that we were not permitted to allow our kids to cross, often limits that made little or no sense.  When one of my groups of kids wanted to go bowling I helped them to plan the trip and reminded these 14 to 17 year old kids that they needed to figure out how they were going to pay for the trip.  No one wanted to confront the issue, so in spite of weekly reminders, they never sorted that aspect out.  On the day of the trip we all gathered and they had no money to go.  I let the group work out how they wanted to resolve it.  One of the parents stood to the side very agitated feeling that I was being unfair to the kids when he could just give them the money they needed.  I gave the kids the chance to figure out a solution, which they did.  A phone call was made and the group committee arranged to drop off the funds needed (we had arranged this ahead of time).  The desire to not let the kids miss out on something they hadn’t planned for was so strong that the parents in attendance would have bailed the kids out before they solved their problem.  I absolutely believe that kids should be permitted to fail early and often and develop resilience and problem solving abilities early.  I just don’t believe that should be done at the expense of a pet’s well being.

When a family gets a dog, the adults need to understand that it is the family dog, not the kid’s dog.  Rarely do six and seven year old kids have the resources to research an appropriate breed, purchase, arrange transport to and from the breeder, arrange and pay for veterinary visits and do all the training of a young dog.  I love having kids in class, and to make it successful we have to take a number of things into account.  First and foremost, we have to understand what a child is capable of.

Preschoolers are not capable of walking your mastiff, no matter how cute it might be in theory.  A large or giant breed dog needs only to walk quickly to knock down and drag a young child.  With preschoolers we teach them in class that they must ask their own guardians and then the dog’s person before offering to greet the dog.  If the dog chooses to back away, then the greeting is a no go, and that should be the end of it.  Often preschoolers are not as interested in greeting the dog as Mom and Dad are in having the kid greet.  Many years ago, when I was training the first service dog I ever trained, I was out in the mall with him and a mom with her toddler spotted us.  “Look” she said; “A doggy, in the mall!”  I kept walking.  The child was in her arms and clearly not interested.  She followed us down the length of the mall, through a crowded bookstore and into a coffee shop all the while babbling to her kid about the doggy in the mall, describing him, and his jacket and that he was inside the mall.  Finally the child showed interest, and she offered him the chance to pet the dog.  After this whole scene played out, I turned to face her and said “I am sorry, this is a working service dog and you may not pet him”.  Her response was interesting.  She turned beet red and said “Some people have NO manners” and left in a huff with her now screaming child.

Preschoolers are a slightly difficult group because they are interested in the world, but in short bursts.  They don’t need to have long periods of interaction to be successful.  If they are not initially interested in the dog, there is lots of stuff that we can do to make them safe around dogs other than interacting with them.  In general, my guideline for working with preschoolers and dogs is that they need to work at the speed of the preschooler and if the preschooler isn’t interested, then give them something to do along side of the dog, instead of insisting on an interaction they may not be interested in having.

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This is a beautiful idyllic image, but this dog could seriously harm the child if he bolted.  Mom and Dad should be holding a second leash!  Image credit: auremar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

5, 6 and seven year old kids are often very interested in dogs.  They may draw the dogs or spend time reading books on dogs independently.  This age group is a group that needs to learn safety rules around dogs and can assist with some of the care of a dog.  They may be able to leash walk a smaller well trained dog, but asking a 6 year old to be responsible for the exercise and feeding of any dog is really more than we should expect.  Kids in this age group can be included in training sessions where the dog already knows the behaviour.  I recently spoke with a Mom on the phone who wanted to be able to drop her six year old and their 7 month old intact male German Shepherd off at my training hall for the hour lesson.  Accepting them in the class would have been completely unrealistic in terms of training the dog or helping the seven year old to be successful with the dog.  When working with kids, it is essential that as the instructor, I set both the dog and the child up for success.  Usually this means training the dog ahead of the child and then including the child in a separate training session where the dog follows the kid’s directions and Mom or Dad assists the child in being successful.

The process of training a dog may be boring for kids if the dog doesn’t know what to do, so make sure that your dog understands what you want and then teach your kid how to make the behaviours happen.  Integrating kids into training is a matter of learning how to make the activity interesting for both your child and your dog.

