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K9 Buddy Curriculum: Promoting a Bond Between Your Child and Their K9 Buddy

Dogs can be incredibly sensitive, intuitive creatures. They have evolved to read human emotions and respond accordingly to build a relationship. The goal of getting a K9 Buddy is for the dog to bond to the child with visual impairment, but what if there are other people in the home who are equally excited to welcome the new furry family member? A common concern voiced by our clients is “The dog follows me around more than my child. How do I get the dog to bond with them more?”

First, we must get a clearer definition of what bonding means. For our purposes, bonding is a process that relies on consistent positive interactions between dog and recipient over time. Just like any relationship, building a foundation takes time and effort. The essential principle of learning theory is that dogs will seek out people and situations they see as positive and will avoid people and situations that they see as negative. Therefore, it is important to learn what your specific dog finds rewarding.

Just like people, all dogs are individuals and have unique needs and preferences. Some dogs enjoy a pat or scratch on the head, whereas others find this to be invasive and off-putting and will duck away. Some dogs need time to goof-off and run laps around the yard with a toy, while others are equally content to play tug or engage in learning new tricks. Others still are most content when being brushed or snuggling on the couch watching TV.

Dogs communicate with us through their body language, but this can sometimes be difficult to read, especially with a new dog. Due to our extensive evaluation process with K9 Buddy dogs, it is exceedingly rare to encounter any aggressive behavior, but it is important to be able to read signs that your dog may be stressed, anxious or fearful, as these are often more subtle and can be easy to miss. At the end of this document are some great visual aids that help decode what your dog is trying to tell you, as well as some tips for guiding interactions between children and dogs.

Take some time to observe what makes your dog tick and use what you learn to your advantage when choosing how the people in your home interact with the dog. Fortunately, for most GDB dogs, food will always be a reinforcer and we can use that to our advantage when building or changing associations. Every time the recipient and handler engage in an activity that the dog views as enjoyable, it is like putting pennies in a piggy bank. Over time, those pennies add up!

In families where the visually impaired recipient is a child, the reality of daily life and routines can often be a challenge. Consider the following day: the parents get the kids ready for school, they feed the dog while the kids are brushing their teeth, they drop off the kids at school and come home and take the dog for a walk. At midday the dog starts poking them with a toy while they are on the computer, so they take a break and play tug for a few minutes, then the kids come home from school and start homework or watch TV while the dog lays on his bed. The parents feed dinner, then it’s off to bed for everyone. While the dog certainly is getting their needs met, all the exciting things—food, exercise, play time—are coming from the parent, and very little fun time is spent with the recipient. These daily routines are something you will need to think about and structure accordingly, so the dog’s needs are being met, and the recipient is at the focus of as many of the fun things as possible. While it’s natural the parent will assist with some level of care, you can prioritize some elements for the child to assist with or be in charge of. The bond will come, but only with patience and work; and of course, time.

Well-intended siblings, who are dog-lovers themselves, can sometimes find it difficult to provide the space needed to promote the recipient’s bond with their K9 Buddy. Having a family discussion early on to set expectations about the need to promote the K9 Buddy recipient’s bond with the dog is an important step. Some other helpful strategies:

  • Reserve specific tasks that the K9 Buddy recipient will always do with the K9 Buddy dog. These may include feeding meals, providing food rewards from the food pouch for good responses to cued behaviors, or playtime at a designated time each day. Help other children in the household recognize that these tasks are special to the team.
  • Provide some time for the dog to interact with all members of the family so everyone has a chance to participate.
  • As appropriate to the team and situation, fun training games can be utilized where the K9 Buddy recipient is the dog’s primary handler and siblings are in an assisting role. These can include recall games (calling the dog from person to person) or practicing polite greeting behaviors, where siblings are allowed to come up and pet the dog while the child (recipient) provides praise and food reward for calm, appropriate behavior. Teams can work up to more advanced practice with siblings providing (reasonable) distractions during other cued behaviors like a sit-stay or down-stay. These games can be covered in more depth during your partnership training.

These ideas can help all family members feel included, while continuing to build the bank account between the child and their buddy.

A K9 Buddy dog has been specifically chosen for his/her temperament and natural affinity for being around people, but occasionally, even a dog needs some space. Crates, bowls and toys containing food should be approached with care, especially by children. When a dog is sleeping, they should not be disturbed, therefore the crate is an excellent tool to ensure that they have a safe space to take a break. In addition, if a dog chooses to move away from a person to lay by themselves, that should be allowed and respected without being followed. It is important to teach children to respect a dog’s boundaries, especially because the other dogs they encounter in the world may not be as forgiving as their K9 Buddy, and that is how accidents can happen!

Interactions between children and dogs should be supervised. An accidentally pulled tail, stepped-on paw, or smothering hug may be forgiven once, but if repeated, it will build a negative association and can cause the dog to avoid your child over time. If your child is prone to outbursts or tantrums, please think of the dog’s perspective and move them to another, quieter room until the commotion subsides. Spending time with the K9 Buddy after the episode is over can be a positive reward, but there is no expectation that a dog should help a child navigate an outburst or come down from a meltdown. Throughout puppyhood and their time in training, GDB dogs are exposed to a variety of situations and stimuli, however it is not fair to expect them to “tolerate” inappropriate behavior/handling. Children learn appropriate interactions by modeling their parents/guardians’ interactions and management with the dog, and the dog needs to be able to rely on the adult to intervene when things go awry.

Children can learn responsibility, empathy, self-care, social interactions, and a variety of other life skills through their appropriate interactions with a dog. Some may even learn the skills necessary to prepare them for work with a guide dog, if that is one of their future goals. Following these tips will help you build the foundation for a steadfast bond that can last for years to come.

Important takeaways:

  • Most of the positive activities in the dog’s life should include the child
  • Build the bank account - All positive interactions are pennies in the bank!
  • Ensure all family members understand the importance of the child’s bond with their buddy. Find ways to incorporate siblings that don’t detract from the team’s growing relationship.
  • Supervise interactions with dogs and children to make sure everyone is having a good time
  • Allow for safe spaces and quiet time
  • HAVE FUN!!!

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