The decision to adopt a dog may have been yours, or it may have been thrust upon you by your children. In any case, children, no matter how young, can be involved in the care and training of the family dog.
In all likelihood it was probably your choice to get a dog if you have a preschooler, but you can still involve them in your dogs’ training. Simple jobs like filling the dogs’ water bowl, or helping feed the dog, are two responsibilities a young child can take on.
In terms of training, preschoolers can do a few exercises. Recall, sit, and ‘all done’ are a few they can start with. Preschoolers do well with opportunistic training, as they seem to spend lots of their time eating. For example, my daughter would have her morning toast with our dog sitting beside her waiting for the crusts to be given to him. It was a great learning opportunity for both, my daughter learned that she could get our dog to sit and wait, and my dog learned that sitting calmly reaped great rewards. She would then give him the ‘all done’ signal when she had finished, and he would walk away. She would also call him when she had something to give him, great for name recognition and recall.
However, it is often the puppy and preschooler that causes the most distressing problems in the home. Canine behaviours like biting, jumping and stealing can become major issues. The key to harmonious living in this situation is preparation. Have some confinement areas in the home for your dog and use them when you cannot supervise interactions.
Daily exercise and socialising your dog will also help with all of the above behaviour issues. As a stay-at-home mum myself I had to juggle looking after a child and a dog at the same time. Consequently, we never missed a day at the park, even when it was raining (puddles are so much fun). I combined the dogs’ walk with visits to the playground. When my daughter was a new born baby our dog gave us a good excuse to get out of the house, get some fresh air, and interact with the people in our community.
Teaching a dog to be tied up will be a beneficial skill when you have a pre schooler. Most playgrounds do not allow dogs off lead so you will have to tie your dog up. Practice this at home or in the park all the while going back and reinforcing your dog for calm, quiet behaviour. You may need to start slowly with just a few steps away for a few seconds and work up from there.
Primary aged children can start to learn more about canine body language, as this is the age group that is most susceptible to dog bites. Teaching your child about how to approach a dog, when not to go near a dog, and what to do in the event of an aggressive dog approaching, will help minimise the risk of a dog bite occurring. I will be posting an article on canine safety in the near future.
This age is also the time where your child may be bringing home friends to play with, some of these children may be scared of dogs. This is where your confinement areas should also be used, allowing the children to play undisturbed, and allowing your dog to rest undisturbed.
Children of this age should also be encouraged to come along and participate in formal training sessions. Any good dog trainer will allow all family members to participate in training, and will work with your children at their comfort level. I have worked with children (and their parents) as young as three years of age.
The first lesson a pre schooler or school aged child should learn to do in a training session is become confident at feeding the dog treats from their hands. This skill forms the basis of all exercises in the future. Some children need help with this as they are scared of hand feeding the dog, work slowly, you can even give your child a pair of gardening gloves to help them feel more comfortable. Food should be held in an open palm under the dogs chin. If the food is dangled above the dogs face they will have a tendency to jump and snap, making your child more fearful.
Primary school aged children seem to me, to be the most eager to learn. Particularly with regards to trick training. Children at this age excel at teaching dogs tricks. The beauty about tricks is that it is fun and both the dog and child will be learning. Do not discount the importance of training your dog tricks, in the end it is still teaching your dog to focus on signals.
Now we reach high school and beyond, at this stage children are finding their peers to be the most important thing in their lives. Usually the dog will play a role in the background with the rest of the family. However, a dog can also be the best thing for a teenager. A dog gives unconditional love and devotion, and during the turbulent teenage years the family dog can be a stabilising force for your child.
At this age your child could begin walking the dog on some days. Often teenagers have a high homework demand, walking, training or playing with the dog for 30mins as a study break can give them renewed energy and help them concentrate better when they begin homework again.
Alternatively, you and your teen child could walk the dog together each day. You will find that, while walking, you can have the most constructive conversations, often there is too much pressure associated with eye-to-eye contact interactions. If you make walking part of your daily schedule, over time, you may get more that the usual responses of ‘whatever’, ‘dunno’ and ‘nothing’. Walking the dog is a great way to connect with your teen.
Children of all ages can also take on the task of grooming the dog. This may include, bathing and brushing. Even young children may enjoy sitting with the dog gently brushing the dogs fur.
All children can have positive experiences with dogs. Children can learn responsibility and empathy for another living thing, and your dog will receive some valuable socialisation and training.