Cultivating Dog-Smart Kids

For half a century, the Lassie stereotype has endured in American hearts and minds. The ideal dog is noble, has the vocabulary of a college student, and near-telepathic understanding of what’s expected of him. It makes for lovely storytelling, but the imprint left on generations by Lassie and similar fictions, from Dorothy’s Toto to Disney’s Bolt, is one that sets many a first-time dog owner up for disappointment and frustration. Oh, we know dogs are not people. But surely they understand the difference between a chewie and an Italian shoe?

In fact, dogs are more like happy-go-lucky aliens trying to navigate our strange world of rules and expectations. To better help them, a good place for us to start is with greater understanding of how they see the world. Here, humane education plays a crucial role.

The term brings to mind aproned children petting rabbits or fashioning cat toys from strings and feathers—and that’s part of the picture, of course. But in many humane societies and classrooms, the curriculum has greatly evolved. Children now learn about all aspects of animal behavior, training, and conservation. They talk about cruelty-free shopping and responsible pet guardianship; they invent socialization plans for hypothetical puppies; they witness spay or neuter surgeries and discuss animal population management; they brush dog coats and learn poop-scooping technique.

Why is this so important? For one thing, children educated about dogs are much more likely to behave safely around them—which means the dogs are safer, too. And dog-savvy children grow up to be dog-savvy adults, a necessity in a world with ever-increasing numbers of dogs living close together. Once primarily the domain of wannabe veterinarians and animal control officers, all-around proficiency in dog behavior and training is now an important life skill. This is especially true for people in cities and suburbs where every stroll to the park or day spent in the yard involves some level of dog management, whether navigating a busy sidewalk or keeping the bark frequency and pitch at a level that won’t drive neighbors to distraction. It’s a good thing, then, that humane education programs are more popular than ever and are expanding to allow more kids to get personal with pooches.