Currently browsing dogs and kids posts

How to Keep Kids From Getting Bit Helping with Dog Training

As a professional dog trainer for many years, there are many things I have had to learn to do differently when working with the dogs around children versus what I would normally do.

Things that I would not typically think twice about, I must when kids are around…. Because they tend to copy everything – and some things may be quite dangerous for them to copy without the know-how and quick reflexes.

Some commands are simple to teach, and for those, the children can be around without encountering any issues, for example:

Sit….Stay….Down….Off

All of those commands are simply taught using some treats and simple leash work. Not only are they simple – they’re predominately safe – meaning if your child is practicing this with the pup later on, and he or she hasn’t mastered the art of “sitting”, it is highly unlikely (unless it a 180 lb mastiff and sits on your 3 year old) that there’s a hospital trip in your future

There are however, other commands that I would highly suggest teaching the dog when the children are NOT around, and show them the after-results – such as:

  1. Corrections of negative behaviors
  2. Drop It
  3. Leave It

There are very specific reasons these aren’t taught around children, and I will explain these in detail below. However, the one reason above all that I want to emphasize is that we train our dogs because it keeps our whole family safe, including our pup. The 3 commands I mention above (correcting negative behaviors, Drop it and Leave it), while not particularly complicated, have the potential to endanger your child if they attempt them on their own (ranging from simple emotional distress to a bite).

Correcting negative behaviors

I typically avoid teaching this when working around children because sometimes a pup may require firm quick corrections on a leash – which can cause problems for children:

  • A more sensitive child can get upset when a negative behavior such as jumping on people or guarding a toy or food requires a quick, firm correction with the leash. They do not always understand that corrections of bad behavior are just as imperative as praising the positive, and that we are not hurting the pup or dog.
  • On the flip side of that, a more confident or bold child may try to emulate what we are doing, but in the process may unintentionally hurt the pup or dog because they do not yet know or understand the amount of pressure required on the leash to make the correction yet not hurt the dog in the process.

Drop It and Leave It

These two commands are typically not taught around children for safety reasons. Kids do much better working with these commands after your pup has mastered them.

I also want to clarify here that when I say ‘teaching these commands’, I am not just referring to specific focused moments of training, like when you’re with a trainer, or even when you plan a specific time to work with your pup. I am speaking in general. Any time training takes place – because impromptu training takes place ALL THE TIME. You feed the dog, you want him to sit before he eats, you’re training.

You need to be careful though with impromptu “Drop It” and “Leave It” training. Remember – kids copy everything. Take for instance a dog that just grabbed the TV remote.! The dog has obviously not taken it to switch channels, so chances are it’s taken to become a new chew toy! And they are not cheap to replace! That is when our ‘protect the item’ Instinct kicks in.

Usually the first thing we do is call them to us. We are never thrilled in these moments, so the call unintentionally gets done in an angry voice (“COME HERE!!”) which clearly told Fido you are not happy with him! Of course, now that he knows you are angry, not only does he ignore your call, but he took off in the opposite direction! So what happens next? We jump up to chase them and retrieve the item back.

It is at this point that one of two scenarios ensue:

  1. The kids join the chase… it becomes a big game to both kids and dog, and you end up with more aggravation and pandemonium on your hands, or:
  2. You ran to chase the dog (which was loads of fun for the dog, as he now has your full attention and is playing the “You can’t catch me” game!) and when you finally get him, your kids see you reach in and grab the item from his mouth.

Now some time passes, and you may have forgotten all about this incident…. But your kids haven’t. So the next time Fido grabs something he should not have, such as one of their toys, your kids repeat what you did… only now the dog also remembers it, and also remembers once you caught him, you took the item away, so this time he is more possessive and guarding the item. This is behavior your child did not see last time, and the next thing you know, they reach out to grab the item back, and the dog strikes out and bites. Impromptu Drop It training gone really wrong.

So how could all of this have been avoided? We start with PLANNED Drop It training when the kids aren’t around.

The “Drop-It” command is a simple task to teach, and can be accomplished using one of their simple rope toys:

  1. Get them interested in a toy by playing with it with them.
  2. Once they are engaged in the play, bring the hand holding the toy closer to your body to stabilize it and hold it still…. This ‘discontinues’ the ‘tug’ action of the game.
  3. Grasp the toy with your free hand right in front of their mouth, and start creeping your hand forward, all the while saying, “Drop-It”. This forces them to lose their grip on the toy.
  4. As soon as they do, praise them, and begin again.

Essentially what this does is show them that you are not just taking the item away from them (which can create some ‘possession aggression’) but rather that the game can continue…. but only if they drop the item when you tell them to.

Now, let’s revisit that scenario. To start with, during the early training stages with your dog, the leash needs to be a vital part of his everyday life. Leash equals control.

  • Dog grabs remote, but since the leash was on, you can step on it and then reel him back in!
  • You have already taught the dog the ‘drop it’ command so the kids never see you reach into his mouth to retrieve the item.
  • You can calmly tell the dog to drop it, they do, you praise them, and the moment is done.

Now, the biggest difference between “Drop-It” and “Leave-It” is that Drop It is used when they already have the item they are not supposed to have, while Leave It teaches them not to pick it up in the first place! To teach “Leave-It” we use desirable ‘training traps’ (things that your dog loves to grab) and the leash. Throw the item on the floor, and when they run to grab it, give a quick, firm tug on the leash and say Leave-It!”. Continue doing this until you can drop the item and they do not lunge forward to get it.

