Involving Your Children in Training Your Dog is Beneficial
How to involve your kids in your dog's training for best results.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past year, you know that Malia and Sasha Obama will soon be getting their very first dog. Every year, children all over the world experience the joy of holding a dog or puppy in their arms for the very first time. We trust that the Obamas will select wisely, and make the right training choices for the newest member of the First Family. If a new dog is in your future, we hope that you’ll do the same.
For many kids, getting a family dog is one of the happiest experiences imaginable. However, disturbing dog bite statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggest that all is not well in the kid-dog kingdom. According to the CDC, each year, 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites. Half of these are children.
Your best insurance against your family being part of these statistics is a puppy-raising program that incorporates proper management and supervision and tons of carefully orchestrated, positive social experiences for your new dog. (For more about how to carry out an ideal socialization program, see “The Social Scene,” Whole Dog Journal November 2004.)
Your child’s active participation in the family dog’s training, however, will do a lot to cement your dog’s place in your family. The training of the family dog will always be most successful if the whole family is involved. Kids are great natural trainers, and tend to have more time than the adults do to spend with the dog. Also, when they learn positive training techniques, kids learn how to interact with and influence the behavior of other sentient beings without using force, fear, pain, or intimidation. These are skills that may serve them well in their interactions with their friends, classmates, and perhaps even their siblings!
Teaching kids to train
One of the best investments you can make for training the family dog is a clicker; they cost between $1 and $3. Even if you prefer not to use one when training, buy a clicker for your children to use when they train the dog. Kids love clickers, and are often sold on the gadget from the very first “click!” They can’t wait to get their hands on that little plastic box and start clicking. You just have to convince them that the clicker is a dog training tool, not a toy - that every time they click the clicker they must give the dog a treat. With young children (ages three to six) you can “team click”: one of you clicks, the other feeds a treat to the dog. Older kids usually get the hang of doing both pretty quickly. In fact, their timing with the clicker will probably put you to shame.
You’ll also need a steady supply of tasty treats to use as training rewards. Use something delicious, not just some of the dog’s regular food. It’s also helpful if you choose a food item that is easy to cut up and feed in tiny pieces (no larger than a pea), such as cheese, canned chicken, or hot dogs.
Your child’s first assignment is to “charge the clicker” - or in scientific terms, condition the reward marker. This simply means to teach the dog that the “click” sound means he’s earned a treat. It couldn’t be easier.
Start with the clicker in your pocket or your child’s pocket to muffle the sound; the sharp “click” initially startles some dogs. If your dog seems to be afraid of the clicking sound, stop using it immediately and switch to a different reward marker. You can say “Click!” or “Yes!”, use the softer click of a ballpoint pen, or make a “click” sound with your mouth. Kids are great at mouth clicks!
You’ll be “team-clicking” at first: one of you clicks, the other feeds a tiny, tasty treat. Tiny is important because you’ll feed a lot of them. Tasty is important because you want your dog to love the sound of the clicker, so he learns to love training.
Click (or say “Yes!”), pause, and feed the dog a treat a half-dozen times, so your dog starts to realize the click means a treat is coming. At first, he doesn’t have to do anything to make you click - but be sure not to click when he’s doing a behavior you don’t want, such as jumping up. If you click by accident, however, he still gets a treat; every click means a treat is on its way.
You’ll know when your dog has made the connection: You’ll see his eyes light up when he hears the click, and he’ll look for the treat with eager anticipation. Ask your child to tell you when she thinks the marker is “charged” - that the dog understands that a click means a treat is coming; it’s a great opportunity to have her start to observe and understand her pup’s body language.
Your dog may start to sit while you’re charging the clicker, especially if you hold the treat up to your chest before you click, because it’s easier for him to keep his eye on the treat if he’s sitting. Encourage your young trainer to hold the treat to her chest and click the instant your dog’s bottom touches the ground. If the two of you consistently click-and-treat when the dog sits, he’ll think that sitting makes the click happen, and he’ll start sitting on purpose.
Charged and ready
Now you’re going to teach your dog his name. It helps to have two clickers for this - or more, if more family members want to play the name game. One of you say his name, and if he looks at you, click and treat. If he doesn’t look, make a kissing sound to get his attention, then click and treat. Now the other says his name, and when he looks, click and treat. He’ll soon learn that the sound of his name makes the click and treat happen, and he’ll think his name is a very wonderful thing. This will be important to help you get his attention when you need it.
When he understands that click means treat and he responds quickly to the sound of his name, you’re ready to teach him to sit. Well, sort of. He really already knows how to sit; you’re just going to teach him to do the behavior when you ask for it. This is called putting a behavior on cue. The fact is, your dog already knows how to do all the behaviors you want him to learn; you’re just teaching him your words, and convincing him that it’s worth his while to offer the behaviors when you ask for them.
