Getting Your Children Involved in Training the Family Dog

Kids' work with the family dog nurtures their empathy and strengthens bonds.


[Updated February 27, 2018]

One of the things that parents almost always say when they decide to add a dog to the family is, “It will help teach the kids about responsibility.” That’s the hope, anyway.

Those of us who are committed to teaching non-force, positive dog training see another important opportunity for growth that may arrive with the dog. Many pet dog trainers today are using modern, dog-friendly methods that teach students – children and adults alike – that it is not appropriate nor necessary to use pain or physical force to make another creature to submit to their will. These trainers teach kids how much more powerful (and enjoyable) it is to use kindness, patience, and intellect to communicate and solve problems with their dogs.

kid and dog bonding

Some visionary trainers are even using positive training methods to help abused children rediscover their empathy for the pain and suffering of others. The value of such a program cannot be overstated. Now that the mental health profession has confirmed that children who abuse animals are very likely to grow up into people who abuse other people, the importance of encouraging empathy in children takes on a new significance.

What’s more, children have often been observed to have an innate empathy for animals and their suffering, but this empathy is easily deadened by exposure to animal cruelty. Adults may wrongly rationalize that abuse perpetuated in the name of producing a well-behaved dog is acceptable. But a seemingly good end does not justify violent means. It would be monstrous for the child to conclude that hurting the dog – for whatever reason – is okay.

Finally, many positive trainers have independently reached the conclusion that teaching methods and philosophies that promote nonviolence and a respect for all forms of life is more important now than ever.

Kids are not necessarily accustomed to being as competent as Mom and Dad. But dog training is one field where they can really shine, and even eclipse their parents’ abilities.

In fact, some of my best human students have been children! One mother called me for private training because the family’s four-month-old Labrador Retriever pup was jumping up on and terrorizing the three-year-old toddler. Within a week, the toddler had learned to lift her tiny hands up to her chest to elicit a polite sit from the puppy, and a potential relationship disaster was averted.

And a very young boy was one of the bright stars in a class I taught recently. As I passed out graduation certificates at the conclusion of the course, I thoroughly enjoyed the sight of 10-month-old Champ, a large and energetic Golden Retriever, happily doing sit-down, sit-down, puppy push-ups for his five-year-old human packmate.

Top 10 Reasons Why Your Child May Make a Better Trainer Than You

The following list includes a number of generalizations about normal, dog-loving kids and normal, kid-loving dogs. Little of what we present here is applicable to kids who don’t like dogs or are deeply fearful of dogs, or dogs who are deeply fearful of children. If your dog and kids have relationship problems – if there is any aggression being perpetrated upon each other – we would suggest that you consult a professional, positive trainer to help you with socializing them.

Confident kids who love their dogs may be in the best position to accomplish training miracles with the family dog, thanks to:

10. Food! Most dogs recognize quickly that kids dispense treats at a very high rate of reinforcement. Kids are always eating, and they often drag their food around with them – in the car, on the sofa, in the yard, and so on. And they love to share! Even the tiniest toddlers quickly learn that dogs pay more attention to them when they are eating – and sharing. Trainers want their canine pupils to watch them, and to regard them as the source of delicious treats . . . so kids have that going for them without even thinking about it.

9. Kids are closer in size to dogs than adults, therefore less intimidating. Their faces are within licking range and their hands are closer, more likely to dole out petting. Dogs who are threatened by even a quiet, gentle adult towering over them will often regard even a pushy youngster as a trusted playmate.

8. Most kids have higher-pitched voices than adults, and they tend to speak with more animation. This elicits an excitement response in many dogs. In fact, adult trainers sometimes have to cultivate a high-pitched tone of voice to keep dogs playing the training game. Kids already have it!

7. Kids are more physically exciting to dogs. They are human kinetic wonders, moving unpredictably, wiggling and squirming, and they are just as likely to jump up and down as throw themselves on the floor. As a predatory species, dogs find movement irresistible; they automatically train their attention on things that move. (And face it: compared to kids, adults are boooo-ring!)