Leave-It is especially important for the safety of BOTH the kids and the dog…. if you accidentally drop a pill on the floor, with the Leave-It command, they will not lunge for it. Also, if your child is eating and they drop a piece of food, using the Leave-It command will avoid the dog racing to grab it, and more importantly, the child reaching into their mouths to get it back!

My last piece of advice…. If you have not had the option to teach them yet what ‘Drop It’ or ‘Leave-It’ means and how it is done, and Fido gets ahold of something you do not want him to have, Distraction is always a great alternative. Grab a very high-value treat (a piece of cheese, a piece of hot dog, etc.) something they do not get often, but they will choose over a tasteless remote. Start off standing still and show it to them, and if they do not come immediately, take tiny steps backwards (movement is very interesting to dogs and gets their attention quicker… moving away from them means they should follow or they may miss out on that treat) Try to make it a treat or an item that they can’t gobble up in one bite, giving them ample time to return to the discarded item faster than you can. What you do not want is a race back to the original item…. I can pretty much guarantee they’ll get back there first.

I also want to note that this last piece of advice should be used as an emergency back-up plan, and not a go-to plan of action. The reason being we do not want the dog to learn that if they want a good high-quality treat, all they need to do is grab something they re not supposed to have, and we’ll replace it with something awesome!!

Being one step ahead of a potential disaster is always preferable to the alternative! So teaching your dog these basic manners when the kids are not present will keep everyone safe, happy and healthy!!!

How to Celebrate Your Holidays with Kids and Pets

As I was contemplating what to write my post about this month, (yeah, I think everyone gets writers block once in a while) I suddenly realized how quickly the holidays have descended upon us again! And when I looked back over some of my old posts, I realized that not only has it been about three years since I have written about the holidays, but I have also never written one about Thanksgiving! I decided to update my holiday article from three years ago, not only to add some important updates and edits, but also to include Thanksgiving and the things that somehow always seem to happen at that time of year.

For many of us, the Holidays are such an exciting time: family and friends gathering around, sharing laughs, some songs, sharing old memories, and creating new ones. You spend weeks preparing for it, who to invite, how you are going to fit everyone around the tables, what you are going to serve….

You put so much time, energy and love into every aspect of this. You think of each adult and child (this one is vegetarian, that one may have a milk sensitivity) and you think you have covered it all. But have you?

Let’s face it, you can’t possibly plan for EVERY ‘surprise’, but you can take steps to keep any negative ones to a minimum when it comes to all the children that will be there and any pets as well.

Visiting Family: As far as Thanksgiving goes, we have all heard thousands of times that that is the most traveled day of the year. This holiday is very synonymous with ‘Family.’ For many of us, ‘family’ also includes the family dog! So if you want to bring Fido along with you, please read my post How To Travel Safely For The Holidays With Pets AND Kids This will give you quite a bit of information on everything from car and air travel to a helpful list of what to pack for your pup. And I will add one more tip that was not in that post… if you are planning to go away without Fido, make sure to book your reservations for him at your favorite boarding facility or dog watcher in advance. I do private in-home boarding in my house, and only take a limited amount of dogs…. and some of my regular clients booked me for the holidays as early as August!

So having covered the traveling with your kids and pets over the holidays, I have compiled a list …. starting with all the very pretty things that come hand in hand with the holidays, things that seem innocent enough, but can become a deadly hazard.

Ribbons and garland:

They seem pretty harmless, but a child watching us decorate may see us ‘drape’ a few strands of it around our necks for easy access to it while we put it up. While we see it as ‘convenient’; they may see it as a cool necklace or costume. A garland or ribbon wrapped around their necks may not be a great idea. For that matter, it might not be a great idea around yours either. I will add one more danger to it….. it is a sparkly hanging thing….. so how does the dog distinguish that from any one of their numerous pull toys? It is a recipe for potential disaster that is easily avoidable. Instead, grab a folding stack table and lay it across that for easy access.

One quick helpful hint…. while you decorate, put the animals in another room. Cats especially love ribbons, rubber bands, and anything else they can pounce on or play hockey with – at a minimum, you will save yourself the frustration of having to chase them around trying to reclaim your decorations, but you will also avoid the ‘worse case scenario’ of them swallowing them, which can get twisted up inside them, costing you thousands in vet bills or worse.

Candles and Scented Plug Ins

While candles do add to the ambiance, remember that small curious hands and tails wagging furiously in all the excitement tend to send any object on a coffee table into flight. Put those and any glass ornaments high up and out of reach. And those plug-in oils…. Make sure you unplug them before bed, and beware of when the oil runs dry because that is when they become a horrific fire hazard.

Poisonous Plants

Many people are aware that some Christmas plants may be poisonous…. But are you familiar with which ones are on the list? Although I knew some of them, after I started to do more research, I was surprised at how incorrect my own knowledge was! For example, I would have topped the list with the poinsettia…. After all, the name almost sounds like the word ‘poison’ . But at the top of the list was the seemingly ‘innocent’ plant of Holly! Which is deadly unlike the poinsettia which was listed as ‘not that bad’. So I will add a link here which provides some names and their dangers to help you recognize what may harm your little one or your pet.

