border collie puppy

Kids in Dog Class

Our 11-year-old daughter loves dogs, and we recently bought her a border collie puppy. Since she’s the dog’s owner, I want her to be the main trainer. However when I tried to register her for a class, I was told that she couldn’t be the primary trainer. Why not? ~ Marie

Most 11-year-olds are very good trainers. Some trainers enjoy having kids in class, and others don’t. I’d love to have a motivated 11-year-old bring her dog to class!

Look around in your area for a trainer that welcomes kids. Ask questions and go watch a class or two before signing up. (The how to choose a trainer post may be helpful.)

When kids come to my classes, I require a parent to stay on site and help the child if needed. With a child as old as yours, you could probably just sit and watch, but for younger kids, it’s very helpful to have the parent hold the leash so the child can train hands-free.

The biggest challenge for most kids is keeping the dog close by, so if you take care of maintaining the dog’s location, the child can focus on training and rewarding the dog. As the dog’s behavior improves, there will be less need for you to pitch in.

As much as possible, let the trainer teach your child and let your child teach the dog. It’s really tempting to coach your child, but far too often, I see kids becoming self-conscious and inhibited if they get too much guidance from mom or dad.

Encourage her to ask the trainer questions and practice outside of class. She may also enjoy Puppy Training for Kids.

close up of young boy

Difficulty Speaking Leads to Miscommunication

My 6-year-old son is receiving intensive speech therapy. He gets frustrated when our dog doesn’t respond when he asks him to sit. I don’t think the dog knows what he is saying, but I don’t want to tell him that as we are encouraging him to speak as much as possible. Any idea how to bridge the gap? ~ Sofie

Dogs communicate primarily through body language. It’s quite likely that you already use some sort of body-language cue to ask the dog to sit. Most people have a tendency to both verbally say a cue and do some sort of physical signal.

Figure out what signals your dog looks for. You may want to have a few solo practice sessions so that your dog will be good at a few simple tricks (e.g., sit, down, spin, and shake) before your son starts working with him.

Help your son practice these skills using the physical cue only (no words yet). Use amazing treats so that your dog thinks working with your son is the best game ever. When your dog is good at responding to your son’s physical cues, then you can encourage your son to use verbal cues as well.

Ask your son to say “sit,” and then do the physical cue for sit. (Stay actively involved at first so you can make sure the dog responds–perhaps by giving the physical cue again behind your son’s back.) When the verbal cue comes first, the dog will begin to anticipate the physical cue and may respond even before it occurs.

Soon your dog will sit when your son asks, even though your son’s words sound different from how the other family members say it. And if you continue have fun practice sessions with tasty treats, your dog may soon respond to your son better than he does to anyone else, which can be very exciting for a child.

Don’t have any idea what physical cues you use?

One simple way to figure out what kind of body language you use to communicate with your dog is to stand like a toy soldier, stiff with your arms at your side, and ask the dog to sit. If the dog doesn’t sit, relax your body and repeat the cue. What changed? Odds are that you nodded your head forward and moved one of your hands either upward or in a pointing motion at the dog. Notice what seems natural—that’s what your dog is watching for.

Siblings and dog

Playing Favorities

My 10-year-old son’s feelings are hurt because our dog seems to like my 7-year-old daughter better. To be fair, she’s more of a dog person than he is, but how can I help improve the relationship between my son and the dog? ~ Allanah

Dogs will have a unique relationship with each member of the family. Some people, like your daughter, naturally form a strong bond with a dog, but the good news is that there are lots of easy things you can to do help your son as well.

First buy some extra-special dog treats that only he can give the dog. (Freeze-dried liver is a favorite.) He can use these treats to play simple games with the dog. One popular choice is a version of the shell game in which your son will hide a treat under one of three overturned plastic cups. Then he’ll mix up the cups and let the dog knock over the cups to find the treat. Some dogs will know immediately which cup has the treat; others will investigate every cup.