6. Kids are more likely to try to cajole or “trick” the dog into doing something than to physically force him (unless they have been exposed to people who use compulsive training). While their methods may be unorthodox – luring a reluctant dog into the car by waving their Beanie Baby at him, for example – they often have more success with the dog than Mom or Dad do. Many family dogs regard the adult as the “enforcer,” the person who grabs the dog, puts the leash on, picks him up, or otherwise makes him do what he doesn’t want to do. As a result, dogs tend to regard the kids as being “safer” to be around.

5. Kids have more time! We know that some kids are very busy, what with school, homework, soccer, etc. But training is best accomplished in numerous, short sessions. Kids can ask the dog to perform a behavior, such as “sit,” 20 or 30 times a day while they pour their cereal, brush their teeth, and tie their shoes. If they are packing their lunches or eating a snack, they can ask the dog to do a “down” or two in exchange for a few treats. Two-minute television commercial breaks are perfect opportunities to train the dog.

4. Kids can really relate to a dog’s philosophy of life: “What’s in it for me?” Explain it to them this way: “You know how much more fun it is to get a treat or a prize after you’ve done something good? That’s how dogs are! And you know how bad you feel when you’ve done something really good and no one notices at all? Dogs feel like that, too!” Explained simply, most children will immediately appreciate the importance of praise and rewards for the dog.

3. Kids tend to be more observant of the dog’s subtle body language than adults. Perhaps as a result of spending more “bonding” time with the dog (or maybe it’s from watching thousands of hours of cartoon animals who are fully equipped with human attributes and powers of communication), it’s often the kids who first notice that the dog is feeling sick. That he “smiles” when he’s really happy. That he walks a certain way when he needs to go to the bathroom. Praise your child when she accurately assesses the dog’s “message,” and help her interpret the finer points of behavior. For example, a dog who is feeling confused may turn his head away or lick his nose; a dog who really “gets” what you want him to do may bump you with his nose or paw to invite you to keep playing the game, etc.

2. Kids may handle the dog’s “failures” better. Think about it: Most kids are accustomed to feeling less effective than adults. Frequently, when adults can’t get their dogs to do what they want, they get frustrated and sometimes even punitive. Kids are more accustomed to not being able to get others to do what they want; they tend to take it less seriously when the dog ignores their “orders.” Teach your children to ignore the dog’s “wrong” responses, and to focus chiefly on rewarding the dog for everything he does right. It will keep the dog’s training on the fun, fast track. And speaking of fun . . .

1. Both kids and dogs just want to have fun. A love of play is something they share. Kids can capitalize on the fact that they are desirable playmates for the dog, and reward him for good behavior with a good romp. Conversely, when training turns into a long, boring chore, kids and dogs will bail. Remind your kids to keep their training sessions short and fun, and kids and dogs alike will continue to come running when you call, “Training time!”

While dedicated dog-loving kids can train their dogs to do just about anything dogs can do, they should start with the basics. The following are some easy exercises that will cultivate your child’s ability and desire to build a positive relationship with the family dog.

Clicker Training with Kids

Kids love clickers. I may have to do a hard sell to convince some of my adult students to train with a “gadget,” but kids are sold from the first Click! They can’t wait to get their hands on that little plastic box and start clicking the dog. The toughest part is making them understand that the clicker is not a toy – every time they click the clicker, they have to give the dog a treat!

With younger children (three to seven) or kids who need work on impulse control, you can team-click: You Click! the clicker, and they dole out the treats. If you have a canine youngster with needle-sharp puppy teeth, let your child do the clicking while you work on softening the puppy’s bite, and have him drop treats on the floor when it’s your turn to Click! If your dog already knows how to take treats gently, you can take turns, with one of you on the clicker while the other one feeds treats from the hand. Older children can usually handle both tasks themselves, with some supervision from you.

Your child’s first training exercise is “charging the clicker,” known more formally as “conditioning the dog to the reward marker.” This exercise simply teaches the dog that the sound of the clicker (or the word “Yes!” if you don’t have access to a clicker) means that a treat is coming. It’s the easiest exercise you will ever do, and a breeze for a kid.