Children’s Interactions with Pets

As a dog trainer, I often hear, “I don’t understand…. My dog has never bitten anyone before!” It is very important to keep in mind that this is not your dog’s normal setting. With their heightened senses, the constant noises and the mouth-watering aromas of all the fantastic food being prepared can be overwhelming to them – and lets not forget the Football game playing on the TV at peak volume! My family was never huge into sports, but I have been to some Thanksgiving dinners where ‘watching’ the game can get pretty loud and boisterous! With all of this going on, your dog may not react the way they typically do. Your pet may be a mild and quiet little thing, or generally pretty social and outgoing…. But just because you enjoy the hustle and bustle, don’t assume your pet will too. A sweet child innocently reaching over to pet the dog while he is overwhelmed can lead to a bite. They might be much happier having a quiet space away from it all. And if they tend to startle easily, or be a bit skittish, it is probably best to crate them, put them in another room, or possibly think of boarding them somewhere for the night.

The most important thing I need to stress here is that if you want to have your family dog with you, you must remember that he is ultimately your responsibility… so be aware of what his body language is saying at all times to ensure everyone involved is safe. If you are not sure what your dog’s body language means, please read my article Recognize a Dog’s Body Language Before Your Child Gets Bitten

There is one more important thing you will want to be aware of… if there are young children at your holiday gathering, keep an eye on them around the dog as well. One difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas is that Thanksgiving can tend to be a non-stop food-fest. The holiday is pretty much centered around families getting together and eating. Young children running around with food or snacks in their hands can be a potential recipe for danger on a few levels:

1. Danger to your Pet. Young children tend to drop things and keep going. There are certain foods that are not only potentially dangerous, but toxic to your pet. See Pet WebMD’s comprehensive list of holiday no-no’s for your pet.

2. Danger to your Child. Worse than a child accidentally dropping their food and continuing on, is the child that realizes they have dropped it and goes back for it, just to find out it is already in Fido’s mouth. A toddler trying to reclaim their food from a dog who just received some seriously ill-gotten-goods can become a very high risk for a bite.

One suggestion I would make is to bring an exercise pen with you. My favorite one is the one without the door made by MidWest. I like this one because it both opens and folds very easily, and comes in numerous heights depending on how large or small your dog is. You can fold into any shape you want, or open it up all the way to block a large entryway or doorway. It is a very versatile item.

Alcohol Consumption

More often than not, drinks tend to be all set out on one table. The bottles of wine and beer are right next to the bottles of soda. This is potentially a ‘free-for-all” for experimenting teens. I have been in recovery for a long time, and attend 12 step fellowships meeting regularly, and I wish I could say that I never see ‘members’ under the age of 21…. But I can’t. I am seeing more and more young people attending meetings. And when I listen to their stories, more often than not, they begin with drinking the ‘free-flowing’ alcohol served at their family’s parties. Make a separate table for the liquor, and designate one or two adults to serve.

And while I am on this subject, medicine cabinets are another very serious danger. We are in the middle of the worst opioid crisis the U.S has ever seen. Opiods are narcotic pain killers (Vicodin, Percocet OxyContin and Fentanyl) which suppress the central Nervous System. All of these medicines are highly addictive, and according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) ‘have led to more deaths in the past few years than car accidents, diseases and guns.’ In August 2017, the US declared this epidemic a ‘National Public Health Emergency’. Has anyone in your family had surgery or dental work recently that required pain medicine? If you are not addicted to pain pills, then you probably think nothing of leaving the left over pills in the medicine cabinet. Years ago, when I was using, we had a name for pills that had labels on the bottles identifying them as narcotic or ‘May Cause Drowsiness.” We called them ‘party invitations’. Please go through your medicine cabinets and either get rid of them or lock them up!

Outdoor Safety

Even though it is cold outside, drowning accidents are not exclusive to summer only. Make sure the pool out back is securely locked or gated.

One suggestion which may keep young kids, tweens, and teens all out of trouble and occupied, and allow parents to relax and have fun…. Set up a ‘babysitting’ scenario. Figure out how many of each group you are going to have, and ‘assign’ a child or two to each older child. You can even pay them a small fee for doing the service! Assign age appropriate younger kids to older ones. Give a kid no guidance and too much freedom, you are asking for a bored kid to look for trouble, but assign them a responsibility, and throw in the possibility of some monetary gain, and more often than not, they will step up to the plate.

Sorry Mom’s and Dad’s, the dog needs to stay with you! Children and animals should never be left alone together unsupervised. If you can’t watch the dog, I do not suggest just locking him in a room. He could get very stressed out, and if someone accidentally opens that door and he charges out in panic, someone could get hurt. The safest place for your dog if you can’t watch him is in a crate.

Follow some of these guidelines or ideas, and avoid any future regrets. I have learned throughout my life that I much prefer saying, “I am so glad I ___“ than saying, “If only I ____“.

I wish everyone a happy, safe and healthy holiday season!!

 

Recognize a Dog’s Body Language Before Your Child Gets Bitten

little girl annoying dogAs a professional dog trainer, I can’t tell you how often, when called in to work with an aggressive dog, I have heard, “He showed no warning! He just bit!” While on the rare occasion, this may be the case, more often than not, your dog showed several warning signs that he was annoyed or not in the mood to be bothered at that moment. But many times, those signs are very subtle and oftentimes, overlooked. Even the most calm and gentle dog has its limit. So how can you know when your dog has reached their limit, giving you ample time to remove your child from them prior to them ‘snapping’ at your little one? Since dogs can’t verbally warn us, it is up to us to understand what their body language is saying… because that is the primary way they communicate… and not all dogs do the ‘growl, snarl, curl your lip, and show your teeth’ thing first.