About two years ago, we had a family with a Springer Spaniel come to class.  This family got it.  Everyone came to the first class.  The two kids, 7 and 9 years old, sat down near Mom and Dad with colouring books and crayons, reading material and video game.  Mom and Dad worked on our down stay exercise and then included the kids in the feeding stage.  They played statues with the kids while the dog learned to stay.  Mom and Dad worked in cooperation with one of them working with the dog and the other helping the kids to be successful.  After the stay, Dad worked on leash manners with the dog and the kids went back to their books and games.  When the dog started to get the hang of it, Mom organized the kids into stations and the dog walked back and forth between the kids, with the kids treating after Dad clicked.  This went on for all eight weeks of the classes; a beautiful dance of dog, kids and parents, working together.  When it works it works really, really well.

As kids get older, they develop better coordination and balance, strength and ability to follow directions.  By the time kids are about ten years old, they can continue work that Mom and Dad have started.  So if the parents are capturing sits, downs, stands and touches, the kids can be in charge of the clicker and the treats.  As the dog gains skills the kids can start working on chains of behaviours with the dog.  The nine to twelve year old group is developing the skills to be able to work more independently but still under direction with Mom or Dad on site.  They still are not able to take on the full responsibility for the dog though; they shouldn’t be asked to take the dog to the vet for instance.

Thirteen is the age are which we accept volunteers at Dogs in the Park in our puppy program.  In Ontario you have to do a certain number of volunteer hours in order to graduate from high school and we are pleased to be able to share our program with teens.  Young teens can be quite competent dog trainers and we allow this age group to handle their own dogs within reason.  If the dog is extremely strong or unruly, then we do not allow them to work unassisted, but if the dog is an appropriate size and temperament we allow this age group to work their own dogs provided that a parent or guardian is on site.  At this age, we love to see the ability of both the dog and the kid begin to shine.  What we don’t allow is kids under 16 to be dropped off and picked up while the child is solely responsible for the dog.  In the event of a veterinary emergency, the child would not be able to drive the dog to the vet clinic for instance.  This is just not appropriate.

Young teens can be very responsible for the family dog.  They can be responsible to feed and exercise the family dog, but parents still need to be aware of this getting done; if it isn’t done, someone needs to notice, because the dog should not take the fall for an error on the part of the child.  Veterinary care and training decisions still need to be made with the parents though; expecting a child to be solely responsible for the dog is unrealistic and unfair to your dog.

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Puppy Class is designed to help families to work with their puppies.  Children should not go to puppy class without their parents.

The key with family dogs is to recognize that an adult needs to be responsible for the dog.  We would not expect a child to be responsible for the upbringing of another child including feeding, enrichment, medical care and education.  We should not expect children to be solely responsible for the upbringing and care of a dog either.

WE GOT HIM FOR THE KIDS!

JUDGEMENT CALL

Originally posted June 2013

Humans are social animals.  For reasons that hit deep into the DNA of our species we are set up to live together in groups and to trade favours in order to get along better.  Trading favours is one way to describe an evolutionary concept called reciprocal altruism.  In other words, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours, and presumably, mutual back scratching will improve the likelihood that each of us will survive long enough to pass along our genes.  One of the most important ways that we have to trade favours is to warn one another of dangers, especially if they are avoidable.

What would you do if you observed the following:

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Image credit: waldru / 123RF Stock Photo

Would you call out?  Would you help?  If you knew a train was coming, would that impact your choice of response?  Would you be angry if someone tried to help?  Think about it.  As an adult coming across a child playing on railroad tracks, if I saw this, I would say something, especially if I knew that a train might come along.

In the past two weeks, I have three times been accused of interfering, being judgemental and being an expert without empathy.  Maybe that is a sign that people are beginning to read my blog.  Maybe I am just rude; not my intent, but I would allow for that as a possibility.  Maybe people know that they are doing things that are not a terribly good idea.  And what have I alerted on that is so horrible?  I have told people when their dogs were showing signs of stress in images.

The point has been made that the images are but a moment in time, and this is entirely true.  When a camera takes an image, it is taking a picture of that one instant in time.  Have a look at the image below, and think about what you see.  Is the child happy?  Or sad?  In the moment, there is a definite emotional event happening.  Believe it or not showing an image of a child who is sad in the moment does not mean that child has a terrible life; it means that at one instant in time, the child was unhappy and a picture was taken.

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Would you send your kid to basketball camp, if this were the type of image that was used in advertizing the camp?  Do you think your child would be interested in going to basketball camp so that he or she could feel this way too?  Image credit: duplass / 123RF Stock Photo

Now let’s think about advertizing.  If you were looking for a child’s dance class, would you want to take your child there if all the images of the children in the advertizing literature were crying?  This is a situation I face when I cruise through the websites of some of my competition.  I see page after page of accurately working dogs who universally look unhappy.  I see long series of pictures of classes full of dogs showing whale eye, pinned ears, head drops and occasionally a snarl.

