“What if a dog pees on you?” that is one of the questions an audience member posed to me during the Q&A portion of a presentation I gave yesterday. In fact, all of the audience members, the first graders at Rashkis Elementary School, were attentive and asked me a lot of great questions. I was part of a speaker series featuring community helpers. I described my job by saying that dogs have feelings and thoughts, but they don’t have words; my job is to help people teach dogs some words, and to help people understand better what dogs are trying to say to us. I told them how important it is to be gentle and safe with dogs. For example, they should never touch a dog who is eating out of a bowl, who is lying down, or who has something in his or her mouth. What if the dog has your homework in his mouth? “Ask a grown-up for help.”
We talked about our dogs at home, at our friend’s house, and in our neighborhood, and how to be respectful of dogs so they don’t become frightened or upset, which can lead to a bite. We covered the ABC’s of Dog Safety, and Buddy the Dog helped demonstrate the right way to pet a dog. Several of the children had been previously taught to extend a hand for a dog to sniff.I explained that this is outdated, old-timey advice. And that’s ok, we learn new and better ways to do things all the time. I asked the children if it’s ok to cough into our hands. (You would have thought I had asked them whether it was ok to start a forest fire!) “No!” they exclaimed, and showed me how to cough into my elbow. So I compared that old advice about preventing the spread of germs to the old advice about sticking our hands in a dog’s face. Now we know better; the dog can already smell us, it is better to just stand still, and if the dog approaches us, pet him under the chin or on the chest. If he doesn’t approach, don’t touch.
One little boy asked me, “How do you train a dog?” (Some of the teachers really perked up for that one.) I told him we make a list of all the things the dog really likes. Then we show the dog what we want him to do. When he does what we want, he gets surprised with something he really likes, so that he will soon do the thing we want any time we ask. Buddy demonstrated (sort of, he’s not very bendy) how we would train a dog to sit by rewarding him with a treat. I then asked the little boy what his favorite thing was. “Pepperoni!” was the reply. And then he agreed he would be happy to clean his room if he got pepperoni as a reward for doing so. I can’t help wondering what his parents must have thought when he reported about his day: “The community helper said if I clean my room you will give me pepperoni.” Of course I would not want to bribe a dog to train him; rewards are what effective dog training is all about. But I may have to wait for the kids to hit second grade before I explain the difference.
I think little kids ask the most profound questions. It was so much fun to spend time with all of them, to see their art work on the walls, to hear about their dogs at home, and to think back to how much I enjoyed learning as a kid, and still do every day. I swear I have the best job in the world.
Oh, and if a dog pees on you, you will need a new pair of shoes.