You’re going to teach him that the word “Sit!” means “put your bottom on the ground.” Since you and your junior trainer have already been clicking and treating him for sitting, this should be easy. Do a few more repetitions of “treat to chest,” sit, and click, just to be sure he’s got it. Now, have your child say “Sit!” - once - just before she holds the treat to her chest. When your dog’s bottom touches the ground, click and treat! If your child can deliver the treat directly to your pup’s nose before he gets up, you’re doubling the power of the reinforcement. If the dog tries to jump up to grab the treat, have your child hold it in her closed fist, wait for him to sit again, and then feed it from the open palm of her hand, the way you’d feed a treat to a horse.
Be sure to praise your dog after he gets his click and treat. Tell him what a wonderful, smart dog he is! If you associate praise with the click and treat process, your praise will be very reinforcing to him later in training, and you can use it to reward him for performing well even when you don’t click and treat.
If your dog does not offer sits for the “treat to the chest” maneuver, lure a sit by moving the treat over his head. When he sits, click and treat. When you know he’ll sit for the lure, add the word before you move the treat, then click and treat when his furry bottom touches the floor.
Notice that you don’t add the verbal cue (“Sit!”) until you know you can get your dog to do the behavior. This is a very important concept to teach your kids. They need to understand that your dog doesn’t know what the words mean until you teach him, and that using them before he knows them is fruitless - and may actually teach him that they mean something else!
When your dog will sit easily, it’s time to fade the lure. Your kids won’t always have treats in their pockets, and you want your dog to sit for you whether you have treats or not. Without a treat in her hand, have your child ask the dog to sit, and wait several seconds. If he sits, click and feed him a treat from a bowl on the table. If he doesn’t sit, have your child make the “treat to chest” motion with her hand, clicking and feeding a treat from the bowl on the table when the dog does sit. Soon he’ll be able to sit on just the verbal “Sit!” cue, without the lure.
When he can sit on cue without the lure, skip the click and treat occasionally, and just praise his sit performance. This is called putting the behavior on a schedule of variable reinforcement. It teaches him to keep working for you even if you don’t click and treat every time. At first, skip the click and treat every once in a great while - but remember to praise! Over time you can skip the click and treat more frequently. Remember that if you click, you must treat. If you’re going to skip the reward, you skip the click as well as the treat, and just praise him. This teaches him that if he keeps working, the click and treat will come eventually. Like putting quarters in a slot machine, it might not pay off this time, but eventually it will.
Finally, you and your young trainer need to help your dog generalize the behavior. This means teaching your dog that the click and treat game works wherever you go. If you’ve been practicing in the comfort of your own living room, try it in your backyard. You may have to go back to using the lure at first, until he understands that the game is the same everywhere.
Your child can also teach your dog that “Sit” means “Sit by my side, sit when my back is toward you, sit when I am sitting on a chair, and sit when I am lying on the floor.” Pal also needs to learn that “Sit!” means “Sit when there are visitors in the house, sit when I am walking around the block, sit when I see another dog, and sit even if a cat runs by.” Then the two of you will know that your dog really understands the word “Sit!”
Five-step training formula
This is the five-step formula that you used for your child’s training sessions with your family dog for “Sit.” Use this formula for every behavior you want to teach him.
1. Get your dog to do the behavior, using the treat to show him what you want, if necessary. Click (or use another reward marker, such as the word “Yes!”) and give him a treat when he does it.
2. Repeat Step 1 until he does the behavior easily. Then add the word for the behavior just before he does the behavior and lure him with the treat, if necessary. Click and treat.
3. As soon he has made the connection between the word and the behavior, fade the lure so he will offer the behavior even if you don’t have a treat in your hand.
4. When he will perform the behavior for you without a lure in your hand (you’re still clicking and treating!), put it on a schedule of variable reinforcement.
5. Finally, help him generalize the behavior to other locations, by taking your child and dog to practice at parks, on walks around the block, in parking lots, and in stores that allow dogs. A good positive training class is another great place for your child to practice working with your dog around distractions.
So let’s see how the formula works with another important good manners behavior; the “Down.” This behavior can be more challenging than the sit - you may have to help your budding trainer with this one.
Step 1: Get the behavior. While your dog is sitting, one of you holds a treat in front of the dog’s nose and starts slowly moving it straight down, using the treat to show him that you want him to move toward the floor. The other clicks the clicker as the dog lowers his head to follow the treat. Each time the click happens, give the dog a small nibble of treat.
Do not wait to click until he is all the way down! Because this is a more difficult behavior, you need to click and reward him just for heading in the right direction, or he may give up. If he stands up, have him sit, and start over again. The two of you will gradually shape him into a down - clicking and rewarding for small bits of the desired behavior until you finally get the whole thing. If your child is unsuccessful in luring your dog into a down, she can lure him under your knee, a low stool, or coffee table, so the dog has to lie down and crawl to follow the treat. Click and reward. Repeat this until he lies down easily, then try shaping the down again.
