Friday, August 23, 2013

Children and Dogs

A phrase that strikes fear, or at least a healthy sense of caution, into the hearts of some dog owners - especially when they're not your children! Everyone seems to envision those wonderful heart warming moments; the child with their dog. Timmy with Lassie and so on. But often reality falls a little short of the TV portrayal.

Pretty as a picture: a dog and a kid

Small children are noisy. They behave in a incomprehensible and erratic manner and move very quickly. In short, they are just about every reactive dog's worst nightmare as a trigger. Most interactions with children are not positive for the dog either. Hair gets pulled, the dog gets squashed, gets woken up when sleeping, gets poked or scared or just bothered.

For the most part, segregating dogs from children works nicely - especially if you have dogs, but you don't have children. It eliminates the opportunity for the dog to practice and rehearse those unwanted behaviors with children or for the child to inadvertently do something to hurt/scare the dog. However, it also doesn't address any of the existing issues, such as reducing the dog's fear of children. My dogs aren't particularly children friendly and I'm fine with that. My house isn't children friendly either - it's dog friendly!

I do however have family, who have started their own families. Doing things with family means the dogs are exposed to little children (3 under the age of 3) who have their own dogs - and therein lies the problem. Auntie's dogs are not like their dogs, despite being small like their own dogs. (Auntie's dogs come with a whole LOT of special rules.) Christmas and special occasions are not much of a problem, just don't bring the dogs. The problem lies with things like camping. I want to go camping, I also want to bring my dogs camping. I go camping to spend time in nature with the dogs.

The dogs are not require to like strange children. If I am not engaged and interacting with the dog(s) when the kids are around, the dogs are kept safely away from the kids (this means I'm not watching TV "supervising" them.) I will not let them be put into a situation where they could bite. I do however expect them to behave in a appropriate manner with nieces and nephews, who in turn will behave appropriately with my dogs. To that end we've been working an array of behaviors, mostly with my 3 year old niece.

The standard counter conditioning - look at a kid at a distance, click and treat. Look at the kid from less distance - click and treat. Hang out while kid plays - click and treat. Kid does something noisy/scary - click and treat. Working with one dog at a time, or in a group. See? She's not that scary. Good things happen when she's around. 

More counter conditioning with the kid providing good things once the dogs are no longer reacting to or worried about her presence. Putting the dogs into a sit,  then get her to feed them treats or put dinner bowls on the floor and release them to eat. Oh look! Not only is she not that scary, sometimes she gives you good things! Yummy good things!

Conditioning Err, teaching the kid how to behave with dogs, or at least my dogs. Don't tease them or try to take their things away. Don't chase them. If he looks like that (eye's rolling, lip licking, freezing) you scared him and we should just stand still or be quiet and move away etc. Give them treats like this and so on.

Finally I've been building value IN the kid with the dogs. We'll play ball with them. Penny is still a work in progress, but Baxter and Spencer will play fetch with the devil if he's throwing that ball for them! This kid is great! She will throw that ball for hours. I love the kid, she throws my toy for me!

Might be the devil, but still will throw my toy!

All the dogs were very good with my oldest niece while we were camping in Farragut. (The other 2 aren't walking yet.)

Baxter was just brilliant with her though. He walked very nice with her when we went on walks. Calm, quiet. He walked beside her and didn't try to pull her around - and in turn she didn't yank him all over trying to make him listen. He played fetch with her at the beach. It was adorable, and appropriate!

At agility trials, one of the highlights for me is watching junior handlers with their dogs. It's just adorable. Everyone cheers the kids on and it is just heart warming. Like Timmy and Lassie, but better - because it's real!

I got into agility because I fell in love with the Superdogs when I was a kid. I wish my parents would have gotten me into agility when I was a kid. Watching Baxter with my niece was like watching the dogs play agility with their kids. It made me wonder if maybe one day one of the kids might want to play agility with one of my dogs.

For other excellent reads on dogs & kids try:

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