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Dogs vs Kids: Learning From Your Child

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

— Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist

My children have been an endless source of frustration learning for me. Sometimes, learning exactly how much patience I have. But more frequently, learning to look at things from a perspective other than an adult human’s, and consequently, it has changed how I work with dogs. And it’s for the better.

My kids are older now. Eric just turned 16, and River is almost 14, and I'm still learning from them. So, here we go. Lessons taught to me by my children. Or at least the ones that are fit to print.

Perception is Based on Experience

- Lesson taught by Eric, age 3

Eric (9) teaching Echo the basics of agility. And yes, he succeeded.

When my son Eric was 3, we had a very edifying conversation. We were in the car, on our way back from a trip to the dentist, and Eric wanted to know why we brush our teeth.

“Well,” I explained, taking the imperious, condescending tone that parents sometimes accidentally take, “Right now you have practice teeth. If you take good care of your practice teeth, and brush them and don’t eat too many sweets, they will eventually fall out, so you can get your grown-up teeth.”

Eric was quiet for a few moments. Then a tiny voice came from the backseat, “Do we get to keep our eyeballs?”

Yes, that little quip of his warranted an entry into a journal I keep entitled “Eric’s Deep Thoughts”. It’s years in the making now, and the hits just keep on coming. It’s easy enough to laugh at such a silly question, but when I look at it through his eyes, it’s suddenly not so funny anymore. The boy was actually worried that his body parts were just going to start falling off, willy-nilly. Which ones were for keeps, and which ones were going to stick with him, and which ones fall off? After all, he was new to this whole “being human” thing. He’d only been on the planet for 3 years at that point. At least he was able to finally voice those questions once he learned speech. Unfortunately for our dogs, though, they are unable to vocalize all the questions and concerns they may have, and most humans are unable to realize that their dogs are trying to communicate, and have many, many questions. It’s just that dogs use body language to communicate them.

When I first got Orion about 11 years ago, he was not quite 5 lbs. of nervous energy. While he had never been abused, he had not been exposed to very much outside stimulation and sensory input (he lived on a farm (puppy mill?) previously). The first time I took him for a walk on a leash, he did ok for it being his first time…until a car went by. Then he panicked, and looked like he was being electrocuted at the end of the leash, desperately trying to run from the frightening beast. And then he threw up.

It’s easy to say he was just being a baby, or that he was spoiled, but look at it from his point of view: he’d never seen a car in his life. He was terrified, and rightfully so. Here was this huge beastly thing coming straight at him.

Imagine taking someone from the 17th century and showing them a moving car. Yeah…same response. Just because you know and understand something doesn’t mean your dog does. Remember, their questions are legitimate.

Just because you don't fear the same things as your dog doesn't make your dog's fears irrational or illegitimate.

As Morticia said, "What's normal to the spider is chaos for the fly". Make sure you don’t dismiss their fears simply because you aren't afraid.

The Power of Calm - Lesson Taught by River, age 5

A story I tell during most of my sessions is what happened when my daughter, River, had to get her kindergarten shots. River asked the dreaded question: “Mom, what’s a shot?”

My mind raced. I wanted to try to soothe her, to tell her it wasn’t a big deal, and it was just a tiiiiiiiny little needle.

In other words, I wanted to lie to her. This is what came out instead:

“The doctor takes a needle, they ram it in your arm, it hurts, you cry, and then we go out for ice-cream.”

I was horrified even as the words tumbled out of my mouth. Her response?


And that is exactly how the vaccination went. It hurt. She cried (just a little, though), and then we went out for ice-cream. I didn’t give her a phony answer, I remained calm, and I didn’t try to fake her out, or assuage my feelings by adding energy to the situation. I allowed calm to dictate the moment, and River hung onto that like a life raft. Yes, she lost control and did start to cry (for a brief moment…it hurt!) but she was able to see that I wasn’t acting too worried about it, and she got herself back under control very quickly.

I have that incident in my mind every time I work with a dog reactive dog. Every time I’m dealing with a frightened dog, or a dog with severe anxiety. It even makes its way into my personal life with my dogs. Calm gets me what I want – more calm. Words (especially yelling) and out-of-control body language only adds energy. Also, I’m the human/adult. It’s not my job to try to make myself feel better about the situation through phony words, or by jabbering on and on. A calm, solid, confident presence is what my child/dog needs, and that is exactly what I will give them.

I had a client recently who has a toy poodle named Lizzy. Lizzy had a plethora of issues, including an inability to go down the front stairs. She was terrified. Not sure why, but it didn’t matter. Her question was still the same: “Should I be afraid?”. And my answer didn’t waiver: ”Nope.” I took her leash and walked without pause, right down the front steps with her. Not a pause. Her owner couldn’t believe it. I had her do it. She had been carrying Lizzy up and down those steps for all 7 years of Lizzy’s life, when all Lizzy needed was an answer.