I also face this day in and day out when I see family pictures of my non dog training friend’s and their dogs.  I see children hugging dogs, and people putting dogs in awkward positions, and the dogs are clearly showing signs of discomfort and distress.  In fact, a lot of the images I see are not just dogs who look sad, but dogs who are in the early sequence of getting ready to bite.

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I see this sort of image in my Facebook feed on a daily basis.  This dog is helpless and unhappy and has begun to bite the child.  Often the image is posted with a caption such as “Missy and her new puppy are bonding; aren’t they cute?”  All I can think about is “If I don’t say something, this child is going to get hurt.  I don’t want the child to get hurt.”  Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo

When I talk to people about these pictures, they regularly tell me that the dog often looked like that and was perfectly happy and that the dog never hurt anyone.  I am tired of telling people that they were darned lucky.  All too often, I get first contact with a family after the dog has bitten and often after the dog has bitten a child.  Here is a news flash; dogs don’t like being hugged or kissed.  They really don’t.  When you look at hundreds of images of dogs showing signs of stress and you know you are going to be talking to the families at some point down the road about behaviours that lead to biting, then it is incredibly frustrating to hear that you are being mean, unkind, thoughtless or misusing your education when you speak up.  For me, to see an image of a child hugging a dog, while the dog is giving whale eye, is squinting, or has pinned ears is like looking at a picture of a kid running into traffic.  It turns my stomach and makes my blood run cold.  The reason that I get so upset about these images is not that I don’t want people to have great experiences with their pets; it is because if a bite comes and I didn’t speak out, I feel like I was complicit.  It feels like I could have prevented a bite, if only people didn’t think I was attacking them.

Several of my colleagues have pointed out that I am willing to do unpleasant things to dogs from time to time in order to suppress or decrease behaviours, and that not everything we do to dogs is always wonderful and pleasant.  My colleagues; you are right.  The images I am talking about are moments in time, and they show the dogs in discomfort or distress for that moment.  I am not saying that the dog is being abused, or that the dog’s welfare is at risk; I am saying that at that moment in time, the dog is uncomfortable.  Sometimes the dog is showing me that he will bite and soon.  When people use these pictures to show their best work, it is a sad situation.  When people knowlingly put their dogs into this sort of a situation, and then take a picture of that situation, it is not fair to the dog.

So here is my problem.  I see the situation.  I comment.  Inevitably, someone takes offence that I have an opinion.  Sometimes they get angry.  Usually they are upset.  Should I comment?  I feel compelled to comment for so many reasons.  Like the Lorax, I speak for a creature who cannot speak for himself.  When I am working as a behaviour consultant, I advocate for the dog within the family.  Often when people can see the discomfort they can change what they do, and the dog’s overall welfare improves.  Not only that but the safety of the family improves.  When it works, I feel like I am contributing in a positive way to society.  When it doesn’t I feel outcaste and like a failure.  When I cannot reach the client or the family or the community and a bite happens, I feel even worse.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not all about me, but on the other hand it is.  As a society we have grown so far away from our agrarian roots that we often don’t recognize the signs of stress in our dogs.  When we recognize them, we often dismiss them as unimportant.  We put ourselves and our dogs into situations that are unpleasant and often dangerous.  We have both high and low expectations of ourselves and we translate those expectations on our dogs.  We expect that life will be hard and we put up with that.  We expect that our dogs will tolerate discomfort and put up with that too.  How is this about me?  It is about me because I have been trained to recognize the signs of stress in dogs.  Once you know what you are looking for, it is really hard not to do something when you see the signs.

When I point out a dog in distress this is not a judgement about you or who you are, or your family or your value to society or if you have a nice dog or a not nice dog.  This is not a judgement about the choices you made.  I assume, correctly more often than not, that you don’t see the signs of stress because you don’t have the training I do.  This isn’t a bad thing, it is just a thing.  When I point out that a dog is in distress, and I tell you about it, to me it is like telling you your shoelace is undone.  I want to participate in the co-operative behaviour of a society and protect you so that if I am in danger and you know about it, you will tell me.  For me, this is no more judgemental than “I noticed that you didn’t turn off the stove when you left the kitchen; shall I go check and turn it off so we don’t burn down the house?”

