By Paula Ferrel
Many of us working in the animal field do the work we do because we love animals. But we often don’t realize how much we really rely on interacting with people of all kinds, including children. I have a unique perspective when it comes to working with youth and dogs. At the spcaLA I work in the Violence Prevention and Humane Education Department, where we do numerous programs working with children and shelter animals. Two programs we are most well-known for are our Teaching Love and Compassion (TLC) program and our Friends for Life Summer Camp.
Informed by the connections between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence, TLC aims to strengthen students’ self-esteem, their ability to build healthy relationships, and their empathy for all living beings. During TLC, a small selected group of students come together every day for about 4 weeks after school. Each program day has two components. The first, interactive group time focused on social-emotional learning (e.g. teamwork, conflict, communication, anti-bias, etc.) and animal welfare (e.g. animal cruelty, overpopulation, etc.) The second component, force-free, positive reinforcement-based dog training with their assigned shelter dogs, guided by a professional dog trainer, my role in most instances. Our TLC program takes place at schools within various Los Angeles communities, we run 6-8 TLCs throughout the school year.
The spcaLA Friends for Life Summer Camp is a week-long day camp designed for 8-17 year olds. Campers learn basic care and responsibility for pets by participating in animal-related crafts and activities. Campers see animal related demos, and teach shelter dogs a variety of skills ranging from obedience to tricks and even agility, all while being guided by a professional dog trainer. Our summer camp takes place for 8 weeks throughout the summer and we host about 50 students each week.
The majority of my experiences here at the shelter involve working with children over the age of 8 years old, I do have experience outside of the spcaLA working with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. And I am a new mom!
So I would like to offer my advice in the area in the hope of assisting trainers and other professionals who occasionally work with children and dogs. This will not be a step by step guide, but more of a “how to think on the fly” in the event a child is running around your shelter, the babysitter canceled, or a child is rolling in the grass during class. This article will focus primarily on children over the age of 8 years.
Trainers often overlook children’s roles in the dog training process. They really are clients, just like the adults we work with, so throughout this article I will refer to children as our youth clients.
Do you keep a leash in the car in case you run into a stray dog? Do you always have extra yummy treats available in the event your client brings milk bones to a training session? Of course, right? Ever plan for the presence of an unexpected or disruptive child during your class or training session?
I recommend a “busy box.” This works wonderfully for our programs at spcaLA. A small bin (or several, if you want to appeal to different age groups) full of coloring books, chalk, dog breed books, joke books, puzzles, educational materials, and playing cards can serve as a busy box. This box can be useful during your group classes, with a private client, or for shelter workers involved in programs like summer camps, post-adoption training, or during the adoption process. Keep one at your front counter area to keep children occupied to divert them from putting their fingers in the cat kennels.
In group classes, you can also encourage youth clients to help you in your classes (with parent permission, of course); collecting cones, setting out obstacles, or acting as a purposeful distraction for an approaching person are all things that could be genuinely helpful. Our youth clients like to feel needed, just like everyone else does.
Have you encountered youth clients who come to a training class with parents and remain on their phone the entire time? That’s fine. Maybe you can have an extra pair of ear buds in your busy box in the event the volume is loud and distracting. You can recommend games that they can download (with parent permission) that are animal related, or send them to websites with animal safety education.
Other times, when you are working with a family, you will find that the youth client is in fact the more skilled trainer. Colleen Pelar (2013) says, “I love working with elementary school kids! They are amazing trainers. They often follow the instructions to the letter and then are thrilled when the dog does what they’ve asked. Training strengthens the relationship between the child and the dog and is very empowering. Kids often feel like everyone is always telling them what to do; dog training gives them a chance to be in charge.”
Think about it: When did you start training dogs? What age did your training skill develop? I started volunteering in an animal shelter when I was 15 years old, and at that age took on challenging dogs. But that is not when my skills started. It was when I was much younger, in the back yard, when I was teaching my dog to follow me, to climb my tree, to jump up onto a platform, or to play with toys.
Setting everyone up for success
Similar to any other time someone is working with an animal, we need to think of setting them up for success. This could be setting up our environment with barriers, if needed, tie downs, chairs, all at appropriate distances, and of course being aware of distractions. Some of those distractions can be your clients!
Positioning youth clients away from potential sources of distraction can help (light switches can be surprisingly distracting for some!), as can remembering to take breaks and move around, and giving them the choice to disengage if they find themselves getting frustrated. We may need to set up a spot where our youth clients can color or use our busy box. To do this, we can give them a chair, a blanket, or have them sit next to a table.
I feel that being a dog trainer has two parts: You have to know the science behind dog training, but you also need to know the art of dog training. Part of that art is communicating with clients of all ages and being able to adjust your language in a way that helps them understand, while at the same time practicing empathy to avoid being condescending.
