Including Children in Your Dog Training Program

DSC_0065 - Version 2By Erica Marshall, CPDT-KA
Wicked Good Dog Training

Families with children and dogs can be some of our most fun clients, and also some of our most challenging. Getting children involved in the care and training of their family dog is a win-win for everyone. It affords us the opportunity to educate both parents and children, it creates a more consistent environment for the dog and it makes you a vital part of their success (which can only be good for business and word of mouth). But how can we safely and effectively incorporate the smallest family members into the programs we create for their dog?

Group class programs

If you have a family in a group class setting, it’s important to make expectations, rules and boundaries very clear. Having at least one adult per child is the best way to ensure the dog does not become a secondary focus during class. Having an age limit for a class setting is a good idea as well. I have found children under six rarely do well in a group class setting and can increase the risk of inappropriate interactions with strange dogs.

A six-year-old is perfectly capable of following simple instructions, like “toss the cookie”, “ask for a sit” and “be a statue”. The challenge with six year olds is that their attention span can wane. Asking if the child can be in charge of the treats and perhaps break them into smaller bits for their parent would be a good way to keep them involved indirectly. Kids generally love to help, have a job and be included, which can all be used to your advantage.

Children in group class can also be asked to be mild distractions for exercises such as “stay” or “leave it.” Allowing a child to wiggle, be silly, make funny noises or even perhaps run across the room from a good distance away can serve to help your clients work on their dog’s self-control behaviors. It’s an extra job as an instructor to take on the task of clearly directing the child, and obviously the parent needs to be in agreement, but it can be tremendously helpful and a great way to engage the child in a way they enjoy and that is beneficial for the students.

An older child, middle school age and up, can do any number of tasks involved with training such as treat delivery, recall games and behavior cues, like “sit”, “down”, “look”, etc. Depending on the size of the dog and age of the child, pre-teens and teenagers could be given the role of lead trainer, taking turns with their parent. Kids are often better at timing and reinforcement rates than adults!

Private training programs

If you are working with a family in a private lesson setting, many of the same techniques can be applied. Even if you are working an aggression case, there are still things that children in the home need to learn—like when to call for adult help, how to “be a statue”, not to touch toys or food and what body language looks like and means.

For infants and toddlers, the main training program focus is on safety, management and supervision; yet even within those parameters a toddler can be part of the process. Separated by a baby gate, a toddler can toss treats to their puppy or dog on the other side; placing value for the dog being on the other side of the gate. From behind that gate, if the child is verbal, the “sit” cue can be given and rewarded as well.

Elementary aged children can help with treat delivery, behavior cues, learning how to “be a statue”, toss toys as reinforcement (as long as the adult is the one taking the toy from the dog), help with food dispensing, toy preparation and simple trick training, like “speak”, “spin”, and “paws on.” They can play training games with the dog like name recognition, round robin recall, hide and seek, fetch, etc. Giving the children the “fun” behaviors to work on can ensure success for both the dog and the child, as each of them prefer activities that are positive and exciting.

Engaging the child in teaching tricks or using some basic backyard agility equipment can not only involve the child, but also be incorporated into the training program to increase a dog’s mental stimulation and physical exercise. My own 9-year-old daughter took our small dog through a tricks class, and at the end put together a routine to perform at her elementary school talent show. It was a huge success and she was so proud of herself. It was a great bonding experience for her and for our dog.

Ask older children to talk to you about their relationship with their dog, what types of things they enjoy and what are the things they don’t like. It can help give a more well rounded picture of what the dog’s behavior is like within the entire family, not just what the parents are reporting. There are often behaviors the dog exhibits with children that a parent isn’t even aware of. Getting their input also makes them feel that they are part of the process—and that can go a long way to making a training program a success. Often children will be the best reminders to their parents about what the dog needs to be doing!

The older the child, the more responsibility within the training program they can have. Learning to leash walk the family dog or proper grooming techniques like brushing and bathing can help strengthen the bond between dog and child, as well as relieve the parent of some of the often neglected caregiving tasks.

The emphasis with children is to make training safe and fun. Just like dogs, children hate to do anything that seems like drudgery and work! Turning the task of teaching ‘sit’ into a game of ‘musical sits’ can change the whole exercise into one that is engaging and readily practiced. Making recall a game of hide and seek, turns a very serious behavior into a fun game. Don’t we always say “set them up for success?” Set your clients up for success by engaging every member of the family and make the training process less compulsory and more fun!

Erica is the owner of Wicked Good Dog Training. She teaches group classes as well as private lessons, helping dogs and their owners communicate through positive reinforcement training. She lives with her husband, 2 children and 3 dogs in Peterborough, NH.

This article was written by a CCPDT certificant and does not necessarily represent the views or opinions held by the CCPDT. The information in this article should not be considered official education or advice from the CCPDT. Our organization works to support our certificants and believes in giving a voice to professionals in the community who wish to express their viewpoints.