One of you Clicks! the clicker. The other feeds the dog a treat. Click! Treat. Click! Treat. (Note: Occasionally a dog is afraid of the Click! sound. In this case, you can use a softer marker, such as the click of a ball point pen or your tongue. Kids are usually pretty good at tongue clicks!)

In this initial exercise, the dog doesn’t have to do anything at all. The only caution is that you don’t want to Click! when your dog is doing an unwanted behavior, such as jumping up. Most dogs get the concept pretty quickly. You’ll know when you see the dog’s eyes light up and start looking for the treat the instant she hears the Click! Let your child tell you when he thinks your dog has it figured out – it will teach him to start watching and understanding the dog’s body language, which is an important part of a successful canine-human relationship.

Teaching Kids to Teach the Dog

Your dog may start offering sits while the two of you are charging the clicker, especially if you remember to hold the treat up at your chest, because it is easier for her to sit and watch the treat than crane her neck back while standing. Encourage your budding trainer to hold the treat up at his chest, while you look for opportunities to Click! the dog when she happens to have her bottom on the ground. If you and your child consistently Click! when the dog is sitting, she will eventually conclude that sitting makes the Click! happen, and she will start sitting on purpose to make you Click! the clicker. The next exercise, sit, will be a breeze for her to learn, because she’s already doing it!

kid training dog

You will both need to remember not to ask your dog to “Sit” until she is already sitting. Novice trainers, including kids, forget that dogs aren’t born knowing English. Just because you tell the dog to sit doesn’t mean she will, and since you’re not going to force her to sit, there’s no point in wasting your breath. Instead, tell your child to wait for the dog to sit, or to help her sit by holding the treat to her nose and moving it back over her head, then Click! and treat when she does. When the dog is sitting easily for your child, then he can start saying “Sit” when the dog is already sitting.

After the dog has had the opportunity to hear the word “Sit” a number of times while sitting – a dozen to two dozen times, perhaps, depending on how fast she learns – your child can say “Sit!” just before the dog sits, when he can tell by watching the dog’s body language that she is about to plop her bottom on the ground to make the clicker go off. Click! and treat. At this point it may appear that the dog is sitting because your child asked her to, but in reality, she is sitting because she has been practicing this routine, and she knows if she sits when your child holds the treat up to his chest, it will make the clicker go off. Your dog probably doesn’t understand the word yet – you may need to give her a little more help. If your child says “Sit!” and the dog doesn’t do it, lure the dog into a sit by placing the treat in front of her nose and move it over her head. Remember that it doesn’t help to keep repeating the word – you don’t want to teach her that the cue for sit is “Sit! Sit! SIT!”

Helping Your Kid Generalize the Dog’s Behavior

When your dog can perform the “Sit” reliably for your child at home, take the pair of them to practice at other locations.

Dogs do not generalize well. That means that if you always work with your dog on “Sit” in the kitchen, three feet in front of the refrigerator, she may well conclude that “Sit!” means “Sit in the kitchen, three feet in front of the refrigerator.” The first time your child asks your dog to sit in the living room, she may not do it, because there’s no refrigerator there!

You will have to back up a step in training, and use the treat-lure to show the dog that “Sit!” means “Sit wherever you are, not just in the kitchen.” You can also teach her that “Sit” means “Sit by my side, sit when my back is toward you, sit when I am sitting on a chair, sit when I am lying on the floor.” She also needs to learn that “Sit!” means “Sit when there are visitors in the house, sit when you see another dog, and sit even if a cat runs by.” Then you will know that your dog really understands the word “Sit!”

Four-Step Dog Training Formula for Kids

You and your children just followed a four-step formula for teaching your dog “Sit.” Guess what? Your budding trainers can follow the same steps for teaching your dog everything else they want to teach her:

1. Get the dog to do the behavior, using the treat to show her what you want, if necessary. Click! and treat when she does it.

2. Repeat Step 1 until she does the behavior easily. Then add the word you want to use to cue the behavior the instant she does it. Click! and treat.

3. When she has had time to hear the word in relation to the behavior, say the word just before she does the behavior, and then help her with the treat, if necessary.

4. As soon as she seems to have made the connection between the word and the behavior, help her generalize the behavior to other locations. Take the training crew 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.

