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.

Little girl playing with dog at home
This girl and her dog are probably just “fooling around” with some treats and tricks. In order to achieve this kind of relationship, the dog has to have great manners, and understand the training process, as does the child. With some careful set up and planning we can make this happen. Once the dog and the child both have some basics, this is what happens; the kid and the dog start to play with training. That is really how I achieved the magic I had with my dog Thurber when I was a kid.

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.

15340398 - very young girl riding on pony
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.

84358253 - little girl training a corgi dog at the park
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.



Originally published on May 10, 2013   After getting a puppy, the next most exciting thing you get to do is buy puppy toys!  Dogs enjoy toys and a good selection of toys is a great foundation for good environmental enrichment.  An enriched environment helps dogs grow better brains and develop better problem solving capabilities.  There are now thousands of different toys on the market to choose from and it can be difficult to determine which toys are safe and which ones are not. I use three criteria to decide if a toy is safe.  The first is the size.  The toy must be large enough to not be a choking hazard.  The second thing to consider is the integrity of the toy; are there bits that can come off?  The third thing that I consider is the hardness; can you twist the toy in your hands?  If you cannot twist it then it is too hard for your puppy’s teeth. Let’s consider size.  When you look at your dog’s lower jaw, you can feel where it is widest.  All your toys should be longer than the widest part of your dog’s lower jaw.  If the toys are not longer than this, they can get stuck between his back teeth or worse he could choke on them.

When you look into this dog’s mouth, you can see the distance between his upper back teeth. Toys must be large enough to not get past these teeth or your dog might choke.
Using your fingers on the outside of your dog's jaw you can measure the width of his jaw.  All toys must be larger than this to be safe.
Using your fingers on the outside of your dog’s jaw you can measure the width of his jaw. All toys must be larger than this to be safe.

Integrity of each toy is another part you need to look at.  If the toy has broken parts, we have to make certain that they cannot come off of the toy.  Some toys are glued or fused together and they can come apart and become a choking hazard.  When purchasing toys, check to make sure that they do not have loose parts that could come away and choke your dog, but even with toys that are a single piece, make sure that bits have not been chewed away releasing a potential choking hazard.

This rope toy is a serious choking hazard, not to mention that if your dog does swallow strings and they get entangled in his gut, then they will be really hard to find if your vet needs to surgically remove them.
This rope toy is a serious choking hazard, not to mention that if your dog does swallow strings and they get entangled in his gut, then they will be really hard to find if your vet needs to surgically remove them.

Rope toys are generally longer than your dog’s jaw is wide, but they contain a special choking issue.  Because rope toys are made of strings twisted together, as the puppy chews, the individual strings can come away from the larger rope and become a choking hazard.  Some rope toys have been sold as dental products, indicating that they might naturally floss the dog’s teeth.  If you cut these toys up, you will often find that they are made of soft cotton string that disintegrates when tension is put on the individual strings.  These small pieces of string can easily be swallowed and create a blockage in your dog’s gut. Toy blockages are a veterinary nightmare for the dog, for the owner and also for the veterinarian.  The last thing you want to do is to cut open your dog’s gut to search for bits of toy, but if your dog has a blockage that is the only way to get items out.  These surgeries are highly risky and exceedingly painful for your dog.  Prevention is the best medicine. The final criterion that we are interested in with toys is hardness.  Bones are the traditional item to give a dog to chew and most dogs really do love them.  Some diets call for you to give your dog raw bones.  The risk with bones is that they may leave scratches and chips or worse, slab fractures on your dog’s teeth.  Veterinary dentists now recommend that you test your toys be twisting them in your hands.  If you can twist the toy in your hands, then it is not too hard for your dog’s teeth. Many people still like to give their dogs organic treats such as rawhides, beef pizzles, pig ears and other bits of dried animal tissues.  Almost every dog will eat these but there are some issues with these too.  It is very easy for a dog to bite off a piece of rawhide and choke.  Bits of organic toys can become trapped in your dog’s gut and then swell creating a serious blockage; much like a string toy.  One of the real difficulties with these items is that they are animal flesh, making it even more difficult to find them inside your dog if there is a problem. In terms of tooth damage, there is one more toy that bears consideration.  The tennis ball.  Too small to safely meet the needs of most dogs, its surface has also been implicated in enamel wear in dogs.  If you are going to play ball with your dog, it is important to choose a ball that will not wear down his teeth.  In Canada we have something called a street hockey ball, bright orange and smooth plastic that met the requirements of Dr. Haws, the veterinary dentist who advised us about the risks of hard toys and tennis balls. Once you have determined that a toy is a safe toy, then you can classify them into a number of different categories.  The first category is the toy you and your dog play with together.  Then there are the toys that your dog might play with alone.  Finally there are pooch pacifiers.  Tugs, balls and puzzles fall into this category.  Amongst these toys are items that may be hard, but are not intended to be chewed, such as wobblers-the very large hard plastic toys that dispense food when your dog makes them wobble.  They have a hole in them for the food to come out, and they are heavily weighted so that they spring back up once the dog stops moving them. Many puzzles have small parts for the dog to remove in order to get to a treat; under supervision, some dogs can play very safely with these toys.  They are intended to be shared between an owner and the dog, and dogs should not be left unattended with these toys.  You can teach your dog many things with puzzles including how to solve problems and how to find things he cannot see.  When a dog is stuck with obedience exercises, we often reach for the puzzle toys to help the dog to start to think more creatively.