Note: The intent of this article is to build people’s awareness of what a dog’s body might be saying, and hopefully educate you enough to keep you and your family safe around them. It is not intended to be a ‘crash course’ in making you an expert. Thousands of adults and children get bitten every year, most often by their own family pet, so this is a very serious issue. If you are not sure, but think your dog may be showing signs of aggression, regardless of their age or breed, please consult a professional and get help. A great resource to locate a professional near you is the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP).

Last year, at a family get-together my sister brought her dog Shayna with her and the kids. I knew from prior conversations with her that the dog, while usually very sweet, would on occasion snap at the kids ‘without warning.’’

After dinner, all of the kids were in another room except for one of my nephews. Shayna was on the floor near the kitchen entertaining herself with a toy, and the adults sat around the table talking. In the midst of a conversation with my cousin, I saw my nephew out of the corner of my eye walking towards her. Apparently, Shayna saw it too, and from across the room, I saw her entire body change. She was on alert; and no one else seemed to notice. In mid sentence, I flew across the room and grabbed Shayna just as she opened her mouth to snap, missing my nephew by mere millimeters.

The question I was asked over and over again that night was “How did you know?” And honestly, at first, I was not sure how to answer this. I couldn’t really explain it at that time. I just knew. But I quickly realized I needed to be able to explain it if I was going to keep my nephews and niece safe. And then it also dawned on me….. if I could figure out exactly what it was that I saw, the subtle ‘markers’ she was emitting, then I can help others to keep their kids safe as well

I. KNOW THE MARKERS: The subtle signs that “mark” the dog’s reaction to something

  • WATCHING – This is the first phase of what we call ‘resource guarding’ or the guarding of their possession and it is a very subtle ‘shift’. When a dog is chewing on a bone, eating their food, or playing with a toy, they are 100% in that moment. Their eyes may glaze over, they may seem like they’re in another world, but everything is about that item for them. However, for a dog who is resource guarding, when they become aware that a potential ‘threat’ is nearby, they will continue to chew, but their eyes are now locked on the approaching intruder. Their head does not move, just their eyes… and they are watching every move the person (or potential threat) makes.
Sharing - but watching - small

Photo: Ralph Dally, CC License

Note the difference in body language when a dog is “watching”

  • An important fact was reiterated at a previous IACP conference by a trainer named Brenda Aloff who lectures on canine body language. A dog’s body language was really meant for other dogs to be aware of, which is why sometimes it seems so subtle to us. It was not really meant for us.
  • That being said, the average person would look at this and say, “Oh, how cute… 2 puppies sharing a toy.” Look again. Notice the difference in body language with the two dogs. The one on the left is happily chewing on the toy, not really caring about the other dog being there. Unaffected by the presence of the one on the right, it is relaxed, and hunkered down over the toy with his paws wrapped around it..
  • Now, notice how the one on the right is still chewing on the toy, but the eyes are wide, and very alert to its surroundings. The body is more rigid, and it is closely WATCHING for a ‘potential threat’ at the same time. This is referred to as being ‘reactive’ and ready to defend its territory if the need arises.
  • FREEZING IN PLACE – The next thing I saw shift in Shayna’s body when my nephew approached was also VERY subtle… but to me, very obvious. She stopped chewing on the toy completely. Essentially, her body ‘froze’ in position. Since dogs cannot multi-task, she could not calmly continue chewing on the toy and watch as my nephew got closer to her at the same time, so she chose at that moment to watch his every move. Her body freezing at that moment told me that she was waiting to see if the ‘threat’ was going to keep on moving by, or stop and possibly take her toy.
Dog guarding bone - med

Photo: Debra and Ron Sprague; © All Rights Reserved

A perfect example of a the “freezing” body language

  • In the picture above, notice again the eyes are not on the object the dog is chewing, it is watching the other dog very closely in its peripheral vision and yet still has both bones in it’s line of sight. The dog is very still, and the body is very rigid. He has angled himself not only over his bone, but slightly over the second one as well. His body language is telling me very clearly that he is ready to spring into action should that other dog get an inch closer. (This was Shayna as my nephew approached). The second dog wants that other bone, and is looking at it very longingly.… but just like me, it is also reading the other dog’s body language VERY clearly, so it is not making a move toward it.
  • Photo: •Ashley Sheppard; CC License

    Photo: Ashley Sheppard; CC License

    Now, look at the difference in the second picture. The Bernese Mountain Dog is very relaxed, eyes are soft and the face is open and inviting, and she is digging into that bone, but there is no sign at all that she is on alert. I would feel comfortable approaching this dog with her bone unless her body language changed as I got closer to her.

II. SIGNS OF AGGRESSION THAT PRESENT IN SUBTLE WAYS

Now unlike what we did in the last pictures, where I showed you contrasts to see the differences, in the next two I want you to see the similarities….which is why I placed them side by side.

Photo: Cassandra Karas, CC License

Photo: Cassandra Karas, CC License

Terrier - small

Photo: Shek Graham; CC License

I seriously hope that no one would ever have to tell you to stay away from the Rottweiler on the left, who is showing all the obvious signs of all-out aggression… you do not have to look any further than the teeth. And I am sure the breed alone would have many people leery to begin with.

