Kids and Shelter Dogs Teach Each Other
As a professional working in animal behavior and training, I have always enjoyed the partnership of human and non-human animal, and what a better way to embrace that than to start teaching young people to respect and love animals. That was my inspiration to create a couple of programs for children at the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA where I lead the Behavior Department.
Kid-dog assessment class
At the shelter, the dogs need as much enrichment, training, and socialization as possible; in turn, we need as much information about their behavior as we can get to match them appropriately with potential adopters. When doing assessments I wanted to find a way to gather more information about dogs and children. The idea of testing with a child-size doll was not enough for me, so I created the Kid-Dog Assessment Class.
For our starting group we recruited from among our volunteer pool. Parents who were already volunteers and wanted to do something with their young children could join this program.
I started this class a few years ago It runs once per week year round. We have one behavior staff member leading the group, and two volunteer assistants. Families participating have children between the ages of 2 and 12, and one parent has to stay in class with the kids.
The goals of the class are:
- To assess dogs with young children in order to provide information for potential adopters
- To socialize dogs with young kids
- To teach kids about dog safety and basic training tips using positive reinforcement
The class is structured in a way where we first introduce the dog on leash and I observe what their behavior is in the presence of the group. Based on the dog’s behavior we proceed with the following steps.
Parents and children are sitting down and the dogs gets the chance to sniff them if interested. This is a non-invasive way of presenting a group of people of different ages and let the dog decide what they want to do. Children learn the basics of reading dog behavior and present themselves in a non-threating way to a new dog.
If all goes well with this interaction, we proceed to create positive associations for the dog by having the kids feed them treats while teaching some basic cues such as Watch Me, Touch, or Sit.
The trained volunteer assistants will handle the dogs and monitor their reactions while I guide the children taking mental notes on the dog’s behavior.
The last piece is a short walk on leash. Children learn to keep the dog interested in them while moving, and the dogs learn to follow instructions from a young trainer.
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The information gathered is extremely useful for our behavior and adoptions team. It allows me to add detailed notes on each dog that participates in the class, and recommend a specific type of home (adult only, families with older kids, or families with young children). Many of these families participate in this class until the kids age out. Children learn to respect and kindly interact with dogs, developing a sense of training with positive reinforcement.
Dog training club
Another offering PHS/SPCA has is the Dog Training Club for middle schoolers. This class teaches kids the basics of clicker training, and they can earn service hours for school.
We have a behavior staff, a volunteer assistant, and six children between the ages of 11 and 14 attending an hour-long class once a week for five weeks.
The goals of this class are:
- Kids earn five community service hours, while learning dog body language and training with positive reinforcement.
- Dogs get socialized with middle schoolers, get less barky in kennels, and show better for potential adopters.
- Kids help organize dog gear for TLC (Tender Loving Care) volunteers who walk dogs, do laundry, or prepare Kongs for enrichment.
This class is divided into four segments: a classroom presentation, work with the dogs from outside their kennels, a service project, and training hands-on with the dogs. Some of the topics discussed during classroom time are how to use clickers, and why they are effective for dog training; safety around dogs; and dog body language.
Our adoption center is beautiful, but the dog rooms have glass doors and windows, so some dogs get overwhelmed or get barky when there is high traffic of people in front of their rooms. During the Dog Training Club class, children walk in front of dog dorms and reward dogs for keeping four feet on the floor and not barking at visitors. Additionally they learn that timing and the way they present themselves is important as trainers, and they teach dogs to accept onlookers happily, since the dogs are learning that people looking at them signal the coming of treats for them.
Some of the service projects include organizing dog collars, harnesses, and leashes for volunteer dog walkers; help with the preparation of Kongs for the enrichment team; help with the enormous amount of laundry that the shelter deals with; or any other easy tasks that might be needed at the time.
Every week we spend 20 to 30 minutes working hands-on with a dog or several dogs. The dogs brought to class are a sample of the dogs up for adoption, anything from a German Shepherd to a Chihuahua, and from a senior dog to a puppy.
During this time the kids learn how puppies are sometimes more difficult to train due to their lack of attention, how shyer dogs need time to warm up to them, and that they need to tailor the training exercise to the individual dog they have that day.
It is extremely rewarding for me to see how children who might not have any idea about training finish the program asking parents to sign them up for more classes. It is a win-win situation, since dogs get training and socialization while enjoying the company of kids, and the children take home what they have learned in class and increase their kindness toward animals. When asked what they enjoy most during the class, the answer is unanimous: spending time with the dogs and finding out that some of them got adopted after they participated in their class.
Maria Eguren, CABC, is the Director of Behavior and Training at the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA Adoption Center in San Mateo, California.