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Teach Children Social Skills Through Training Animals

By Jeannie Russell

Amid the collective trauma of the past pandemic year, one of the few positive outcomes to emerge was a notable increase in adoptions from animal shelters across the country. The very special bond we share with our animal companions gave so many of us comfort during this difficult time by bringing an unconditionally loving and joyful spirit into our socially-distanced lives and homes. 

Our animal companions were there for us as we struggled with isolation, anxiety, disruption, and loss. Now that schools are reopening, summer camps have been enrolling, and family schedules are beginning to normalize, it’s time we give something back by making sure that our animal family members are also ready to re-enter the often confusing and stressful wider world of new people, new animals, and new routines. 

As an educational organization, HEART is always focused on using our humane education framework to creatively and effectively address the social-emotional and learning needs of our youth, so many of whom have already experienced the deepest impacts of the pandemic. They are now being asked to re-connect socially and find ways to share both the emotional turmoil of their pandemic-impacted world and to move on into a still-developing new phase of their school and home lives. 

The parallels between the current needs of our animal family members — whether they are “pandemic puppies” or longtime companions — and those of our children provide a great opportunity to engage in some fun relationship-building and socialization exercises built around a convergence between the kind of restorative and child-centered learning styles we encourage with our students and the essential grounding of all good animal training: a collaborative, loving, and respectful bond. 

The process of building this bond using a socialization exercise can be broken down into three components: 

  • Observe and identify your dog’s feelings and needs. Helping young people identify and focus on body-language indicators of specific feelings enhances both self- and social awareness skills, and is especially helpful for children with language, learning, and/or developmental differences. Becoming an expert “dog body language reader” is of course key to being a good animal guardian, but it’s also a wonderful way to broaden and enrich our capacity for empathy in all our relationships. As a starting point, you can share a good video on the basics of dog body language with family to do some practice observations of body language reading on your own companion.
  • Verbally express the feelings and needs of all the people and animals involved in the exercise as you interact. In traditional obedience-based dog training, this component may not be necessary, but within the context described here, we are working on giving both animal and human family members very positive, joyful social interactions in potentially challenging situations. Therefore, making sure that all the human participants are self-aware and attentive to each other is a parallel goal to helping the dog respond well to the situation. Building the capacity to articulate feeling states in oneself and in others — and the confidence to share these feelings or observations in respectful and empathic ways — gives our children some critical tools to bring to the process of re-connecting in real-world social experiences.
  • Keep everyone involved aware of each other and sensitive to their own and others’ feelings/reactions as they work together towards a common goal (collaborate). Allowing young family members to take a leadership role in “reading,” articulating, and directing a collaboration of all the people and animals involved in a socialization exercise builds confidence that they can handle stressful social situations. It also gives them a way to distance from their own anxiety and stress by thinking about and acting for the benefit of others. The deep identification that most children feel with animals, coupled with the nonjudgmental attachment that a well-cared-for companion animal offers, encourages them to take an active role in identifying and responding with compassion to the needs of others. 

We’d like to share a home video from our family to yours that briefly illustrates two common situations that dog guardians might encounter in having guests over for the first time in a while, and some exercises that even young children could practice with their dogs in preparation for the visit. 

Training with your dog is always best done within a personalized, relationship-based process, so the exercises shown here are just examples of the approach — it’s always helpful to work with a good certified dog trainer if possible to respond to your dog’s individual needs, or find a local shelter or rescue group that offers free or low-cost in-person training.

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