But now, look at the Terrier with the bone on the right. It is not snarling, growling, or showing any teeth…. But barring that, do you see ANY difference in their bodies? Because I sure don’t.

HERE IS WHAT I SEE:

  • EYES: They are both doing a dead-on stare. Their eyes are fully opened and round.
  • TORSO: They are both frozen in place, rigid from head to toe, and other than the growling that I am sure the Rottie is doing, and the jaw muscles flexing, they are pretty much not moving a muscle.
  • MOUTH: Jaw is set and tight as a drum.
  • HEAD: Very low… almost equal to their torso, in a ‘Don’t mess with me” position.
  • FRONT PAWS: Spread wide apart splayed to the side, both guarding their possession , and ready to spring into action.
  • BACK PAWS: Rigid… you can almost see the muscles flexing and tense. Both of them have their ‘toes’ curled in obvious annoyance.

I thought it was important that people see a dog does not necessarily have to be showing teeth for parents to be aware that their dog is showing signs of what we call ‘possession aggression’ or ‘resource guarding’.

III. DOES THE SIZE OF THE DOG MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Let’s see how much you have learned so far. Would you approach either of these guys?

Little Dog Attacks

Photo: Jetteff; CC License

Little Dog Owns this Bone

Photo: Thomas Stromberg; CC License

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IV. IN CONCLUSION…WHAT DOES THIS DOG’S BODY LANGUAGE SAY…

I hope some of this has been educational for you, and maybe given you a slightly different perspective than you had before you read it. Just to reiterate, this article is not intended to be a ‘crash course’or make you an expert when it comes to pet behavior. It is simply to make you aware of potential threats to you and your loved ones. The unfortunate fact is that thousands of adults and children get bitten every year, most often by their own family pet. Even the sweetest, most loving of animals can have a bad day and it’s up to us to recognize the signs so that all of us, kids and pets included, can stay safe.

PLEASE NOTE: My explanations of these pictures do not just apply to the guarding of resources. If you are out with your child, and someone walks by with a dog, even if you had asked if your child could pet the dog and the owner has assured you that the dog is friendly, if you see any of these ‘guarded’ signs, walk away. That dog, for whatever reason, is not in the mood to be approached.

7 Reasons a Pet is Good For Your Special Needs Kid

Boy and Dog in grass1. Kids love animals. Animals make kids happy.

2. Pets can be calming. Petting a dog, listening to the purr of a cat or just gazing at a fish tank can lower blood pressure and stress levels, according to WebMD.

3. The chores involved with caring for a pet can help teach kids responsibility and empathy as well as help the child feel productive.

4. The physical acts involved with caring for a pet can be therapeutic as long as they match the child’s abilities. Stretching to brush a dog is much more rewarding than stretching in gym class! Work with your child’s physical therapist to see which movements can be combined with therapy goals. Chore charts for pet care also help with organization and remembering sequences.

5. Pets don’t see disabilities. They don’t care if a child looks or sounds different from other kids.

6. Pets are friends. They listen to books, even if the words are not pronounced very well. They also listen to problems and are very good at keeping secrets.

7. They may help kids stay healthy. Children who have a pet in their home are less likely to have allergies or asthma.

Choose the correct pet for your situation and lifestyle. Even if you end up doing most of the work involved with owning a pet, your child will gain so much by having an animal in the household.

Can Your Lovable Pup Help Your Child Grow Educationally?

Last month we talked about the value of a child with special needs having a service dog with them in the classroom at all times. We also talked about some of the pro’s and con’s for the child without disabilities. But what if there was an area that your child struggled with that maybe wasn’t severe enough to require the services of a full time, highly skilled and trained animal? Can your every-day run-of-the-mill pup still be able to help your child in educational ways? In many cases….yes!!

As adults, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, just as children do! The difference is, our weaknesses are not often exposed, all day, every day, to our peers. Imagine how difficult it would be if you worked in an office, with the same people right next to you, no cubicles or dividers between you and them, and part of your job was a task that you had to perform daily, that you really struggled with…. Yet it seemed to come so easily and naturally to all those around you. How frustrating would that be? How embarrassing? Sure, you could ask for help; but that would get old, really fast…. Especially if it was something that you just ‘didn’t get’.

I know from personal experience, having struggled with learning disabilities, especially with numbers and math, how trying this can be… and what a hit my self esteem took time and time again! (I remember being a child sitting in the classroom and they were going up and down the rows, each child taking the next math problem in the book, trying to very quickly figure out which would be mine, so I could work it out before it was my turn and avoid looking foolish. This rarely worked and, being in a panicked state, quite often I miscounted and worked on the wrong problem…. And felt like an idiot anyway!)

As an adult, I have learned to kind of make light of it (I tell my clients, “Boy, I wish my talent with the dogs transferred to other areas of my life, like Math and a sense of direction!) For me, that statement always lessens the embarrassment when writing out a receipt for a client, when I cannot do the simple math to add it up in my head…. And forget about adding on the tax! But after that statement, I can grab a calculator. Tools like that aren’t always available when you’re a kid.

And let’s face it…. School is a tough place at times! Kids can be horrible…. Especially once they see a weakness in another child…. That child can suddenly become an easy target for taunting and bullying! And in that kind of atmosphere is it any wonder the child will become more insecure and not want to ask for help?

