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How to help your kids practice with their dog

Dog training and handling can be a great activity for kids to work on and master. This article is aimed primarily at working with disabled children, but the techniques can work with all kids!

1) Keep sessions short. When you're just learning the technicalities of working with a dog, your brain will fill up fast. I'd much rather see a child/dog team work well and on-task for two minutes than work "sort of okay" for ten minutes. Multiple short, effective, enjoyable sessions are much better than one long session.

2) Monitor frustration. Let's face it, training dogs can be challenging. Maybe the dog doesn't want to do it or can't figure it out. Maybe no matter how hard your child tries, the dog simply doesn't respond. Patience is the "long-term" lesson here, but if you see your childs frustration level rising, step in (I like to use a cheerful interrupter, such as, "Okay! Let's take five!" that allows the child a chance to calm down in a non-confrontational way.)

3) Help your child master individual skills before trying to put them all together. I can't tell you how often I've been coaching a child something like "Lower your hand," and he gets pretty good at it -- then we move on to "Keep your eyes forward." The first couple times the child tries this new "eyes forward" thing, the hand usually goes right back up. Don't freak out about the hand going back up! Just let the child get good and used to keeping their eyes forward, and once that's easy, then add the lowered hand. One thing at a time!

4) Don't try to help the dog -- instead, help the child to help the dog. Another common scenario is that the child is asking the dog to do something, for example, "Sit." The dog doesn't do it, and the parent steps in, instructing the dog "Sit." (There *is* a technique that involves this method, but it's usually for kids who have extreme difficulties with language and we only use it sometimes. This information is for the rest of you.) So, what you should do here instead? Back to your child saying "Sit." Instead of telling "Sit" to the dog, coach your child: maybe "Try your hand signal," or "Take a step in towards the dog."

5) Practice the training methods beforehand and have an understanding of them -- both the training methods in general, and the way they specifically apply to your dog. If you know that your dog likes to pop out of the down position, and you can give a heads-up to your child, it will be very helpful.

6) Don't be afraid to do the fun stuff! Endless repetitions of Sit, Down, Stay, Come are dull for dogs as well as kids. Feel free to train tricks like Paws Up, Spin, Roll Over, etc. Kids are often more motivated to do the fun stuff, but they will actually be learning great training skills!

7) Encourage regular practice. If your child does not want to practice, here is a technique that usually works very well!
You: "Would you like to do obedience practice with Fido?"
Child: "No."
You: "May I do obedience practice with Fido?"
Child: "Okay."
Then start some practice; this almost always will get the child interested and he or she will want to step in and take over.

If your child never wants to practice with the dog, there is usually a reason for it. Maybe the dog is too rough, hurts the child, or is simply so unresponsive that the child never feels successful and simply stops. Issues like this can be easy to fix with a few professional lessons, so just let me know!

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