He can set up trails around the house for the dog to follow using one treat every 3 feet or so. It’s also fun for kids to teach dogs to navigate obstacles. He can encourage your dog to jump over a broom balanced on the rungs of your kitchen chairs or crawl under your coffee table. Remind him to reward the dog often so that the dog doesn’t get frustrated trying to figure out what your son is trying to teach him. Reading Puppy Training for Kids (it’s not just about puppies) or enrolling the two of them in a training class that welcomes kids would also be a great idea.

boy and siberian husky

Take Treats Gently

My two-year-old likes to give our dog treats, but I worry the dog will nip his fingers. Sometimes my son seems nervous too, and he pulls his hand back instead of giving the treat. Then the dog gets grabby. How can my son give the dog a treat while keeping all of his fingers? ~ Carla in Pittsburgh

Manual dexterity is a challenge for most preschoolers; they have trouble holding a dog treat and then releasing it. There are many ways to make treat delivery a bit easier and less scary for young kids.

  • Drop the treats on the floor.
  • Give your son a bowl to hold while the dog eats a treat out of it.
  • Put the treat on the back of his hand. Young kids often have trouble holding their hand open. Their fingers curl up and form a bowl. It may be better to teach your son to put out his fist and for you to place a treat on top of his hand.
  • Have him sit on the counter (with you right there, of course) and toss treats to the dog. This works well for bouncy dogs who might bump or frighten your child.


old dog

Older Dogs May Be Less Tolerant

I have two old dogs—12 and 14 years old. They have never shown any aggression toward anyone, but last week the 12 year old growled at my 1-year-old grandson! I was shocked. My dogs have never lived with kids, but they’ve always been fine with the ones we meet on the street. What should I do when my grandson comes over? ~ Robert

You hit on two important points, Robert. First, your dogs are older. With age comes some creakiness and discomfort. We’re all a bit less tolerant when we are uncomfortable; dogs are no exception.

Also, your dogs have never lived with children. We all know kids behave very differently than adults, and for most dogs, the unfamiliar can be worrisome. Short interactions with strangers on a walk are much easier than an extended visit with a toddler.

I think your best bet is to manage the situation when your grandson comes over. When things are calm, let your dogs hang out with the family.

When your grandson is active or the dogs seem tired, put your dogs in a bedroom with a good chew toy. They will appreciate it, and you can focus on spoiling your grandson.

dog wearing birthday party hat

Birthday Party Bliss or Bedlam?

My 8-year-old daughter was invited to a “bring-your-own-dog birthday party” where each guest (or rather each guest’s parent) is supposed to bring her dog for the first hour of the party.

I’m worried my dog won’t behave well around dogs she doesn’t know. What do you think of this party idea? ~ Candace

I don’t like that idea at all. There are way too many variables to deal with there:

  • Dogs that don’t know each other
  • Dogs that may not be comfortable with groups of children
  • Dogs in an unfamiliar environment
  • Kids whose behavior may be unpredictable around dogs
  • Far too much excitement

No, I don’t think this is a good idea. Each of the dogs may be lovely in her own home, as yours is, but they probably won’t be at their best at a party.

A trainer friend of mine recently participated in a birthday party for a dog-loving child. At this party, she and her trained dog were hired to come to the party for 45 minutes. She taught the kids a little about canine body language and how to train a dog. Then her dog showed off with a variety of tricks. Each child was allowed to come meet Willow and pet her at the end of their visit. The party-goers loved spending time with the dog, and it was a much safer way to have a dog-themed party for a child who really loves dogs.


Is Her Fear Controlling Her … Or Me?

I have 6-year-old twins: a girl and a boy.  My daughter is afraid of dogs, so I just adopted from the Humane Society a puppy 5 lb. terrier mix who will stay small and is very sweet. 

Hannah will pet Dory if someone is holding her, but she’s still terrified if the puppy is on the ground loose. She will scream and stay on the couch—even if I have Dory on a leash.

She says she “loves” Dory and can’t wait to come home the see her, but once there, it’s another story.  I don’t want to be an enabler and give into my daughter’s control issues.