In 1999, a group in Minnesota called Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA) who specialized in providing animal-assisted-therapies in the areas of physical, occupational, speech, psychotherapies, as well as special education developed and launched a program called R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs.) The premise and purpose behind this program was to provide a safe environment where a child can sit down and read out-loud to a dog without any fear of judgment or ridicule. The immediate successes they saw encouraged the growth and popularity of this program, and the organization quickly branched out to include visits to numerous libraries, schools, and many other venues. It has helped thousands of children to improve their reading and communication skills. Here is a link to their site, which can obviously explain everything they do a bit better than I can, and they also provide a calendar of events (click on the ‘ATTEND” box on the right hand side of the screen) where you can see if they are going to be in your area… http://www.therapyanimals.org/READ.html

On this site are also numerous ‘how to’ videos where they show you what you can do if you would like to become a ‘R.E.A.D. owner/handler volunteer team’ in your area. But I want to simplify it a bit and mention a few things you can do to see if your own personal dog can accomplish this task for your child at home.

I want to mention here that although the program itself is very familiar to me, the ins-and-outs of how it works were not, so this has been a wonderful learning experience for me as well! All of the tips and feedback I am going to give you are a culmination of my training skills and experiences, mixed with highlights from the many videos I have watched that came directly from this organization. As I mentioned before, I wanted to simplify this so that you can see if your dog is a good candidate to provide this service for your child, and if so, how to best accomplish this task.

So to begin with, Part One would be to see if your dog can possess the skills needed to help your child. (I recommend doing this when your child is not around. If it turns out your dog is not a good candidate for this, we do not want to raise your child’s hopes and then have them disappointed.) What are those skills? According to the ITA videos, the basic skills required are:

  • A firm “DOWN/STAY” command
  • The ability to lie still for however long you choose to hold your reading ‘sessions’ (note: If your dog is not good at staying still for an hour at a clip, do not be discouraged and think this will not work for you. Try shorter durations.) This is important because we want to set up an atmosphere of a non-judgmental space for your child. If they are embarrassed already about their reading skills, or have ever been teased because of their reading difficulties, the dog getting up and walking away may be interpreted by your sensitive child as a form of rejection.
  • A good “Touch” command. This is important because it helps your child to really feel like the dog is involved in the reading when your dog periodically ‘touches’ the page with their paw or nose. This task becomes especially valuable when your child comes to a word they are having difficulty with or do not understand. You can signal the dog to touch the page, and then say something like, “Fido is having trouble understanding what that word is. How about we look it up so we can explain it to him.” Again, this is a very non-judgmental way to help your child….. Similar to when child therapists use dolls to help children speak about difficult things without it being in the ‘first person’.
  • A not-so easily distracted dog. This kind of goes hand in hand with the solid DOWN/STAY. It is very important because again, the last thing you want is your child sitting down to read with the dog, someone walks by, and the dog gets up and leaves. Again, we do not want to risk your child feeling not-important or rejected by the dog in any way, which can happen if the dog suddenly gets up and leaves.

Part Two – what skills and tools do you personally need to work with the dog and your child?

  • Patience
  • A sense of humor
  • A non-perfectionist attitude (remember, we want to encourage, not discourage! So ITA recommends it is very important that you not get ‘bogged-down’ on mistakes and be careful of the way your correct them.
  • Do not be over-exuberant in introducing this concept to your child. While this may be an exciting new venture, I encourage you to first work with your dog consistently when the child is not around until you are relatively comfortable that this will succeed. Again, we do not want to raise your child’s hopes, and risk them feeling like this is their failure if the dog is not appropriate for this task.
  • A PLACE set up specifically for this task. A private room or corner can work. A place where there are no distractions such as people going by, phones ringing, TV’s on in the background, etc. In this space you can set out blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, a lamp, a bookshelf with plenty of books you will take on together…..whatever you would like that does not cause distractions, but will be a comfortable place for you, your child, and your dog to work in. Make sure this place always remains the same, and is SOLELY used for this specific task. Remember that dogs and children both respond well to familiarity and routines. If this place is only used for this purpose, your dog will always automatically know what to expect and how to behave while there.
  • Plenty of children’s books. Make sure they are appropriate to where your child’s skills are at. You do not want to use material that is too advanced, causing frustration for them. At the same time, you do not want to use books they may see as ‘babyish’. It will insult their intelligence and possibly make them feel that you think they are stupid. While you know your child is not stupid, if they have been previously made to feel that way by other kids, the last thing you want is for them to believe you think that way of them! Also, when choosing your books for them and your ‘place,’ pick numerous books about subjects and topics they are interested in. For example, start off with books about dogs.

So, you have now determined that you and your dog both have the skills needed to help your child, now it’s time for Part Three – very important – practice this consistently when your child is NOT around. Call the dog over to the ‘space’ you have created, get them into the DOWN/STAY, pull out a book, and start reading. The ITA also recommends adding a “LOOK” command to this. They state that it really helps your child to feel like the dog is very involved, and it is a simple task to teach!!

Before calling your dog over to the space, insert small treats into numerous pages of the book. Every time you get to a page with a treat in it, you say the command “LOOK!” and allow the dog to take the treat from the book. This essentially conditions your dog to expect something good to be on the page and to use his nose to ‘look’ for it every time you say the word “Look”. But again, this must be accomplished before your child joins you in this. You want your child to believe the dog is really involved…. Not that the dog is looking for a treat or reward!

