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Monday, February 16, 2009

When Can Kids Walk Dogs?


Jan,
My six-year-old was upset the other day when I wouldn't let her hold our dog's leash while walking in the park. When is a child old enough to be trusted with a dog's leash?
--Melissa

Melissa,
Ultimately, no one but you can make this decision, but I commend you for putting some thought into it, as you're obviously concerned for the welfare of your dog.

The best way to start preparing the child to walk the dog is to involve her in the training process at home or in a dog class with you. She must be capable of realizing the responsibility involved, and the possibly severe consequences of letting the leash slip from her hand. If your child is strong enough and responsible enough to carry an infant short distances, then perhaps she's ready to also take a dog's leash. If you wouldn't trust her with the infant, don't trust her with a leash.

If your dog is already well trained and mature, with good manners and self control, your child's job will be much easier. You'll still want to supervise closely...so it's best to start in your back yard or on the sidewalk out front. Like a driving instructor, you're going to be close enough to step in and intervene as necessary. Your daughter's leash should be SHORT and should have a handle she can easily and comfortably grip. A short leash will prevent the dog from lunging ahead of her, circling behind, or getting tangled up in her legs.

While your daughter holds the "main" leash, you can attach a much longer, lighter leash and let it hang loose from your hands. This is your emergency backup leash, in case your daughter stumbles and drops the leash, or your dog becomes distracted and tries to pull away from her. While you're co-walking the dog, say nothing to the dog. Encourage your daughter to talk to the dog to remind him that she is in charge. Otherwise, the dog will look back to you for direction and ignore her.

A Gentle Leader head halter is a wonderful device for a child to use when walking a dog that's bigger and stronger than she is. However, you'll have to teach your dog to totally accept this device before turning the leash over to your daughter. That break-in process can take several days or weeks, depending on the temperament of your dog. If you're considering getting a Gentle Leader and have never used one before, I strongly encourage you to get a 30-minute private lesson from a real dog trainer (please, not Petsmart!!) It will be WELL worth your money!

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