Little Boy Training Dog

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.

1. Teach Your Child to Train

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.

2. Teach Your Pet a Base Behavior

One of the easiest ways to teach an animal — and a child — clicker training is by clicking for something the pet naturally does. Spend a couple of minutes with your child before she starts training just watching your pet to see what he already does naturally. Dogs might go into a sit or a down position; cats may jump or put a paw in the air. After observing your pet, decide with your child what behavior she would like to see repeated in the future. Next, help your child pick out the reward she will give your pet, such as a handful of treats (to be doled out one by one) for a dog or a bite of canned tuna on the end of a spoon for a cat. 

Now you're ready to start your training session. The moment the pet does the behavior your child is looking for, have her mark this moment with a click or a verbal response ("good") and immediately follow up with a reward — just like she did when she was training you. Remember that timing is important: If your child is teaching her dog to sit, she needs to click the moment the animal’s bottom hits the floor.

Show your child how to offer treats safely. The best way for a child to give a dog a treat is to toss it on the ground or to hold it on her flat palm to prevent the dog from grabbing her fingers by mistake. If she is offering a cat food off a spoon, she only needs to give the cat one or two licks each time. If she's using a cat toy for a reward, only a few moments of play are needed. Once her pet is doing the behavior she was clicking for many times in a row, she can add in a verbal command to encourage the behavior, such as saying “sit” just as the dog is about to put his bottom on the floor.

Before you know it, your child will have taught her pet a new trick!

3. Teach Your Pet to Target

Once your child has mastered the basics of clicker training, you can work with her on teaching her pet to touch a target with his nose. The target can be a specially made target stick for pets, or it can be something simple like a wooden spoon. Targets are a building block for training because they can be used to teach your pet various tricks, including come when called, heel, spin, high five and jumping through a hoop.

Once again, your child will need to start small, such as clicking first for looking at a stationary target stick. Once her pet masters that, she can build up to having her pet follow a moving target stick. She may want to put peanut butter or canned food on the end of the stick to make her pet more likely to move toward it.

To get the training started, have your child stand with the target stick behind her back. While your pet is looking at your child, have her gently move the previously concealed target stick out from behind her back; as soon as the pet looks at the stick, she should click and reward, and then move the target stick out of view again. Have her wait a moment before she presents the target again.

Once her pet catches on to the idea of looking at the target, have your child move on to clicking when her pet touches the stick with his nose. Once her pet has readily started touching the target stick, take away the food on the end of the stick so that he is simply touching the bare target. At this point, your child can cue the behavior with a word ("touch") as the pet’s nose moves toward the target. Once her pet has mastered touching the target, have her start varying the target’s height and distance, gradually making it more difficult to touch the target. 

Remember to treat frequently. Novice pets need to be clicked and rewarded 10 times per minute to stay excited about training. Keep training sessions short — a minute or two long — and repeat several times throughout the day; this helps to keep training fun for both your child and her pet.

When your child teaches your pet a new trick, it benefits them both. She will be proud of her accomplishment, and your pet will be learning better manners. It's a win-win situation.

4. Tricks Your Child Can Teach Her Pet

Here are three fun and simple tricks your child can teach her dog or cat.

Sit: Have your child take her pet into an area of the house where your family relaxes, such as the family room. If she's working with a dog, it may help to have him on leash to give him less space to roam. Have her sit down and relax. She should be ready to click or use her voice (“good”) and offer a treat as soon as her pet’s bottom hits the floor. Her pet will likely get out of a sit when he eats his treat, so she will need to be ready to click or say “good” as soon as he sits again. Once the pet is doing many sits in a row, your child can add in a word for the behavior ("sit") just before or just as his bottom heads for the floor.

Spin: The goal of the spin is to get your pet turning around in a circle. Initially, your child will be teaching her pet to do just a head turn; eventually she will lead him to turn one-fourth of the way around a circle, then halfway, then three-fourths of the way and then all the way around. To start, have your child hold a treat in front of her pet’s nose and move it outward and back toward the animal's shoulder area. As soon as the pet’s nose starts to turn toward the food, she should click or say “good” and immediately treat. Do this a couple of more times and then start moving the treat farther back so that the dog's or cat's front feet start to move toward the treat. If the pet starts to back up (rather than turning around), have her move the treat forward and restart. Once your child's pet is following the treat without hesitation, she can teach him to follow her empty hand. She should continue to click and treat with her other hand, to reinforce the behavior. Eventually she can start to turn her hand in a smaller and smaller circle until the pet spins in response to a small turn of her hand. Spin is a cute trick that pets and kids both enjoy.  

High Five: Your child can teach your dog or cat to high five by teaching him first to target an item, such as a sticky note. Click or say “good” for any movement of the animal’s front foot toward the target area, and treat immediately when his foot moves toward the target. Continue to reward for any movement of the foot toward the target. The goal is for your child's pet to touch the target with his foot. As soon as he starts touching the target with his foot, she can add a verbal command, such as “high five." Next, have her put her hand slightly underneath the target so that it's still resting on the floor; she should say “high five” and reward when the pet touches the target with his paw. As her pet does this, she can gradually move the target into her hand farther until it rests fully on her hand. Once the pet is touching the target in her hand with his paw, she can start to raise the target farther off the ground until he is pulling his paw off the floor to touch the target in her hand. To teach the pet to touch only her hand, your child can make the target smaller by cutting a sticky note into smaller and smaller pieces and finally phasing it out completely. The high five is a fun way for your child to introduce her pet to new people.