Once you are sure you have done all the necessary foot-work needed to successfully accomplish this, invite your child to join you. You can say something like, “You know…. The other day I was reading out loud and I noticed that Fido seemed to really enjoy it!! I think it might be fun to see if this was a fluke, or if he really likes being read to!” or something along those lines. You know your child best, and what would peak their interest in being open to trying this. Keep the session relatively short in the beginning…. 10 or 15 minutes at most. Make it fun, be enthusiastic, laugh when the dog paws the page, you can even act surprised at how involved the dog is!! And always end the sessions on a positive note…. Such as, “WOW! You and Fido did amazing!!! I think he deserves some treats…. And you should be the one to give it to him!!” Make sure you use words like ‘teamwork’ (ie: “What a great team the two of you make!” This will be very encouraging to a child that was initially ostracized and made to feel separate or not a part of.)

And the last thing (which can also be the hardest part) once you have established this new and exciting journey with your child, try not to make this a ‘if you don’t do this, this will be the consequence’ type of thing. We want this to always remain an enjoyable thing for your child. I know firsthand when I do something I enjoy, once it becomes mandatory, I often quickly lose interest. So think about different ways to keep your child interested and engaged. Here are a couple you might want to consider:

  • Weekly trip to the library with your child to pick out a new book she and Fido might enjoy reading together
  • To keep it light and fun, make a sign out of some of the more difficult words your child figured out and/or looked up during the week’s readings, and then plan a ‘treasure hunt’ trip to locate those items and label them with the sign your child made. Be willing to be silly with them! If the word was “Mother”, go along with it and wear the sign!
  • Find and set aside some “special treats” – for your pup and for your child that they get to enjoy together.
  • Anything that makes this a special time your child looks forward to.

With both kids and dogs, there is no such thing as a ‘cookie-cutter’ way to learn! Each kid learns and responds differently… So if you have some additional ideas for us to try, please add them to the comments below!! We’d love to hear your ideas!

An ADHD Dog Trainer Shows Special Kids How To Use Calm Energy

I have been writing articles about safe and healthy interactions between kids and canines for Pediatric Safety for over two years now, and in those articles I have shared numerous personal stories with you all… so I think it’s safe to say that through those stories many of you have gotten to know me pretty well. I have shared about what is was like growing up with ADHD and learning disabilities in a time where it was not really known about in my post: Growing Up With ADHD – Have Things Changed?“. I broached the subject of being in recovery from addiction in Kids, Pets & Your Holiday Party: Read this List (check it twice!) and I got into a bit more detail about it and also talked a bit about suffering for many years with low-self-esteem in Building a Child’s Confidence Through Dog Training“.

So now, I want to combine little bits of all of that into this month’s article, because being a professional dog trainer, and especially being a member of a wonderful organization like the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) has changed me. There are so many observations and realizations I have made about myself since becoming a member; both personally and professionally! The changes I had to make to grow as a trainer helped me take a new look at the struggles I had so many years ago and how I might have handled them today. It is my hope that in sharing this story with you, I may be able to help many of you who have dogs and also a child who struggles with ADHD. I hope I can potentially offer you a different perspective on how they may see and perceive things, not based on years of research, studies and statistics, but based solely on my own personal experiences… who knows, maybe some of those same tactics can help you and your child too.

Early on in my career as a dog trainer, I really did not understand why I did not do well with toy breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese, Chihuahuas, etc. It was obvious (even to me) that I did not do well with them, but I just couldn’t grasp the ‘why’ of it. So I shied away from them. I took all the calls for the mid-sized dogs (Cocker Spaniels, Beagles, Wheaten Terriers…) large breeds (Golden and Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Huskies…) and even giant breeds like the Great Dane, Rottweiler’s and Mastiffs!. I was consistently successful with any breed that wasn’t tiny and typically nervous, so I referred those clients elsewhere. But I think deep down, it did bother me! Who wants to admit they cannot succeed in any area of their chosen profession? I sure didn’t!

But it was exactly this time, eight years ago, that I attended my first IACP conference!

To say that I ran the gamut of emotions- from excited to nervous, insecure, and petrified -would be a huge understatement! I do need to mention here that as a New Yorker, we all tend to talk a bit faster than most. I arrived at the conference a New Yorker with ADHD and extreme nervousness! Fortunately most of the other attendees acclimated to my hyperactivity pretty quickly… but I couldn’t help but notice how often words like, ‘Calm, tranquil, peaceful, and consistent’ were used in conjunction with the word ‘energy’ (ie: ‘calm energy,’ and ‘tranquil energy,’ etc.). Even the trainers who had their dogs with them … Both the trainers AND their dogs… were all so STILL! And my first thought was ‘CRAP! I can’t do that!’ I immediately flashed back to my childhood. It was a time in my life when the word ‘can’t’ first became my mantra.

But then came the main meeting…. And the main speaker, Cesar Milan, took the stage. His primary methodology is all about using a calm energy… building the dog’s respect for him by being assertive, firm and consistent…and CALM. At the end of his speech, when it was time for questions and answers, you bet I had some! But when I stood up to take the microphone to ask it, in my nervousness, the rapid speech was tripled, and my words seem to come out in a jumble, all tripping over each other! And Cesar, obviously having no clue what I was trying to ask, came to the edge of the stage, and in a calm and very thoughtful pose, looked at Peter, my husband, and asked, “How often is she this hyper?”

