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Children and Dogs

Children and dogs can make great companions for one another. Dogs can help kids learn to respect life and to care responsibly for another being. Children can enrich dogs’ lives by being social companions, friends, and playmates. However, if both are not taught to behave properly around each other, dogs and kids can frighten and injure one another.

Potential Problems Between Children and Dogs
Dogs often view children’s quick and unpredictable movements as either threatening or an invitation to play. Dogs may think of small children as playmates because kids are often at eye level with dogs. Either the child or the dog, or both, may become too excited and out of control during play, and either may be injured or frightened. For example, when children and dogs play chase with each other (not a recommended game!), the dog may jump on the child and knock him down or the child is frightened, falls on the dog, and the dog is hurt.

In addition, children are still learning about their world, and may pull a dog’s tail, ears, or otherwise handle him roughly without realizing they are hurting the dog. Children may throw things at the dog, just as they would throw things at each other, again without realizing this will frighten the dog or even cause the dog to bite them. These examples illustrate why constant parental supervision and guidance is critical to ensure children and dogs can be safe with each other.

Helping Children Be Good to Dogs
Children must be taught how to approach and interact gently with dogs. Tell your children to always ask the dog’s owner if they can pet the dog. They should stand still and let the dog come to them rather than walk into the dog’s space. Dogs communicate through body postures and to dogs, reaching over their heads, facing them, leaning over them and staring are all threatening behaviors.

Instead, a child should allow the dog to sniff a closed hand held close to the body and then scratch the dog under the chin instead of reaching over the dog’s head.

Teach children how to play fetch with dogs and to use toys to play rather than wrestling or playing physical games with the dog. You will also need to train your dog to “drop” a toy when requested. While there is nothing inherently wrong with tug-of-war games (contrary to popular media, this doesn’t cause dogs to be aggressive), you’ll need to gauge the temperament of both your dog and your children to determine if both could play tug without becoming uncontrollable. Your dog must know the “drop” or “give” command to play this game and must know
to stop when told to do so.

Helping Dogs Tolerate Children
Dogs must learn, through socialization and training, how to be at ease around kids and behave appropriately around them. Socialization to children is easiest and most effective during puppyhood—between 6 and 12 weeks of age—and may prevent adult dogs from being fearful or aggressive toward children. Read the Pamphlet for Pet Parents on socialization to learn more about this important phase of your puppy’s life. Under supervision, have children handle the puppy and give the puppy treats. A good trainer can help you teach your puppy not to mouth or nip at children. Older dogs without much experience with children need to have supervised, gentle, careful interactions with them by associating good things with children. To acclimate your dog to being around children, both how close the children are to your dog and what they do, should be controlled.

First, have the kids sit quietly at a distance as you give your dog treats and pet him quietly. Have the children come gradually closer and toss treats as they walk by your dog. Eventually they can offer your dog a treat from an open palm rather than holding the treat in their fingers. Watch your dog’s reactions for signs of fear or threat. Go slowly and don’t force him to endure more than he is comfortable with. The goal is to make good things happen for your dog when kids are present. If you see any sign of fear or aggression, you may need professional help to acclimate your dog to children. Talk to your pet professional about help or a referral. Not all dogs can live safely with children. In some cases the dog may need to be rehomed to a family without children.

What Not To Do
Never, ever leave young children and dogs together unsupervised no matter how well behaved you think both of them are. Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye and either the child or the dog can be injured. Even though children and dogs can play together fabulously, your dog is not your child’s personal play toy. You must set reasonable limits for both your children and your dog. Don’t allow your children to play roughly with your dog, or your dog to be overly excited and out of control with your kids. Don’t use physical punishment for misbehavior on the part of either your children or your dog.

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General Training Tips

A good trainer is: Fast, Patient, Generous, Unpredictable and Variable.

In the beginning, you must reinforce a behavior IMMEDIATELY every single time you give the cue. This is called the “acquisition” stage of the behavior. As the behavior becomes more reliable, you can begin to delay the reinforcement (treat, ball, affection), or go to variable reinforcement (reinforcing every few times). You must stop being predictable! Here are some tips to make you be a better dog trainer.

