Kids and dogs, dogs and kids
My dogs don’t know how to behave around kids.
Many kids don’t know how to behave around dogs.
These are problems with solutions, but let’s investigate the former to begin with.
Clarity, Consistency and Repetition
I’m going to write about dog training, and since there is such a thing as a professionally trained and accredited dog trainer (we take our dogs to sessions with one such establishment), I feel it’s important to say that I’m not one. I’m going to convey some of the things that they taught me, and as all the authors say, any mistakes are my own.
There are three basic principles to teaching a dog behaviour:
- Be clear in what you want from your dog. For example, if I teach Abby to drop, and I decide I’m happy with her just flopped on the floor (at this point in her training, and since I’m often wrangling two dogs, that is where my standard is), I can’t tell her off for not being in a perfect “sphinx” position. Further, if I decide later on to up my standards, I can’t correct her or tell her off for not having her perfect “sphinx” position. That’s not at all fair and will just confuse her. I just have to slowly shift her position and reward her more in the new position. So, clarity in your goals.
- Be clear in your commands, both verbal and nonverbal. I’m a bit shit at this. My vocal commands are reasonably consistent, and I find if I keep my tone level in most commands I get a better result. I try to only ramp up my tone into an excited or “ascending” pitch if I want to get the dog riled up, as in recall or loose-lead walking, getting the dog to focus on me. But my nonverbal commands-! My gestures can be so amazingly wishy-washy that it can take ages for one of my long-suffering dogs to work out which bit of my body language they’re supposed to be paying attention to.
- Which leads me to another thing. When I raise my eyebrows at Amos, he often sits, because that’s what I used to do when he was a puppy if he didn’t sit the first time I told him to. If I stand there with my arms folded, Abby sits, because that’s what I do if she jumps up at me, and she’s learned that if I’m ignoring her and keeping my arms out of reach, then sitting will usually get me to give her praise. So all your body language when you’re giving a command matters.
This is about trying to keep rewards and corrections the same in multiple contexts. For example, if you’re not going to let your dog on the couch, then don’t let your dog on the couch (this is a famous example. Everyone uses this). If you decide you’re a bit lonely one night and you let the dog up to give you a cuddle, that’s fine. But then the next night, you tell the dog off for doing the exact same thing that got it cuddles and pats the night before. Alternatively, another member of the family has different rules. The dog gets confused and gets alternately rewarded and criticised for the same behaviour. Not only can they not figure out what they’re supposed to be doing with the couch, they probably start to get confused about rewards and corrections in general, and their family. If their family can’t be trusted to make their confusing doggy world a bit more consistent, then maybe anything goes. A lot of problem behaviour starts in this way. We’ve made mistakes like this with Amos (not the couch mistake. The “no dog on the couch” rule lasted less than 24 hours after I brought home a 9 week old puppy), and it takes time and patience and a lot of self-awareness to even work out where you were inconsistent – let alone correct it. Best to try to avoid the problem (although it’s so easy to make the mistake, because humans often forget that we don’t think the same way dogs do).
Now we come to the kicker. This is the absolute kick in the arse for our dogs-and-children problem. In a way dogs can be quite like people: it takes repetition to learn how to solve a problem, or to learn how to get the reward, avoid correction and generally be a praised and happy dog. You can’t get a dog to sit a few times in one session and decide that now they are going to remember that command and position forever.
Let’s revisit our opener: My dogs don’t know how to behave around kids. They get super-excited and will probably jump and definitely lick and for small children that’s super scary and they freak out. Often Amos will bark loudly, and even though he’s play-bowing (which means the bark is OH BOY OH BOY I’M SO EXCITED PLAY WITH ME SMALL CHILD OH BOY OH BOY, not I AM A VICIOUS CHILD EATING ROTTWEILER MWAHAHAHA), it sounds terrifying to children, and often parents as well.
Gosh! you say (a hypothetical you, not you personally). That’s terrible! Why haven’t you taught your dogs to behave around kids?
Because, I reply (with no doubt admirable patience, because as we all know I am an endlessly patient person. Stop laughing), I don’t have kids.
So what? asks hypothetical you, who either doesn’t have dogs, or has dogs who have always been relatively calm.
So, I say with heavy emphasis, Amos is very good at sitting before he comes inside, dropping to let me wipe his feet, rolling his hips when I say “back paws!” so I can do the back paws, not stealing food from the table, heeling when we go for a walk, and jumping for the tug rope without touching my skin. He is good at these things because he gets practice. Most of them are reinforced every day, just by living. Kids coming to visit happens maybe three times a year, so not only do we not get to reinforce not licking kids on the face or not bouncing and barking at kids, but in addition to that, kids coming to visit is super exciting.
If I have time, one small (relatively keen) child, and a very patient and laid back parent who is willing to help out, I can spend some time kid-proofing (one dog at a time). It’s actually not that tricky to do it. It’s the same principle as getting a dog to adjust to any new and interesting stimulus, getting them to switch their brain back on and behave themselves. It’s just that it happens once in a blue moon and by the time another kid visits, or we see kids running around playing at a café that we take the dogs out to, those lessons are pretty vague.
It’s also hard to be properly focused on training when half of you is panicking that a parent will think your dog is vicious and dangerous or that you are a terrible dog owner or any number of things. This is my problem and involves my own ego and insecurities and worries about representation (and being aware that for many people I’m the only rottweiler owner they are likely to meet, and wanting to represent that at least reasonably well), and I shouldn’t be making it into an issue for my dogs, but I find I spend time trying to explain that our dogs don’t get exposed to kids, so they are just a bit insane.
Since I’m spending time doing that, I am not being focused, let alone clear or concise, with my dogs, and therefore they don’t get to learn from the experience. That’s why it’s so good when someone brings a kid round and is willing to help me kid-proof a dog.
Also, Amos is two and Abby is one. They will calm down as they get older.
So. It is easy enough to train dogs to behave around kids, as long as there are kids around for them to learn with, and that is our stumbling block.
The other stumbling block is the next post.
Edit: I feel I should mention that, if kids are around for an extended period, eventually the dogs do calm down and start behaving with some semblance of manners. It just takes a while.