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Children and dogs, it’s a combination that, with responsible direction and support from parents, can be pretty amazing. Studies have indicated evidence of an association between pet ownership and educational and cognitive benefits. Various studies of pet ownership and social development have shown increased social competence and social interaction, critical aspects of healthy behavioral growth in children.
In addition to studies regarding social development of children with pets, other studies have suggested a relationship with cognitive development of pet-owning children. According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health Review, titled Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence, studies show that companion animal ownership may encourage language acquisition and enhance verbal skills in young children. Animals function both as patient recipients of a young children’s babble and as a subject that encourages communication in the form of praise, encouragement, and communication about what the pet is doing. And, as many of us are aware, pets provide emotional support and unconditional love to children and adults.
Parents will sometimes agree to get a pet for a child to teach them responsibility. In most cases, the parents eventually end up providing most of the physical care of the pet. But there is much more a parent can do to help the child learn to be a responsible pet owner than just having the child feed the pet or take the dog for walks.
In the 20 years that I have been assisting or teaching dog training classes, I have encountered some truly exceptional child trainers. These children have parents who are supportive of the child-dog relationship and who have recognized the value of having their child involved in training their dog. In fact, some of the best trainers I have observed in class have been children around the ages of about seven to early teen. I have found if the child is younger than about seven, they can have difficulty controlling the dog in class. However, the parent can help by holding the dog while the child teaches the cue with the parent’s assistance.
Dog training classes that only use positive training methods generally welcome child participation and are an excellent way to help children learn patience and empathy.
When children learn force-free training methods, the kindness and gentleness they learn can transfer to their relationships with friends.
What I have observed with children who have a big role in training the dog is that they tend to pay attention in class and follow instructions well. Perhaps this is because they are in school and are used to listening and learning new things. Perhaps because, unlike us adults, their minds aren’t cluttered with the stresses of paying bills or worrying about the workday. The children that are successful trainers in class have a close bond with their dogs and the dogs seem to pay better attention to them than to the adults. This may be because the children also play with them at home and spend more time developing that relationship. In our classes, we use clicker training and the children catch on quickly to the timing of the clicker and the delivery of treats.
If you want to encourage your child to build a better relationship with your dog, I recommend that you first start at home by teaching your child how to understand his dog’s body language. There are several excellent resources online with videos and pictures. My favorite website for resources on canine body language geared to children are www.doggonesafe. com and the Zoom Room canine body language videos on YouTube. When your child is interacting with your dog, watch for signs such as the dog turning away, suddenly getting still, licking his lips or yawning. These are subtle signs that your dog is not comfortable with the interaction. Children should always be supervised by a parent when interacting with dogs.
You can help your child build a closer bond with the dog by having your child assist with feeding and grooming. ( Note that if your dog growls or shows any other sign of discomfort during the interactions, you should contact a force free dog training professional.)
Help your child teach his dog simple behaviors such as eye contact, name response, sit or a simple trick such as shake or spin. If you are familiar with clicker training, you can show your child the basics of using a clicker.
If your child has a real interest in the fun of dog training, find a positive training class that encourages family participation. A good way to start is by searching the website of the local Alliance of Force Free Animal Professionals, www.alliance-of-force-free-animal-professionals.com.
Once your child is hooked on dog training, he may want to consider participating in a dog sport such as agility or rally obedience. This is a great way for young people to build a strong bond with their dog and, at the same time, learn about good sportsmanship. Several organizations such as the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club have special programs for junior handlers.