The family dog probably has one of the world’s most difficult jobs. Compare life as a family dog to life as a herding dog. Every morning, the herding dog wakes up with the sheep, guides them to pasture and moves them from place to place. Between times, the dog rests and relaxes and at meal times goes up to the house to get a meal. The family dog however gets up with mom or dad earlier than the kids and likely goes out to the bathroom, and for many family dogs, that is the last predictable thing that happens all day. The kids get up, and Michael, eight, who is supposed to feed the dog, has a throat infection. Sally, ten, has a report due at school and she wants to spend time finishing that instead of taking the dog out for his morning play session. Mom has to reschedule her morning meeting with the lawyer so that she can take Michael to the doctor and she is busy hustling Sally through her report and breakfast so that she can make the bus. Dad is in the kitchen making breakfast so that Sally and Mom can get their mornings started but the griddle won’t heat up and he has a bowl full of pancake batter sitting on the counter and all the other frying pans are dirty. He puts the pancake mix in the fridge and gets out cold cereal, all while Michael is complaining that he can’t eat because his throat is sore. Meanwhile, the dog is bugging Michael for his breakfast and Mom and Dad are so frazzled that it doesn’t immediately occur to them them that Michael is feeling so crummy that he hasn’t gotten to feeding the dog. The day often devolves from there.
Yes, the dog gets fed and he gets walked, but often the expectations we have for family pets is a little out of line with reality for the pet. Often I hear “Fluffy belongs to the kids, and she is their responsibility”. I am certain that most parents don’t really think that Fluffy is entirely the kid’s responsibility, but too often it is presented as though the dog is their whole responsibility. If we re-framed this about a younger sibling things would look much different.
Imagine for a moment we weren’t talking about Fluffy but rather Ryan, Michael and Sally’s younger sibling. Imagine for a moment that Mom and Dad got up in the morning and changed young Ryan’s diaper, and then it was Michael’s responsibility to feed young Ryan and Sally’s responsibility to get him dressed and ready for the day. The idea that an eight year old and a ten year old would be responsible for a young child is appalling, and yet we hear this regularly in our puppy classes. In one family, if the child did not feed the dog, he went hungry. And if the other children didn’t toilet the dog outside, they had to live with the mess inside until one of the children took it upon themselves to clean it up, usually with much nagging and screaming on the part of the other members of the household.
I am a person who strongly believes that we don’t give your youth enough freedom and responsibility in our society. As a Scout leader for many years, I was constantly faced with boundaries that we were not permitted to allow our kids to cross, often limits that made little or no sense. When one of my groups of kids wanted to go bowling I helped them to plan the trip and reminded these 14 to 17 year old kids that they needed to figure out how they were going to pay for the trip. No one wanted to confront the issue, so in spite of weekly reminders, they never sorted that aspect out. On the day of the trip we all gathered and they had no money to go. I let the group work out how they wanted to resolve it. One of the parents stood to the side very agitated feeling that I was being unfair to the kids when he could just give them the money they needed. I gave the kids the chance to figure out a solution, which they did. A phone call was made and the group committee arranged to drop off the funds needed (we had arranged this ahead of time). The desire to not let the kids miss out on something they hadn’t planned for was so strong that the parents in attendance would have bailed the kids out before they solved their problem. I absolutely believe that kids should be permitted to fail early and often and develop resilience and problem solving abilities early. I just don’t believe that should be done at the expense of a pet’s well being.
When a family gets a dog, the adults need to understand that it is the family dog, not the kid’s dog. Rarely do six and seven year old kids have the resources to research an appropriate breed, purchase, arrange transport to and from the breeder, arrange and pay for veterinary visits and do all the training of a young dog. I love having kids in class, and to make it successful we have to take a number of things into account. First and foremost, we have to understand what a child is capable of.
Preschoolers are not capable of walking your mastiff, no matter how cute it might be in theory. A large or giant breed dog needs only to walk quickly to knock down and drag a young child. With preschoolers we teach them in class that they must ask their own guardians and then the dog’s person before offering to greet the dog. If the dog chooses to back away, then the greeting is a no go, and that should be the end of it. Often preschoolers are not as interested in greeting the dog as Mom and Dad are in having the kid greet. Many years ago, when I was training the first service dog I ever trained, I was out in the mall with him and a mom with her toddler spotted us. “Look” she said; “A doggy, in the mall!” I kept walking. The child was in her arms and clearly not interested. She followed us down the length of the mall, through a crowded bookstore and into a coffee shop all the while babbling to her kid about the doggy in the mall, describing him, and his jacket and that he was inside the mall. Finally the child showed interest, and she offered him the chance to pet the dog. After this whole scene played out, I turned to face her and said “I am sorry, this is a working service dog and you may not pet him”. Her response was interesting. She turned beet red and said “Some people have NO manners” and left in a huff with her now screaming child.
