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Hands Off! And Other Lessons in Doggy Respect

toddler and dog

I'm sitting in the kitchen when Grace, 6, bolts in from the playroom, breathlessly shouting, "Luke pulled Buster's tail!"

This is followed by an even louder defense from Luke, 2 1/2. "No! No! Did not."

As the kids loudly trade blame and denial, I turn my attention to Buster, our seven-pound Chihuahua mix, who has gingerly joined the fracas. He gives a little whimper when I touch the base of his tail. This silences them both, but unleashes Luke's dormant conscience as he begins to confess and cry, "I hurt Buster, Mama!"

"Why would you pull his tail?" I ask.

Through more tears, with both kids now crying, I gather that Buster's tail "was in Luke's face" and it was sort of, but not really, accidentally tugged -- hard.

We gently bundle Buster up and drive him to the vet where a shot of medication seems to bring some relief from his sprain. I have the doctor lay it on thick about the importance of being gentle and kind to your pets, with a few choice caveats of my own thrown in for good measure. Both kids murmur, "Yes ma'am," with their heads lowered shamefully.

Buster had been on the receiving end of more than one encounter like this. The week before, he had dished out a menacing growl and a warning nip to a visiting toddler who couldn't resist his resemblance to a stuffed animal, and tried to pick him up. I realized the little ones in our lives needed to learn some new tricks for taking care of a sweet old dog!

I sat down with Amber Gyer, a dog trainer with Elite Suites Pet Resort (www.elitesuites.com) in Southlake, Texas to brush up on my doggy dos and don'ts.

  • Establish a pecking order. "In a family, a dog must be taught and continually reminded that he is not the leader of the pack. Everyone, especially the children—have authority over him," Gyer teaches. Dogs derive comfort from knowing where they stand "in a pack" and they thrive when expectations are clear and consistent. If your dog happens to push the limits or is aggressive, immediately and firmly correct him with a loud noise like a hand clap or a deep, firm, "No!" Also, if he's old enough, let your children feed the dog, which accomplishes two goals—it gives the child responsibility for looking out for the dog's well-being, and it signals to the dog that the child has dominion over him.
  • Give your dog some space and peace of mind. Your dog needs a safe, protected place to retreat to when he's had enough. It should be in the main area of the house but tucked away such as a bed in a corner or a kennel, where he can feel sheltered, but still part of the family—you don't want your pet to feel isolated or punished. Teach your kids and visitors that when your dog is in his "safe spot," he's off limits. I also make a point to introduce Buster to visiting children, and stress that even though he looks like a stuffed animal, he's a grown-up dog who doesn't like to be picked up or treated like a toy.
  • Accentuate the positives. Teach your dog that people, especially children, are sources of good things that can be earned with good behavior. Let your kids give your dog treats in response to obeying simple commands like "sit," "stay," or "down." Encourage play by throwing toys, fetching, or racing around the yard. "Positive reinforced behaviors pop up more frequently because they are rewarded," Gyer says. Also by nature, dogs want to please, be praised, and feel like "part of the family," so a little positive reinforcement will go a long way toward building their trust and comfort -- which further fuels good behavior.
  • Pay attention. Just like kids, dogs need attention in the form of mental stimulation (training, learning commands, tricks, and challenges), physical stimulation (burning off energy through exercise that leaves them tired out by the end of a play session) and communication (consistent cues as to what's acceptable and not acceptable.) On the same note, it's never a good idea to leave your dog unsupervised with visiting children -- for the safety of both, pay particular attention when new kids are interacting with your dog.

I shared the new rules with my kids, and the next day I walked in on Grace showing a friend how to train your dog to roll over -- using her brother as an example. Luke tumbled around the room to illustrate as Buster looked on, head cocked.

"See Bust, that's how you do it!" she said excitedly as she rewarded Luke with a jellybean.

I'm not sure it was the kind of stimulation the dog trainer had in mind, but I have to admit Buster seemed quite entertained by a young boy's old tricks.

Co-author of the New York Times Bestseller Nesting: It's a Chick Thing®, It's a Chick Thing®, and Postcards from the Bump

www.itsachickthing.com

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