• Concentrate on and reinforce the things your dog is doing right. Try to ignore behavior you don’t want to see repeated. If you can’t ignore it, manage it.
• Remember that the reinforcement (treat, ball, toy) you use has to be reinforcing to your dog! Kibble (dog food) usually isn’t enough, unless the dog is starving. Experiment with different levels of reinforcement – from regular treats up to pieces of leftover meat or cheese. Save your most potent reinforcement for the behaviors that are most difficult for your dog.
• Placement of the reinforcement is extremely important. Where your treat goes, so goes your dog. Thus, if you want your dog to walk right beside you, make sure you deliver your treats next to your leg, at the dog’s head level. Try not to make the dog jump for a treat, unless you want the dog to do so – as in a trick.
• Marking a successful behavior. As you teach each exercise, make sure your dog knows exactly what you want him to do. Do this by MARKING the precise moment the behavior occurs. We call this a bridge. So, in teaching a Down, the instant her entire body touches the ground, you say “YES!!!” and deliver a treat. As the behavior gets more reliable, stop saying “yes” every time she does it. However, each time you say “YES” a treat should be forthcoming.
• Make it harder. When you began training your dog, you lured the dog into position. Once there you gave her a treat. Now we wish to prompt the behavior, mark the proper one, and reward intermittently from an unknown place.
As an example, if you were trying to get your dog to lie down, you would begin by luring, then rewarding the behavior. By now, when you say “Down”, she lies down – but she does it much better when she sees the treat in your hand. So we have to teach her the ZEN of TREATS – in order to get the treat, she must give up the treat. Hold your treat in the hand that is not doing the signal. Show the dog your hand without the treat. Tell or signal the dog to Down, and wait for the dog to do so. Wait until she does. Don’t go back to the lure yet. When she does lie down, give her a wonderful treat from the other hand. You are teaching the dog that the treats she can’t see are even more potent than the ones she can. And it’s teaching her she doesn’t have to see the treat to do the exercise. (If she doesn’t down, she may not understand; go back to the beginning, and review until you get a good down with a lure).
Do that for a while. Then, delay the treat for a tad, and when you do deliver it, do so from a desk or counter. Then give it for two downs (twofer), then three, then four. But never go to no rewards. Try to vary your reward as well; different kinds of treats, a tug toy, or ball playing after a short session.
• Never take a behavior completely for granted. That leads to the Straight A Student Syndrome. If no one pays attention to you when you’re being good….you’ll be bad! F students get a great deal of attention when they make a C, and they learn that creating havoc leads to more attention. Pay attention to the correct behavior!
• Targeting. If you want your dog to follow your hand cues, one of the ways to accomplish that is by the use of a Target. This technique also fades the use of the treat quickly. You teach your dog to watch your hand for instructions. Begin by showing him your palm. Put your other hand behind the back of your first hand with a treat in it, and stick them both in front of his nose. Most dogs are curious; when he touches your palm, say “YES!” and give him the treat. Do that 20 times. The 21st time, put your treat hand behind your back. When and only when he touches your Target hand, say “YES!” and give him the treat. Do that many, many times. Now move the treat someplace else, and do it again. Now have the dog follow your hand, and when he touches say “YES!” (the yes is a MARKER word that means “you got it!”) Now say “Touch” or “Target” when he touches your palm. When he’s got that, stop giving him a treat when he touches your palm with no signal. When he’s got that, make him do two touches for one treat…then three then four, etc., but never stop giving rewards completely.

Crime and Punishment
A word about the use of punishment. Punishment ONLY WORKS if it’s appropriate, delivered at the instant the erroneous behavior occurs, and is identifiable with that behavior. It is very difficult to appropriately punish a dog, since you CANNOT EXPLAIN TO THE DOG WHAT HE DID WRONG.

Most people punish at the wrong time. For instance, if you were going to punish the dog for not sitting, you must do so as the dog is getting up. Not after he has done so. Not after he is walking away. Not after he sneezes, or scratches. If you wait, he will identify the punishment with the sneeze, scratch or walking, and it will not be effective.

At its best, punishment focuses on what the dog did wrong, and doesn’t tell him what to do. This is why it is much more effective to just give a Negative marker (wrong, or uh-uh, or OOPS or Too Bad) and go back to the behavior, preparing to reinforce correct behavior.

In the home, punishment is virtually always counter-productive, since the timing is almost always way off, and the dog identifies the punishment with the punisher — you. She will begin to cower or act submissive whenever a certain set of criteria are met. For instance, you walk in the door after being gone for a long time and look around. Sometimes you then begin yelling, sometimes you don’t. What follows is very predictable — the dog goes into a submissive posture (“that guilty look”), just in case. She also may begin refusing to come when called (would you come to an unpredictable punisher?), or she will crawl, and sometimes submissively urinate. Not effective.

Punishment is also ineffective because it teaches animals to suppress milder warning signals (growling, raising of hackles). Aggression always occurs after a series of warning signals.

Go for positive reinforcement. It works better, and produces a happy, obedient dog.

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