This blog is a bit of a rant, and I am aware of that.  I don’t often write about how my job impacts my life, but it does.  When I go to a family picnic and I see a dog being harassed by the kids, the picnic is no longer any fun for me because I know that the dog is uncomfortable and that the only way he can avoid the discomfort is to warn and then bite those who are causing discomfort.  If I say something, then I risk that you will think that I am judging you and ruin your day.  If I don’t say something then I risk that I will be sitting in yet another appointment with a friend or a family member and have to explain to them why their dog bit their child.  Some of the time, not saying something results in the dog behaving so dangerously that the family chooses to kill the dog.  For me, the stakes are very high, and the last thing I want to do is share in the heartbreak of yet another family who got a dog because they love dogs, and end up afraid of dogs because mishandling led to a tragedy.

JUDGEMENT CALL

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Every year at this time, I start preparing my clients for the holiday season, and every year, I come up against the same thing; families want to include their dogs, but they often have very unrealistic ideas about what their dogs should be doing with their families.  People want their dogs to be part of gift opening activities, however, they don’t want the dogs to take every gift from under the tree and tear it apart.  People want their dogs to be around during the holiday feast, but they don’t want him to beg at the table.  And families like to include dogs in greeting the guests at the front door.  The problem is that everyone has this idea that it is somehow or another going to all work out, without ever preparing their dog for the big day.  Incidentally, I see this in families who want to include their dogs in their weddings, funerals (yes, I had a client who wanted her dog to go to her late husband’s funeral, and called up to ask my advice on how to best include him!), birthdays and other family events.

I like to include my dogs in most of my activities too, and so people are often surprised that they may come to visit me and never see my dogs.  I am actually more likely to bring a dog to visit you than you are to see one of my dogs when you come to visit me.  I feel like saying that the reason for this is that I am a control freak, and that would not be untrue but there is a lot more to it than that.  It starts from the point that I really want my dogs to be successful.  I really, really want them to be successful.  Yes, they goof, but the vast majority of time, after people have met my dogs they say things like “wow, I wish my dogs behaved as well as that!”

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Including your dog when visiting is an art that includes actually training the dog. This dog has been taught to sit and stay in a relaxed way with his family, showing that the family has prepared the dog for a group portrait.

The way that my dogs get such a stellar reputation is simply that I train them to do what I want them to do and then I plan interactions to compliment what they know.  All my dogs know how to do a one hour down stay by the time they are 6 months, so if I have to take them somewhere, I can depend on them to lie down and stay for at least an hour.  This means that I can start taking them quiet places to visit for up to an hour at a time so long as their other needs for food, water, exercise and social contact have been met.  This can be a lot of fun.  I can go out with a friend for coffee somewhere, or I can go to someone’s home, or they can come to visit me.  In this way I teach my young dogs that there is an expectation about the down stay no matter where it happens.  The thing about this is that I don’t take my pups out with people who are going to upset my training plans.  I only take them places where I know they will be supported and successful in what I want them to learn.  If you are the type of guest who is going to tease my dog out of her down stay and into play, then she can rest in her crate while I am visiting with you.  If you have kids who might be too quick or too much fun for a puppy to resist joining in the fun with, then she can rest in her crate, where she won’t learn bad habits right off the bat.

With my older dogs, who know the drill, I will have them out while you visit, if I am confident that you are the kind of guest who knows how to mind their manners around my dogs.  I expect that my dogs are going to mind their manners around my guests, but by extension, I expect that my guests will mind their manners around my dogs.  When I am visiting with you, you are the person I am interested in, so I want to be able to spend my time focusing on you!  I don’t need to spend all my time pleading with my guests so that they are not getting my dogs unnecessarily excited, and I don’t want to spend my time with you chastising my dogs if they goof and forget their manners.  So unless and until I am very certain that my dogs cannot be tempted out of their down stays, it is most likely that they won’t be coming out of their crates or the yard if you are at my house for a short visit.

If you are visiting for more than an hour or so, I usually make some time for an activity that everyone is going to enjoy with my dogs.  If I have a new adult dog in my home, who doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the training to participate, you still won’t meet that dog.  It isn’t fair to the dog to be asked to behave himself when he doesn’t understand the rules.  If people are up for it, we can go for an off leash walk around the farm at a time that works out for the rest of our day.  If people don’t want to go for a walk, we sometimes go out for a game of fetch, one dog at a time.  In the event that people don’t want to go outside, then I will bring the dogs out one at a time, to do some tricks and maybe play some scent games.  What I do with my dogs and you will depend upon who you are, what your experiences are with my dog or dogs, and what the activity is for the day.

