Usually I deal with children and dogs that have been in an unpleasant situation such as biting or scratching. It is part of my job as a clinical animal behaviourist, but that does not make it any easier or less depressing when you realise that such incidents are preventable and very common.
This week, however, I am starting our new puppy class courses and am delighted that we have junior handlers in all our classes, attending along with their parents and carers. We always joke that ‘well behaved children and adults are welcome’! It is a far cry from the old-fashioned dog schools where it was very strictly one person, one dog, and children were not invited.
In my experience, if the kids in a family are well behaved, the dog will be too. It is perhaps to do with routine, gentle but firm boundaries, and not the forceful punishment of the past.
Younger handlers in puppy classes tend to be happier to give things a try. They learn to see things from the puppy’s point of view, and feel protective over this baby animal. Adults can be a little more worried about getting things wrong or looking silly in front of the group; youngsters never seem to have such problems! This means that they can be very natural when training.
We have to teach children that dogs do not like being hugged or kissed, but we often see children doing this to their own dogs. Maybe we do it, and they copy! Perhaps this is down to individual circumstance whether or not the dog bites; maybe some dogs mind and others do not. What I do know is that kids cannot read the warning signals so we still need to carefully supervise them all. Never, ever leave your children alone with any dog. No matter how inconvenient it may be! Nice dogs bite, and nice children get bitten. The difference is in how we teach them to interact, and the way forward is coaching them BOTH.
Should we adults step aside and let these dog trainers of the future show us the way? Not entirely. We can teach them how to be decent to animals and how to care for them. They need to learn what body signals dogs can give out when they are unhappy (moving away, licking lips, yawning) and we can teach them this too.
Most of all if we are going to deal with dogs behaving badly, out of control or being allowed to upset other people and other dogs, we need to not only train the dogs, but our children – the trainers – and parents – of the future.