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Today is National Kids and Pets Day — and we all know that there's nothing cuter than a polite child with a well-behaved pet. But, like children, many dogs and cats misbehave because they’ve never been taught any differently. Just as our children have to be taught to say "please" and "thank you," animals need training to learn how to use their good manners. Getting your children involved in training their pets helps to create well-mannered pets at the same time that it deepens the bond between your kids and their animals. When you're working with a child and a pet, keep it simple: Clicker training is one of the best forms of reward-based training and can easily be mastered by even a very young child. This method uses a small plastic or metal box that clicks when it’s pushed; after the click, the pet is given a treat to reinforce the good behavior. If you don't have a clicker, or if your child has trouble using one, she can use her voice and a key word like “good” or “yes” to train her pet. Clicker training can be used with a variety of animals, including common kids' pets like dogs, cats, guinea pigs and gerbils. Check out my video on clicker training to learn more.
One important caution before we discuss specific training practices: Always provide adult supervision for training sessions. Although you share your home with your pet, he still has wild instincts, and if he becomes afraid or anxious, he may bite. By having an adult present for all training sessions to monitor the stress levels of both the pet and the child, you can make sure they both stay relaxed and are enjoying the training. Plus, your presence gives your child a chance to show off her training skills, which can be a huge boost to her self-esteem.
Here are tricks of the trade for getting your child and your pet moving in the right direction.
Help your child learn the ins and outs of clicker training by letting her train you before she starts training Fido. You'll need a clicker, a bag of candy and a paper plate to start practicing. Start by working on timing: Toss a ball in the air and have your child click or say her key word the moment the ball hits the highest point. Pay attention to timing so that the click or word occurs just as the behavior she is wanting to reward happens.
Once your child has mastered the timing of the click or verbal reinforcement, have her practice on you. Pick a behavior such as crossing your fingers; as soon as your fingers cross, have her click or use her voice ("good!") to mark the behavior. Immediately have her put one piece of candy on the plate (this is your treat for doing the trick properly). Have her practice the speed of the reward so that the treat is given within a second or two after the click. Repeat until she is comfortable and confident with her clicker and reward skills.
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