So how do you include your dog in the holidays while also making sure that your dog is going to be successful?  As always, it depends.  If I am expecting your family to my home in the mid afternoon, to stay for two nights, and participate in two formal meals, brunch, gift giving and the normal hubbub that comes along with a houseful of people who don’t normally live there, I am going to give some thought to how to set up for success.  If I am going to visit you, the process is analogous, as I will outline below.

Dog tearing up Christmas present
Gift giving is a large part of many traditions! If your dog does not already know how to automatically leave items that are not his, leaving him to his own devices during the holidays almost always results in a dog who gets into something he ought not. This may result in something funny, but it could also make someone who worked really hard on the perfect gift really upset, and rightly so! Managing expectations, using crates and leashes and teaching your dog what you expect of him is a better choice than allowing him to cause this sort of upset.

When I am expecting guests, I always make certain that my dogs get a really good run before you are expected to arrive.  For my dogs that usually means getting them out and off leash, preferably in a group of other dogs.  This is fairly easy for me; we live in the country, in a place where we have over forty trails to choose from and we know a lot of dog families so getting real exercise is not terrifically difficult for me.  If I am going to go visit someone, I always look for a walking trail on the way where I can stop for at least 40 minutes to run my dog or dogs.  I want to start out a guest experience, either as a host or as a guest with a dog who is not full of beans and silliness.

Once I get that out of the way, when I get home, I make sure that I have a good supply of toys pre-stuffed to give my dogs in their crates.  Stuffing Kongs properly means knowing your dog very well, and understanding how they work on toys.  With naïve dogs, I will just put kibble and chunks of treats such as liver, sausage or cheese loosely in the Kong.  I will put the whole thing upside down in a coffee mug so things don’t fall out while stored.  With more experienced dogs, I will do the same thing, but add a plug made from sausage or cheese.  Locally we can get a product called Rollover (https://rolloverpetfood.com/product/beef-dog-food/ ) that works very well to plug a kong.  There are many brands the world over of this type of product.  With dogs who are really good at this, I will use Rollover to lock in the kibble on multiple levels; I will alternate a layer of kibble with a layer of rollover until the Kong is completely stuffed.  Kongs stuffed in this way can be dropped, thrown, or bounced and they won’t spontaneously empty.  For the truly serious Kong chewer, I will freeze these to make emptying them really difficult.  Although I mention Kongs here, there are now a wide variety of toys available to stuff.  Just make sure that you can blow through the toy so that you don’t create a vapour lock that can suck your dog’s tongue into the toy.  You can find my blog on safe toys at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/safe-toys/ .

Once I have a well exercised dog, and a pile of stuffed toys ready, then I am ready to entertain you.  If I am travelling, I bring the toys with me.  Regardless of if I am answering the door or ringing the doorbell, that initial excitement is not part of my dog’s lives because they are in crates when it happens.  Usually they don’t have a Kong at this point.  If I am arriving at your house, my dogs are in their crates in the vehicle, and if you are arriving at my home, my dogs are usually crated for about a half an hour before you arrive. 

You may be wondering why I do it this way.  When dogs are permitted to greet every single guest every single time, they never learn to do that politely.  Imagine for a moment if your closest friend greeted you the way most dogs greet people at the door.  Imagine how you might feel for instance if your dad or your uncle were to rush the door yelling and hooting and hollering, and then leapt up at you and tackled you to the ground.  Even if the intent was benign, you would not be pleased.  When my dogs are well enough trained to lie quietly and approach gently, they can greet people at the door.  I use behaviours such as the one hour down stay (https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/the-racehorse-down-stay/ ) proofed against doors to teach my dogs what to do but I don’t allow my dogs to just greet.  Usually when I am visiting for two nights, I have a pile of things to bring in and I leave my dogs in their crates in the vehicle until I am ready to bring the rest of my things in. 

Often if you are visiting me, I will have coffee waiting, and we can sit down to visit a little, and this is when I like to bring my dogs out.  My dogs understand that people sitting around drinking coffee means that they should find a place to settle.  If I have a young or naïve dog, I will often bring him in on leash, and have treats available so that I can reward him for calm and quiet behaviour.  Once you and the dogs have had a chance to meet quietly, either by you going to them to give them treats, or they coming and sitting beside you to get a treat, then they are free to go about their day.  People have often commented when they stay with me about how my dog’s “excited” greeting is very low key.  They are obviously pleased to meet you, however they are not whining, jumping up or knocking you over.