Hannah will only pet Dory if someone is holding her, and she’s even told me Dory needs to go the crate or she won’t come out of her room.

I know she is afraid; I used to be the same way until my parents got me a dog.  Should I make her stay in my bedroom with me with the dog running loose even though I know she will freak out? I feel if I don’t do this then she will never try to do more than she is doing now because of fear, but I don’t want to terrorize her either.  ~ Sarah

I think this is too much, too soon for Hannah. I don’t recommend getting a dog for a child who is afraid of dogs until after we’ve done some significant ground work to help decrease the child’s level of fear. If you haven’t seen a big improvement within a week, I would seriously consider returning the dog and enlisting some professional help to deal with your daughter’s anxiety. There is a possibility that being forced to interact with the dog can make her fears worse, not better.

The biggest challenge is that dog behavior seems unpredictable to frightened children. By asking you to hold Dory, Hannah is really asking you to ensure nothing unpredictable or scary happens.

If you want to make this work, then I think you’ll have to do everything you can to make their interactions calm and controlled (which can be challenging with a puppy!). Give Dory lots of exercise and plenty of tempting things to chew, so that she won’t be too bouncy around Hannah.

Since your son isn’t worried about Dory, have a conversation with both kids in which they say what they like best and least about dogs in general and about Dory in particular. It’s nice for kids to be able to say that they like some things and not others. Add your own thoughts to the list. Maybe hearing from the two of you will help Hannah see some of Dory’s more enticing traits while accepting that “nobody’s perfect,” so it’s perfectly okay to not like every little thing about her.

Encourage your son to do some basic training with Dory using treats to make it fun. (More info and ideas in Puppy Training for Kids.) Have Hannah watch from the couch. Once she sees that there are ways to interact with puppies that encourage calm and appropriate behavior, she may start to warm up a bit.

P.S. Don’t let either of your kids carry the puppy around. It’s tempting to treat a small dog as a toy, but most dogs are very uncomfortable being carried by a child and many learn to wriggle (and sometimes snap) as a way to be put down. That won’t help Hannah at all.


Labrador or Greyhound?

I’m a single mom with a 2-year-old son, and I would really like to adopt a greyhound. I have talked with a local greyhound rescue, and they have approved I have talked with a local greyhound rescue, and they have approved my application.

But everyone keeps telling me to get a Labrador because they are the best dog for kids!

I like labs, but I don’t think I have enough energy to live with one. On the other hand, I definitely want a dog that will love my son. What do you think? Should I get a lab? ~ Phoebe

Go for the greyhound—but make sure you choose one that is highly social (not just tolerant) with children.

There isn’t a best breed, but there are “best traits” for your family. There are laid-back labs and hyper greyhounds. Never choose simply by breed. Instead choose a dog that is social, gentle, tolerant, and has an energy level compatible with yours.

I’m sure the rescue group can help you identify dogs who may be good matches. Ask if they perform behavioral evaluations (or if you can hire someone to assess a dog before you adopt).

Take your time. When the right dog comes along, you’ll know.

girl and dog

A Bite Without Warning

My daughter and her friend (both 10) were playing with our dog, Zorro, the other day. The girls were both petting and hugging him when, without warning, he bit my daughter on the nose! Nothing like this has ever happened before. How can I trust Zorro around kids again? ~ Debbie

It sounds to me like your dog was a little overwhelmed. A common problem in kid-and-dog interactions is that the dog is telling the kids he’s uncomfortable, but since the kids don’t “speak dog,” they miss the warning signs. Very few dogs like to be hugged, and being hugged by two affectionate girls may have been too much for your dog.

Carefully supervise when Zorro is around kids, even when it’s just your own kids. Look for signs of stress, such as yawning, turning away, licking his lips, or panting. When you see any of those signs, separate the kids and dog for a while. Later watch to see if Zorro seeks them out again. The best family dogs really enjoy kids, but all dogs will have moments when they are uncomfortable. With a little space and downtime, many dogs will be eager to rejoin the activity.