This lab is playing with a puzzle toy under supervision.  Puzzle toys like this are great for teaching dogs to think
This lab is playing with a puzzle toy under supervision. Puzzle toys like this are great for teaching dogs to think “outside of the box” but are suitable only for dogs who are supervised and willing to give up the small parts that could be potential choking hazards.

Tugs are usually made of fabric, and fabric is usually made of strings or threads.  We will use these for tug games, and keep in mind that a loose thread can result in a pulled tooth or injured mouth.  After each tug session it is important to go over the item carefully and cut away any loose threads or loops of thread to make the toy safe.  If the toy becomes excessively worn, then you should discard the toy. Toys that you use to play with your dog can be very important tools in training.  The very best training is like play; you take turns, you get behaviours you want and the dog gets to have or do things he wants.  We even have a special name for training that involves behaviours as reinforcement for behaviours; we call it Premack.  When you ask your dog to sit before you throw a ball, then you are using the Premack principle to reinforce sitting.  The best play between dogs and people has clear rules were everyone can get what they want out of the activity.

First you do a cued behaviour.....
First you do a cued behaviour…..
And then we click and tug!  This form of play training has its own special name; we call it Premack.  Notice that although the trainer is using a rope toy, it is a rope in good condition that does not risk broken strings that could be swallowed.
And then we click and tug! This form of play training has its own special name; we call it Premack. Notice that although the trainer is using a rope toy, it is a rope in good condition that does not risk broken strings that could be swallowed.

The next category of toys are those toys that your dog may play with when you are not around.  These toys include some of the larger rubber puzzles, really tough Frisbees, large kongs, herding balls, and other items that your dog can engage with, either by himself or with another dog or dogs.  These items need to be really indestructible and you must check them regularly to ensure that they remain safe and are not damaged. The final group of toys, the pooch pacifiers, are toys that we can use to help the dog settle and stay calm and quiet.  These are stuffed kongs, legal chew items and items your dog finds soothing.  We have seen dogs who have a favourite cushion, bed or blanket that they really snuggle into and relax with.  Pooch pacifiers are not intended to get the dogs thinking, but rather to get them to relax and rest while we are either away or doing things that cannot include the dog.  These are great tools for when you have workmen in your home and you don’t want to interrupt what they are doing.

ADDENDUM:  May 6, 2015

Recently a Weimerainer made the news when he got his tongue trapped inside a rubber toy.  The toy was the right size and it was not too hard for him, so what happened?  The toy (it looks like one of the new Nerf dog toys) only had one hole.  When the dog deformed the toy with his mouth, and then released it, a negative pressure zone was created and his tongue was sucked in.  Once his tongue was inside the toy, a vaccuum was created and he could not get it out.  As blood pumped into his tongue, it became swollen making matters even worse!

Inspect all of your rubber toys and make sure they have a vent hole to prevent this from happening.  To test them, simply form a seal around the obvious hole with your lips and blow hard.  If you can blow through the toy it is safe.  If you cannot, then you must either carve a hole to allow air to come in and out when a dog’s tongue is inside the obvious hole, or discard the toy.  Be very careful when purchasing toys to ensure that they will not create a vaccuum in the toy if it is deformed!  We were very excited when we saw Nerf’s new line of dog toys, but when we inspected them, we could not recommend them because none of them have an escape hole.  We contacted Nerf twice via their website and got no response.  We urge consumers to alert Nerf to this danger and hopefully their otherwise terrific toys will be remodelled so that they are safe for our dogs.