If I am visiting, I usually bring yellow mats for my dogs (dogs see yellow and blue, so I want something that they will recognize as their own) and they do a down stay once we are in the house.  When I am visiting, my dogs are not allowed to move freely through your house without permission.  They don’t know the rules of your house, and I don’t want them to be in your way.  When I move from one place to another in the house, they follow me, either because they have been taught to do that, or because they are on leash. 

Cute little Shiba Inu dog lying on doormat at home
Go lie on your mat is one of the essential behaviours that my dogs need to know to help them be successful guest dogs and host dogs. I look at my dog’s mat as his chair at the table. I can decide where he needs to lie, and make sure that everyone knows not to disturb him there. This includes your dog in your activities without creating the kind of chaos that can occur when he doesn’t know where he should be or what he should do.

There is an exception to these rules for my dogs.  If you know my dogs really well, and you know how I want you to interact with my dogs, then I may allow them to meet you at the door.  Friday has a young friend who visits a few times a year, and when she comes to visit, Friday will circle her and smile, and she will bend over and tickle Friday all over.  They are delightful to watch because their behaviour is highly reciprocal.  I contrast this with most greetings is a dog who is so excited and who has no idea about what is expected, and a human who spends most of her effort fighting off the affections of the dog.  This is not a healthy greeting, and it doesn’t reflect what I expect of my dogs or of my guests.

Once the guest/host greeting phase is over, my dogs are usually fairly settled and behave towards my guests as they would towards John and me; they are happy and relaxed, but they don’t spend all their time overwhelming people with their exuberance.  If at any time they are struggling with what I believe is appropriate and healthy interactions, I will take them back to their crates, give them a stuffed toy to keep them amused, and then go back to visiting.

At meals, my dogs will either be in their crates with their dinners, or lying quietly behind my chair.  I don’t want my dogs to learn to bother people who are eating, and I don’t want either my host or my guest to teach my dog bad manners by rewarding behaviours that I don’t like, so most often my dogs are crated through dinner.  Given that holiday feasts are often accompanied by candles and multiple courses that have to be served and cleared away, this makes things easier for everyone.  My dogs love their crates, so this is easy for us.  I feed all meals at home in crates so that I can see who is eating, and who is not, and so that I can ensure that with multiple dogs, no one eats anyone else’s food.

Often holiday visits include gifts exchanges.  If I have a dog who is really savvy about guests, I will have them do a down stay as part of the activity, however if they are not, then they spend that time in their crates.  It is a short period of time in my dog’s life, but it can make such a difference in the memories that are created at the holidays.  Consider for instance if someone has spent a lot of time and effort planning a special gift for another person and the dog completely overshadows the experience.  You want the gift giver and recipient to remember the exchange, not how the dog jumped into the picture and stole the show, or worse how the dog destroyed the gift itself because he didn’t know how to keep his paws to himself.

In between meals and gifts, I still need to meet my dog’s needs for food, training and exercise.  Often this is an opportunity to include family members in activities where they can more actively interact with my dogs.  When this is not possible, I may do a few tricks here and there.  This serves to give the dog a role in the gathering, and also to give people who may not know my dogs to interact with them in a way that I can control.  It is a win/win when the dog has a role and is appreciated for himself.

Senior man practicing tricks with dog
Tricks can be a great way to include your dog in the holiday activities, and part of the fun is that you can break almost all the rules! Normally I would not encourage a dog to put his feet on the dinner table but in this case, being at the height of the high five recipient means that the old man doesn’t need to bend down to participate! Setting clear rules for your dog when teaching the trick makes this a safe and fun activity.

All of this requires planning and training, and certainly it is not how everyone experiences holidays with their dogs.  I wrote this blog after a Facebook exchange with a colleague who was lamenting her experiences visiting with her dog.  A number of trainers chimed in with their horror stories of visiting with dogs, and I mentioned that when I had guests, often my dogs would stay in their crates.  We were all surprised to find out how many of us crated our dogs when guests arrived, and how few of our non-professional trainer friends did not.  I often see posts on social media saying things like “the dog lives here, you don’t” along with a laundry list of poor behaviours that I should expect when visiting that person’s home.  When I visit, I am not coming to be drooled on, sat, on, pestered, or hassled into play.  Yes, my dogs live here.  No, I don’t expect them to make visiting me a chore.

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

KIDS TRAINING DOGS

Originally posted June 2013

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.

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We LOVE to include children in our classes, and it works best when the adults help to tailor the activities so that the children and the dogs are successful, such as at this socialization party.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

KIDS TRAINING DOGS