Intervene early and often when kids and dogs are playing. It's always better to leave them wanting more than to wait until someone get cranky.

Never punish a dog for giving warning signals, such as snarls, growls, or even snaps. Warnings are valuable information! Parents must immediately intervene and take steps to prevent similar scenarios from occurring (such as allowing a dog to feel smothered by well-intentioned hugs).

If you see many stress signals or early-warning signs, I strongly suggest you have a dog trainer provide some personalized advice. This post has some tips for finding a good trainer.

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1 boxer dog getting treat

How to Choose a Dog Trainer

Must Love Dogs ... And People Too!

Let’s start with the most important thing: the dog trainer you hire is going to be handling your beloved dog, so you want someone who is kind, humane, and knowledgeable. You want someone who will work with your dog, someone who sets the dog up for success, someone your dog feels safe with. This is vital.

I wish it were easy to give guidance about how to find a good dog trainer, but unfortunately it can be a bit tricky.

Here’s the problem: No website says, “Our trainers are unkind, inhumane, and ignorant.” If only it were that easy.

A trainer using inappropriate methods can actually create more problems than they solve. Any method that rely on fear, force, or coercion can increase the likelihood of aggression, anxiety, and other stress-related behaviors. (Avoid electronic collars, prong collars, choke chains, noise deterrents, etc.) You are looking for a trainer to make your life easier, not harder and potentially more dangerous!

There are lots of misguided philosophies that describe dogs in unflattering terms. Dogs have been labeled as devious schemers who try to boss you around, so you are encouraged to be very tough and rigid in your interactions with them. The outdated, inaccurate, and disproven theories about pack hierarchies and alpha roles are wrong for wolves and ridiculous for dogs.

A far more accurate description would be that dogs are like toddlers—curious, social, and impulsive. When a dog jumps up to say hello, she’s not trying to dominate you; she’s just checking you out in a way that felt natural to her. It’s your job to kindly teach her what you expect. When your dog takes food off the counter is “stealing” the really best word to describe the behavior? If a young child reached over and took food off your plate, you’d know that he didn’t understand the social proprieties and not brand him a thief.

So it matters—a lot—what methods your trainer uses. Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers came up with three questions that I love because they’ll help you learn about about a potential trainer’s methods and philosophy:

  • What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it right?
  • What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

These are excellent questions. The right dog trainer for you will be willing to discuss their methodology with you, and in that conversation you should feel their respect for dogs and for people. (A disappointingly high number of trainers say they only like dogs, not people. Those trainers are not right for you and your dog.)

Companion Animal Psychology has an excellent, detailed blog post on finding a trainer. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just share the link. And if you are more of a listener than a reader, in episode 18 of Your Family Dog, Julie Fudge Smith and I talk about how to find a good trainer.

Choosing the Best Dog Trainer for Your Family

  • Ask the three questions listed above in the post and listen carefully to the answers. If you have any sense of unease, ask more questions. Still not sure? Move on. Your conversation with the trainer should make you feel comfortable and confident that you and your dog will both enjoy the training experience and learn new skills.
  • Look for a trainer who uses food. Using food is the fastest way for your dog to learn what makes you happy. You love your dog and are going to feed him every day (of course!), so be strategic about the timing and delivery of that food to use it as a powerful teaching tool.
  • Get trainer references from your friends and neighbors whose dogs are happy and well behaved. No shut-down, robotic dogs, please. You want good behavior, not suppressed behavior, for a great family dog. Not sure what happy really looks like, learn more here.
  • Look for certifications and continuing education. You want a trainer who is always learning more, not someone stagnant. There are a bazillion different codes that signify training certifications. These indicate a willingness to grow, which is good, but certifications don't guarantee you'll like their methods.
  • Look for membership in a professional organization. As with certification, membership is no guarantee of compassionate, effective training, but at least it shows the person is serious enough about their work to belong to a professional association.