Children, even at a fairly early age, are perfectly capable of teaching and reinforcing simple behaviors with the family dog. Training a dog is an easy skill to learn. It builds self-esteem for children, and is good mental exercise for dogs, which are not automatically accustomed to thinking of children as small humans.
How to Start
If your child is old enough to walk, talk, press a clicker, and understand the difference between a sitting and standing dog, he or she is old enough to reinforce “sit” with a dog that has already learned this cue.
Have your child hold a clicker, while you hold some dog treats. The child should ask your dog to sit, then click the clicker when the dog obeys. Then you can give the dog a treat. Some kids will be so excited by successfully cueing a dog that they will begin clicking the clicker repeatedly, confusing the dog. If this happens, take a short break, and switch roles. You can click for a while, and your child can drop treats into a dish for the dog.
Don’t have young children hand-feed treats during their first few training sessions with the family dog. Even the sweetest pooch can get excited when receiving treats in quick succession, and the addition of the child as a trainer might be overwhelming enough to cause the dog to take the treat too eagerly and nip small fingers.
Once your child grasps the basic concept of cueing, observing, and rewarding a behavior, you can move on to more complex behaviors. Younger children should focus on behaviors like down, stay, or wave, which don’t require too much rambunctious energy from the dog or coordination from the child.
Older kids can teach tricks that require them to multitask, such as training a dog to jump through a hula hoop. Your child can hold the hoop and clicker while you call the dog to come toward you through the hoop. As the dog passes through, he should receive a click from your child, followed by a treat from you. Raise the hoop gradually off the ground until the dog must jump to get through it. With some practice, older children can reinforce this behavior without your help.
With practice and supervision, children will gain confidence in training and reinforcing behaviors. Older kids can start to work with dogs without adult assistance after a few sessions. However, if your child is to train the dog without supervision, lay some ground rules for safe and productive interaction. A few suggestions:
- Absolutely no hitting or shouting at the dog. If training gets frustrating and the trainer feels angry, the session should end and training can be picked back up another time.
- Training sessions should last only until the dog or trainer begin to lose interest. Don’t push the dog past the length of its attention span– keep it fun.
- Always tell an adult what you practiced with the dog and what treats you used.
- One click, one treat: Don’t overfeed the dog or click him without giving a treat.
- No teaching destructive behaviors, or behaviors that violate the rules of the house: If the dog isn’t normally allowed on the furniture, don’t train him to jump onto the couch.
- Have fun!