How do you explain to a 9-year-old who is running through the kennels that the dogs are noticeably showing signs of stress and discomfort? I can’t just say, “Sweetie, the dogs are displaying signs of stress. This dog is cowering and showing whale eye. When you run around you are creating a negative association with children, so can you please stop?” Of everything that was said, they will likely focus on “Why does the dog have a whale’s eye?” (Also, be aware that most parents are not fond of strangers talking to their kid.) Here’s how I’d approach situations like this:
I’d start by introducing myself and asking the parents or guardians if it is okay if I take a minute to educate their family about some of the things the shelter dogs are trying to communicate to us. If they respond positively, I’d let the child know that dogs don’t speak English, they speak dog, and dogs communicate through their body. I’d ask them or their parents to make a sad face, a happy face, or a mad face, as a quick review of how people communicate with our bodies too. Then I’d look at the dog and point out some body language, like, “I see that the dog is low to the ground. What do you see?” I’d prompt them to identify what the dog is displaying along with me. Then I’d start to talk about what we can do together to make the dog feel better — we can give the dog space, we can toss treats, we could offer the dog a toy, etc.
This conversation can take two minutes, or it can take a bit longer. Remember, young people are smart, and if you allow for moments with open-ended questions, they will be more likely to remember what is said because they had to think of it. Let’s take advantage of those learning opportunities!
I was doing a training presentation at a school kindergarten, and rather than using the words positive reinforcement, I used rewards training. I thought that would be simpler, until one student asked, “What’s a reward?” I quickly changed my vocabulary to prizes, and asked, “Do you all know what prizes are?” They responded joyfully with a big “YES!” The dog gets a prize when they do the trick. Just like you may get a prize when you do really well in school or clean your room.
I have interacted with many teenagers, who have learned about positive reinforcement in school, and when I have conversations with them using science terminology, they get it. Many young people love learning new words, especially things their parents don’t know, so don’t be afraid to start introducing some technical terms, especially with youth clients who seem particularly interested.
Empathy can be a powerful tool when working with youth clients and dogs. Starting conversations with “Imagine…,” or “How do you feel when…,” or “What do you think the dog is thinking of?” allows the client to stop and think for a moment. They may think back to a specific experience, remember their feelings, and imagine what it would be like to be a dog. It is also a great way to help them understand how the dog is behaving and how they can react based on the dog’s behavior.
At the spcaLA we are all about practicing empathy. One way we do this is by having our students (even adults we work with) practice writing a story from the point of view of a shelter dog. With most of our programs, students are paired with a shelter dog, so they would write a story from the point of view of that dog. We have a variety of ways we can do this. Usually, we give students a few things to think of to help guide them as they write the story. How old is the shelter dog? What do they look like? What was their life like before the shelter? How do they feel about being at the shelter? What do they wish for in their future?
Perhaps you can adapt this empathy-building activity in a form that fits for you. Have your youth clients write a story or draw a picture from the point of view of their pet. What is their pet’s day like? What are their favorite activities and foods? How do they feel about their human family members? How do they feel about learning new things?
Sometimes, kids are kids. They are still developing and learning, and may honestly not know how to interact with dogs. If you see a situation where the dog is stressed and uncomfortable, say something, but try to use this interaction as a learning opportunity or a ”coachable moment.” Empathy makes us better trainers; it allows us to be more compassionate and communicate with all of our clients.
Society has shaped our idea of how kids and dogs should behave together. We see kids and dogs together in movies and TV, and read about them in books. Our youth clients see and read about these interactions and hope their dog will behave in the same way. Some kids become disappointed when their dog is not just like Air Bud. So, how can we create lasting positive memories for both the youth and the dog?
A good place to start is by trying to have fun! If you need some ideas, I’d suggest taking a look at one of Kyra Sundance’s many trick books, particularly 101 Tricks Kids Edition: Fun and Easy Activities, Games, and Crafts. Terry Ryan’s Gamify Your Dog Training is full of fun games for your group classes.
I find for teen and adult clients, relating training back to something they know can also be fun. There are some funny parts of different TV series that model some dog training concepts, two that come to mind are the Big Bang Theory and The Office. On the Big Bang Theory, they have an episode where one of the characters, Sheldon, positively reinforces another character, Penny, for “good behavior.” Another episode that many adults and teens find hilarious, is an episode of The Office where one of the characters, Jim, conditions his coworker, Dwight, to have a dry mouth and have the urge for a mint by turning off his computer and offering a mint, in the same way Pavlov taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell.
Another way that I find our youth clients have a lot of fun is by letting them come up with a trick that they decide to teach their dog. Then, I am responsible for showing them how to teach it. One of the most memorable and genuinely fun things we taught a dog to do was go to their crate and close it behind them. Another fun one was teaching a dog to put away their toys. One group of students trained their dog to jump into a purse.
In order to think on the fly, there is one skill that definitely helps, and that’s creativity. Creativity is a critical part of dog training, whether you work with youth clients or not. And this is a skill that comes with experience. As we continue with our careers, we get better and more knowledgeable. I am not perfect; I can look back and pinpoint many things that I wish I could have done differently. But now, I take each new student and new dog I work with as a learning opportunity for myself, because I can only get better at what I do (I hope!). I hope that I have provided you with some new ways to create situations where you won’t aim to avoid working with children, but instead will think of ways you can help your clients as a whole group: dog, adult, and youth client.
Pelar, C. (2013), Living With Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind: A Parent’s Guide to Controlling the Chaos. Dogwise: WA.
Ryan, T. (2016), Gamify Your Dog Training: Training Games for Group Instruction. Dogwise: WA.
Sundance, K. (2014), 101 Dog Tricks, Kids Edition: Fun and Easy Activities, Games, and Crafts. Quarry Books: MA.