Kids Teaching Dogs
The intentions are great but is the scene reality? Can kids train dogs? The answer, of course, has a lot of variables and most proud parents would nod a quick affirmative if asked this question but the problem posed is… are we asking too much of both parties?
During class a few weeks ago we observed a small 7 year old boy intently trying to adjust a dog treat waist pouch to fit his slim waist. His mom stood by and encouraged him. I knew that what I was about to say to them would not make me popular. Questioning why her son was making these adjustments, his mother came out with the famous line that all dog trainers are familiar with - "it's his dog and he needs to learn." While I did agree with the concept of her son needing to learn (and I do think the kids have to take on some degree of responsibility) I personally think a young child will have too much difficulty in this setting to teach the lessons to the dog.
And who comes out the winner?
In a puppy pre-school class things might be a bit different. You have younger, more compliant pups that have yet to enter adolescence. The kids do a great job at luring and rewarding and certainly contribute to the social aspects of the class. Things change when the dog is a little older.
Adolescent dogs make up the majority of dogs in most dog training classes. These dogs are in some formative months and need to be taught in a clear, consistent manner. We teach the importance of timing and catching behaviors that we find desirable in order to help our dogs understand what we want. The vast majority of dog training classes are set up with adults in mind. They move along at a steady pace and they take certain things for granted during instruction. Keep in mind that if you question any adult who has taken a class with their pooch, they will tell you it is like learning a new skill and it takes time, patience and a good understanding of learning theory.
Lets look at frustration levels. With the kids you will not only find they have a limited attention span but also that their frustration can be quite evident. After all, they are expected to listen and learn what to do, and then at the same time teach it to their dog. These dogs are not sitting quietly beside them, waiting for instruction. These dogs are usually pulling, jumping and barking for at least the first session or two. In some cases you have the problem of the dogs outweighing the children and in others it will be the energy level of the smaller dogs that make the training task challenging.
Add to this mix the fact that the kids tend to compare themselves and the behaviors of their dogs to the other people and dogs around them. You will often see them look confused or upset when the dog beside them is doing a nice sit/stay and their pup is bounding around. With their families looking on, it can seem overwhelming for some of them. If you also add an over-achieving parent into the mix, it seems to be lot to ask.
Lets look at the other end of the leash and the frustration of the family dog. Usually up to this point, the children have been observed as siblings or playmates by the dog and indeed, this is one reason the parent feels the child should train the dog. Instantly the roles are reversed and the dogs may challenge that in the beginning. You have dogs that have no information on what is expected from them. As the frustration levels of the child increases, the dogs seem to become more upset and rambunctious. The dogs are looking for guidance and patience. It could be that both adults and kids are equal in their frustration at the beginning of dog training classes but most adults have learnt over the years to mask it or control themselves.
Of course, there are those children who seem to have a knack for dealing with the family pet. They show a sense of responsibility and pride and lets face it, have a lot more time than the parents to do the homework required each week!
So, where does that leave us?
Certainly kids should learn how to handle their dogs but perhaps having them do the bulk of the training is not the best idea. The best idea is for the parent to take responsibility for teaching the dogs how to behave. They should go to classes and learn how to teach and manage their dog. Once the dog has mastered a certain word, then have the children learn how to handle the dog. Have them understand what to do and when to reward the dog for doing it. This way the dog is less frustrated while learning and the kids can feel a bit more at ease while handling an already trained dog.
People become confused. It is not the training of the dog that counts, it is being able to handle the dog. It doesn't matter who in the family teaches the dog to sit before going out the door, what matters is that the whole family is able to get the dog to do the exercise.
This theory may not be the popular one, but it works very well. As dog trainers we have to take into account that our main objective is to have the dogs learn in a comfortable situation.
The bottom line for everyone is that the kids and dogs live in harmony and establish a nice, loving, respectful relationship. That is the scene we all imagined.
This article was written by Gillian Ridgeway, Director of Who's Walking Who - The Smartest Way To Train Your Dog. For more information, visit: www.whoswalkingwho.net.