Step 2: Add the cue. When your dog lies down easily, have your child add the word “Down” just before she lures the dog into the down position, to give him a chance to associate the word with the behavior.
Note: Your dog can only learn one meaning for a word. If you use “down” to mean “lie down” you must use a different word, such as “off!” to mean “don’t jump on me.” If “down” already has a different meaning for your dog, use a different word for “lie down,” such as “drop.”
Step 3: Fade the lure. After a couple of dozen repetitions, have your young trainer stand in front of the dog with her treat hand at her side or behind her back (so she isn’t giving him the “Sit!” cue by holding it at her chest) and tell her to say “Down.” Give your dog a second or two to process the word, and if he doesn’t lie down (he probably won’t), have her put the treat in front of his nose and lure him into a down. Click and treat.
If he doesn’t seem to be getting it after a couple of sessions, try luring less and less. Have your child move the treat three-quarters of the way to the floor, then whisk it behind her leg and let your dog finish the down on his own. You’re trying to jump-start his brain into figuring out what you want rather than waiting for you to show him. When he’ll lie down for a three-quarters lure, try luring just halfway, then less and less, until your child doesn’t have to lure at all. Keep repeating this exercise until he lies down on just the verbal cue, then click and jackpot! - feed the dog a small handful of treats, one at a time, as a special reward for doing this challenging exercise. Then take your child out for ice cream; she deserves a jackpot, too!
Step 4: Put it on a variable schedule. When your dog will lie down easily for the verbal cue without any luring, start skipping an occasional click and treat, just reinforcing with praise. Very gradually increase the frequency of skipped ones, so your dog learns to keep working even if he doesn’t get a click and treat every time.
Step 5: Generalize. Now it’s time to take the show on the road. Have your child start practicing your dog’s “Down” exercise when the two of you take him for walks around the block, trips to the park or the pet food store, or visits to your veterinarian.
Use the same formula to teach your dog the other important good manners behaviors, such as “come,” “wait,” “stay,” and “walk politely on leash.” Don’t forget to sign up for that good manners class!
The importance of play If you make sure to make it fun, your child and your dog will both think of training as play, not work. But your children can also play games with your dog just for the sake of playing; it doesn’t have to all be about training. Remember that all kid-dog play for young children must be directly supervised by an adult. Here are some good games for kids and dogs to play together:
• Find It: Start with a dozen yummy treats and your dog in front of you. Say “Find it!” in an excited voice and toss one treat off to the side. Let him run after it and get it. As soon as he eats that one, toss another in the opposite direction and say “Find it!” Continue until the treats are gone. Older kids can play this part of the game. Young children should just watch.
Now tell your dog to “Wait!” and hold him on-leash while your child places a treat on the ground 10 to 15 feet away, then returns and tells the dog to “Find it!” Let go of the leash so your dog can run to get the treat. Repeat several times, with your child gradually “hiding” the treat in harder places as the dog watches: behind a table leg, on a chair seat, under a paper bag. Each time your child hides a treat, have her return, pause, and release the dog with a “Find it!” cue to go get the treat. Your child can also hide a valued toy - as long as you can easily get the toy back from the dog for the next round of “Find It.”
• Find Susie: When your dog has learned the “Find it” cue for treats, turn it into a game to find hidden humans. Your child hides, and you tell the dog to “Find Susie!” (insert your child’s name here). If your dog needs help, your child can call him or make noises, until he discovers her hiding place. When he does, your child feeds him treats and praises him. Teach him to find different family members by name!
• Fetch: If your dog likes to fetch, this game can keep dog and child entertained for a long time. The rules are simple: Your dog sits. Your child throws the ball. Your dog runs after it, gets it, and brings it back. If your dog doesn’t drop the ball easily, have your child throw a second ball - but only after your dog sits. He must sit each time before your child throws the ball. Most dogs will drop the first one to chase the second. If necessary, get a whole basket of balls. As part of the game, your child can collect all the balls, put them back in the basket, and start again.
The possibilities are endless for you and your child to have fun training your dog. Teach him tricks; kids love to show off their dogs’ tricks. Find more games the whole family can play - Round Robin Recall, for example, where each family member calls the dog and runs away, clicks and treats as he arrives, and then waits for the next person to call him.
Once you’ve completed his basic good manners class, have your trainer help you determine what kind of additional training might suit him and your child - perhaps he’s a candidate for rally style obedience, or your kids might like to try agility, flyball, or musical freestyle. Your children may not live in the White House, but they can have every bit as much fun with their first dog as Malia and Sasha are going to have with theirs.
Pat Miller, CPDT, is Whole Dog Journal’s Training Editor. She lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Pat is also author of four books on positive dog training. See “Resources,” page 24, for more information.