So those times your dog is scared of another dog, or reacting badly at the vets office, think of how you are reacting. Are you yelling, screaming, and restraining, or are you a harbor of calm, answering your dog’s questions (like this). And the beautiful thing is, the more you do it, the less you have to do it.

Nothing Personal - Taught by Eric, age 2 1/2

There’s a story my husband likes to tell about our son, Eric. When Eric was about 2 1/2, he decided to try a little experiment on me. Now, I should point out that Eric has always been an easy child. Decadently so. We never had the “terrible two’s” with him. I can count on one hand how many tantrums that child has thrown in his years on this planet. However, from the very beginning, Eric has been a very analytical child, always asking questions and silently filing away the answers for future reference. So, like all other children, it was only natural that he start experimenting and testing How Things Worked.

My husband and I were in the kitchen where Eric toddled up to me. He called my name, and I looked down at him. ”Momma, we-cree peas?”, which was Eric-speak at the time for “May I please have some whipped cream?”. I answered him in the negative, whereupon I returned my attention to the groceries I was putting away. According to Michael, who was watching this exchange, Eric looked pensive for a moment, and then had an idea light across his face. Eric then toddled over to me, whacked me on my derriere and immediately looked up with a smile on his face, as if to say, “That should do the trick”. Without a pause, I spun around, snatched his arm and pirouetted him around so I could give him a return thwack on his diaper-clad bum, and then sent him on his way. He essentially shrugged as if to say, “Well, apparently that’s not how I’m supposed to do it”, and toddled off to go play with his Megablocks. The incident was never repeated.

Eric wasn’t trying to be a jerk, nor was he necessarily angry at the negative answer he received. He was merely trying to see if it was a negotiable answer, or if there was a way he could change the answer. That doesn’t make him a bad kid (if anything my respect went up for him in that moment). He was merely trying to figure out where the boundaries were. Where the double yellow line in the road was that he shouldn’t cross.

Your dog is doing the same thing. When they “won’t listen”, ask yourself why. Is it because they don’t understand? Is it because they are trying to figure out their place in this pack? Or is it because they’re scared? Dogs are rational creatures, and contrary to what many believe, do not operate on anger, nor on revenge. A dog doesn’t “get back” at you. A dog is a dog, wanting only to figure out this human world they’re in, and where that double yellow line in the road is.

The Power of Work - Eric and River, the rest of their lives

I’m pretty strict in my house. My kids have chores, and they’re non-negotiable. They still do have plenty of duties in the house, always age-appropriate. Chores between the ages of 6-10: They were in charge of bringing groceries from the car to the house, and then unpacking them, making beds, doing dishes, and doing their laundry. They also had set “clean house” days where they are at my disposal for most of the day, usually doing things like cleaning the bathroom or wiping down all the baseboards in the house. Some days it take a couple hours. Some days it takes a few minutes. I never hear complaints, because I will not tolerate them. Also, because it’s always been that way. It's been normalized.

Nowadays, as teenagers, their duties have been expanded: in addition to all of that, Eric is now 16 and will be getting his first job. Kids are in charge of the care of the animals in the house, vacuuming and mopping all the floors in the house 2x per week, and all the yardwork.

I may sound like some evil stepmother from a children’s book, but the thing is, when my kids perform age appropriate work (which, let’s face it, can still be stressful), they get a positive. Sometimes it’s a piece of candy. Sometimes it’s more computer time. Once Eric got an iPad for simply doing the dishes well. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a hug and a “great job!”. But there’s always a positive attached at the end of the stress/work. That builds confidence.

My dogs are required to work, too. There’s no free meal in my house – no food bowls (water 24/7, though). My dogs eat exclusively out of enrichment toys. Work give them food (a positive) which then translates into more self confidence (and no issues with boredom-related destructive behaviors). Learn how to get started here.

River (5) cleaning baseboards & Eric (7) doing dishes.

Eric (8) and River (6) after they'd finished washing and drying all the breakfast dishes

One of the greatest quotes I’ve ever heard came from a super sexy science bad ass man name Bill Nye.

Bowties are cool

“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”

You can learn from anyone. Everyone. That, in my opinion, especially means children. I love that quote because as our population grows, so does the amount of children in our word. Children who can help us open our eyes to see things in ways we forgot. To help us open our minds.

Don’t overlook one of the best sources of learning you have – your children. After all, they're professional learners at this point in their lives. I love doing training sessions with children, because they give the best answers. They are all in and willing to try new ways of doing things. They are fearless, and aren’t worried about failure. They take failure as just another lesson learned, and move on from it. Maybe it’s time to act like a child.

River and Eric now.

Keep Calm and Pilot On

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


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