We adults often play with a dog by kneeling down, making excited noises like “Hey, pup! What do I have?” while dragging a toy in front of him. The dog pounces on the toy. “Whee!” and the game begins. Enter a toddler. She kneels on the floor making exciting noises as she moves the toy back and forth in front of her. The dog thinks “Playtime!” and pounces on her hand. Toddler screams. Dog, thinking the game has begun, gets more excited. Parents intervene: “Bad dog!”
The dog is utterly confused.
Avoid this by starting play with a word instead of an action. Develop an on/off switch with your dog. Sit on the floor. Have the dog sit. Drag a toy slowly back and forth in front of him. Tell him calmly, “wait.” If he gets up, direct him to sit. When the dog is staying seated, excitedly tell him “OK, Playtime!” and encourage him to play. Let him play for a minute or so; then tell him “Enough, Sit.” Immediately calm down. Leave a leash on your dog so you can help him settle if he needs it.
Repeat until he waits for the words “OK, Play-time” before pouncing.
When he gets good at this, start moving more quickly or sounding more excited while he waits. Dogs love this game. Sitting there, trembling with excitement, awaiting the magic words.
Other useful commands are “Place” and “Go” both of which can be used to send your dog somewhere else if you see him getting confused. Teaching your dog to move away from your child on your word is a powerful message to the dog (child stays, dog leaves) and an excellent parental safety net.
Later, if you see your dog misinterpreting a child’s game, a quick “Enough, Sit” should give you immediate control, and the dog an immediate understanding that this is not the right time or place. If not, you can send him away.
Be sure to enthusiastically praise when he complies. If he does not respond to your verbal command, do not hesitate to put on his leash and practice with him. Set up the situation when you have complete control. He’ll soon catch on and when he does, let him know what a good choice he just made.
by Sarah Wilson