At this time the entire audience of trainers, all of whom had spent the last few days already with me and having already witnessed my hyperactivity, began to laugh… and in front of thousands, I began to cry. All that pent up nervousness, all of those hidden insecurities up until that point, all the overwhelming new knowledge (and with it, the self-doubt) came rushing to the surface.

I somehow regained my composure, eventually got out my question, and he answered it, but it was when we spoke afterwards that some things suddenly started to make sense to me. I envisioned myself arriving at a client’s home with a tiny dog, that is fearful and nervous, and me coming at them at a hundred miles an hour! How would I personally feel if I was afraid, and someone came at me like that? I was just lucky that I hadn’t gotten bitten yet!

As I thought more and more on this, other memories resurfaced…. How as a child, our dog Brandy would often come to me to rough-house and play, but if he wanted to cuddle, or just wanted to be calm and still, it was my sisters he sought out. As a kid, I took it as a personal rejection. Now I realize it wasn’t.

And I started to change the way I worked with my clients.

  • When I had to work with a small dog, when I arrived at the house, I had to take a few deep calming breaths before ringing the doorbell. And I found when I calmly and assertively greeted them, both owner and dog seemed more calm and receptive!
  • Another challenge I had was my impatience and aggravation sitting in traffic for an hour prior to arriving at a clients house…. So to combat that, I left an extra half hour earlier than I needed to to arrive on time. This allowed me to arrive, park near-by and do something (reading, listening to some music, etc.) to bring down my level of agitation prior to arriving at the person’s house… And amazingly, I found this not only worked well for the many small dogs I now worked with, but for the larger hyper pups as well!

When I tried to help my clients with hyperactive ADHD kids, and I would explain the importance of the kids being calm around the dog, there was one key fact that I forgot….

Almost anyone can be calm for an hour during a focused training session. But if I was able to curtail that hyperactivity full time, I would not have the diagnosis of ADHD! Was I seriously asking my client’s hyperactive kids to be calm full-time and expecting them to accomplish it?

I needed to figure out a way to help them interact with their dogs better, because I could physically see the different way the dog or pup reacted to the ADHD child versus older or calmer family members.

  • With the calmer children, the dog was more relaxed, did not mind lying next to them and even cuddling with them….
  • The ADHD child was filled with scratches and nip marks from the dog chasing them and jumping on them. Also a child that feels rejected by the dog that won’t cuddle with them will often try to ‘force the dog to stay with them’ by holding their collar or wrapping their arms around him. If a child physically restrains a dog and the dog wants to get away, there is a very high risk in that moment of the dog biting the child to free themselves.
  • My toughest challenge was trying to figure out a good way to explain these dynamics to the child as well as explain to the parents the potential risks and dangers in a way so that they could understand and be receptive to the necessary changes.

What we did (and what you can do)

  • The first thing I wanted to do was work with the child (and Mother) alone… without other family members present. (This made the child feel less self-conscious and more important – he was getting to work alone with the trainer)
  • Next, I wanted to show the child that they too can have a ‘cuddling session’ with the dog. I sat on the floor with the child and we just talked a bit about the puppy, and I asked him if he would like to be able to cuddle with the puppy too, and he looked so sad when he said, “Yes, but the puppy doesn’t like me that way.” This was my opportunity to explain to him that if all they did was run and go crazy with the dog that would ALWAYS be their relationship, so he had to show the pup that they can do this.
  • Next I sat side by side with the child, with my legs stretched out in front of me. I opened my legs a bit and I put the puppy on his back in between them, then gently held him in place. Once the dog had settled on me, I told the boy to gently pet all the way up, and all the way down the dog’s body, instead of quick rough movements in one spot, and to avoid the paws and ears for now, as they are sensitive areas on a dog that tend to get them easily riled up when messed with.
  • The little boy did as I asked, and then when the pup was nice and calm, I switched the pup over to in between Mom’s legs and we continued the gentle petting. It was important that Mom was comfortable with this and understand what she had to do if she was going to be able to continue this when I was not around.
  • After pup was relaxed with Mom, we instructed the child to sit the same way his Mom and I did, and then we calmly put the pup between his legs, and I let his Mom help him to keep the pup still and calm. We continued this, and much to the little boy’s delight, the puppy let out a huge sigh, and then closed his eyes!

When the pup was nice and relaxed, we got him up slowly and then put his leash on and all of us (Mom included) went for a walk. We worked on walking SLOWLY, and getting the pup to keep pace with the boy, instead of the other way around. The boy seemed to have a bit of trouble walking slowly for any length of time, so we practiced taking ten steps, and then telling pup to SIT. I praised the boy, and had the boy praise his dog (calmly and gently). We did this again and again…. Every ten steps we stopped and sat. The Mom told me she had never seen her son so calm and focused, and I pointed out to the Mom and the boy how receptive the pup was to his training.

A dog can be such a wonderful tool to help a child with special needs. All it really takes is a little know-how, some time, patience, and understanding. This is why they are so often used for therapy.

As an adult who has dealt with ADHD all of my life, I hope some of this helps you to help your child move out of the “I can’t’ Mantra, and into the “Wow… I really can!” all the while helping your child and pet build a safe and beautiful relationship!

Next Page »