4-H dog project sparks human-animal bonding
4-H students, and their dogs, strengthen rapports as they learn new tasks
Craig — Brianna Burkett’s dog Jake was troubled when he joined her family.
“He came from a shelter, and he was abused,” said Brianna, a sophomore at Moffat County High School and vice president of the Moffat County 4-H Council. She said Jake, a Labrador Retriever, would get nervous around people, afraid of what they might do. So, to help him learn to socialize, she entered him in the Moffat County Fair’s 4-H dog project a few years ago.
“He picked up on it really fast,” she said. “It was really cool to watch him. It was like watching a kid go through school.”
The 4-H Dog Project for the Moffat County Fair may involve some precise training, but it also taps into some larger goals, helping dogs like Jake enjoy the company of people — and animals — a bit more than they might have before the training.
“Our main goal is to help the child develop a relationship with their dog, so it’s just not the dog sitting on the couch doing nothing,” said Kelly Davidson, kennel manager at Bear Creek Animal Hospital and leader of the 4-H dog project. “They build a relationship with their dog, and it’s something that can last a lifetime and make the whole relationship with the animal meaningful.”
And the project, Davidson said, also helps the child to be responsible, to be disciplined with the training, and to “take care of someone besides themselves.”
Davidson said this is her 10th year leading the project, which has three categories: rally obedience, regular obedience and showmanship. The rally obedience category requires children to move from sign to sign, giving their dogs instructions at each post. The regular obedience category requires the children to follow the verbal cues of judges.
Davidson said the children also work with their dogs on agility activities for fun — without having those activities scored.
The project poses a formidable, and rewarding, challenge for children, as Davidson explained.
“It’s a lot more difficult and time-consuming than one might think,” she said. “It’s something you have to practice consistently — and you have to do a lot of this at home, on your own, so it takes a lot of discipline.”
Davidson, who works with trainer Diane Calim on the project, noted the importance of positive dog-training methods.
“We learned to use treats and rewards in positive training methods,” she said. “We try to keep the negative out as much as possible.”
She said that style of training is more effective, and also more humane.
“It’s very easy to shut a dog down with negative reinforcement,” she said. “And once they shut down it takes a while to build back their confidence.”
As for Brianna, she’s entering this year’s competition with her mother’s dog, Pixie. Jake’s older now, and he’s already gone through training and become more comfortable around people.
“You do so much obedience and bonding,” Brianna said. “They get to the point where they don’t want to leave you.”
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