Preschoolers are a slightly difficult group because they are interested in the world, but in short bursts. They don’t need to have long periods of interaction to be successful. If they are not initially interested in the dog, there is lots of stuff that we can do to make them safe around dogs other than interacting with them. In general, my guideline for working with preschoolers and dogs is that they need to work at the speed of the preschooler and if the preschooler isn’t interested, then give them something to do along side of the dog, instead of insisting on an interaction they may not be interested in having.
|This is a beautiful idyllic image, but this dog could seriously harm the child if he bolted. Mom and Dad should be holding a second leash! Image credit: auremar / 123RF Stock Photo|
5, 6 and seven year old kids are often very interested in dogs. They may draw the dogs or spend time reading books on dogs independently. This age group is a group that needs to learn safety rules around dogs and can assist with some of the care of a dog. They may be able to leash walk a smaller well trained dog, but asking a 6 year old to be responsible for the exercise and feeding of any dog is really more than we should expect. Kids in this age group can be included in training sessions where the dog already knows the behaviour. I recently spoke with a Mom on the phone who wanted to be able to drop her six year old and their 7 month old intact male German Shepherd off at my training hall for the hour lesson. Accepting them in the class would have been completely unrealistic in terms of training the dog or helping the seven year old to be successful with the dog. When working with kids, it is essential that as the instructor, I set both the dog and the child up for success. Usually this means training the dog ahead of the child and then including the child in a separate training session where the dog follows the kid’s directions and Mom or Dad assists the child in being successful.
About two years ago, we had a family with a Springer Spaniel come to class. This family got it. Everyone came to the first class. The two kids, 7 and 9 years old, sat down near Mom and Dad with colouring books and crayons, reading material and video game. Mom and Dad worked on our down stay exercise and then included the kids in the feeding stage. They played statues with the kids while the dog learned to stay. Mom and Dad worked in cooperation with one of them working with the dog and the other helping the kids to be successful. After the stay, Dad worked on leash manners with the dog and the kids went back to their books and games. When the dog started to get the hang of it, Mom organized the kids into stations and the dog walked back and forth between the kids, with the kids treating after Dad clicked. This went on for all eight weeks of the classes; a beautiful dance of dog, kids and parents, working together. When it works it works really, really well.
As kids get older, they develop better coordination and balance, strength and ability to follow directions. By the time kids are about ten years old, they can continue work that Mom and Dad have started. So if the parents are capturing sits, downs, stands and touches, the kids can be in charge of the clicker and the treats. As the dog gains skills the kids can start working on chains of behaviours with the dog. The nine to twelve year old group is developing the skills to be able to work more independently but still under direction with Mom or Dad on site. They still are not able to take on the full responsibility for the dog though; they shouldn’t be asked to take the dog to the vet for instance.
Thirteen is the age are which we accept volunteers at Dogs in the Park in our puppy program. In Ontario you have to do a certain number of volunteer hours in order to graduate from high school and we are pleased to be able to share our program with teens. Young teens can be quite competent dog trainers and we allow this age group to handle their own dogs within reason. If the dog is extremely strong or unruly, then we do not allow them to work unassisted, but if the dog is an appropriate size and temperament we allow this age group to work their own dogs provided that a parent or guardian is on site. At this age, we love to see the ability of both the dog and the kid begin to shine. What we don’t allow is kids under 16 to be dropped off and picked up while the child is solely responsible for the dog. In the event of a veterinary emergency, the child would not be able to drive the dog to the vet clinic for instance. This is just not appropriate.
Young teens can be very responsible for the family dog. They can be responsible to feed and exercise the family dog, but parents still need to be aware of this getting done; if it isn’t done, someone needs to notice, because the dog should not take the fall for an error on the part of the child. Veterinary care and training decisions still need to be made with the parents though; expecting a child to be solely responsible for the dog is unrealistic and unfair to your dog.
|Puppy Class is designed to help families to work with their puppies. Children should not go to puppy class without their parents.|
The key with family dogs is to recognize that an adult needs to be responsible for the dog. We would not expect a child to be responsible for the upbringing of another child including feeding, enrichment, medical care and education. We should not expect children to be solely responsible for the upbringing and care of a dog either.