Teaching “Down”

Let’s apply the training formula to another behavior – teaching your dog to lie down on cue. This one is often a little more challenging than the sit; you will probably have to help your child get this one right.

Step 1 – Get the behavior: While your dog is sitting, one of you holds a treat in front of her nose and starts slowly moving it straight down, using it to show her that you want her to move toward the floor. The other Clicks! the clicker as the dog lowers her head to follow the treat.

kids training dog

Each time the Click! happens, give the dog a small nibble of treat. Do not wait to Click! until she is all the way down! Because this is a more difficult behavior, you need to Click! and reward her just for heading in the right direction, or she may give up. The two of you trainers will gradually “shape” the dog into a down – which means clicking and rewarding small bits of the desired behavior until you finally get the whole thing.

If your child is unsuccessful shaping the dog into a down, he can lure her under your knee, a low stool, or a coffee table, so she has to lie down and crawl to follow the treat. Click! and reward. Repeat this until the dog seems to be getting the idea, then try shaping the down again.

Step 2 – Add the word: When the dog lies down easily, have your child add the word “Down” when the dog is in the down position, to give her a chance to associate the word with the behavior.

Step 3 – Put the word first: After a couple of dozen repetitions, have your young trainer stand in front of the dog with his treat hand at his side or behind his back (so he isn’t giving the dog the “Sit!” cue by holding it at his chest) and tell him to say “Down.” Give the dog a second or two to process the word, and if she doesn’t lie down (she probably won’t), have your child put the treat in front of the dog’s nose and lure her into a down. Click! and treat.

Keep repeating this exercise until the dog lies down on just the verbal cue, then Click! and Jackpot! – which means feeding the dog a handful of treats, one at a time, as a special reward for doing this challenging exercise. Then take your child out for ice cream – he deserves a jackpot, too!

Step 4 – Generalize: Now it’s time to take the show on the road. Have your team start practicing the “Down” exercise when you take them for walks around the block, trips to the park or the pet food store, or visits to your veterinarian.

Teaching “Come”

Let’s apply the formula to one more exercise, and then you, your dog, and your junior dog trainer are on your own!

“Come” is a very important behavior for dogs to learn, and while it takes time and practice for dogs to learn to come despite the allure of other dogs and fleeing squirrels, it’s a much easier behavior to begin teaching than “Down.” You and your child each need a handful of treats and a clicker.

Step 1 – Get the behavior: Both of you stand close to the dog. Have your child show the dog a treat and take a couple of steps backward. When the dog follows the kid, Click! and treat.

Step 2 – Add the word: You can add the word pretty quickly, since your dog will probably come toward the trainer the first time he tries this. The second time, as he steps back and the dog starts to move toward him, have the kid say “Sally, come!” (Obviously, you use your dog’s own name!) Click and treat. You and your child should take several turns each doing this exercise with the dog.

Step 3 – Say the word first: Again, you can shortcut to this one, since your dog will probably catch on to this fun game pretty fast. One of you says “Sally, come!” and then takes several steps back. The caller should Click! the clicker as soon as the dog starts running toward him, since it is the behavior of coming toward the caller that you want to reinforce – you don’t have to wait until she gets all the way to you.

Gradually put more and more distance between you and your child, so your dog has to run farther and farther to get to the caller. As you stand farther apart, clicking the clicker as soon the dog starts toward you will encourage her to come faster, since the Click! tells her there’s a treat waiting for her.

Step 4 – Generalize: This is the one people tend to forget. They think that just because the dog comes when they call her in the back yard, she should immediately come when she is chasing a squirrel, playing with other dogs, or getting in the garbage. You and your child need to practice “Come” in lots of different places if you want your dog to come to you reliably wherever she is. In each new location, start close together, with the dog on leash, and gradually work up to longer distances, using a long line if there are lots of distractions to entice her away (see “Long Distance Information,” February 2001).

And there you have it. You and your child can use this formula to teach your dog anything you want her to learn. Be creative!

Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer. She sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. She is the author of many books on dog training; the first book she wrote is called The Power of Positive Dog Training.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.