Entertaining a Pack of Preteens is a Lot Like Training Puppies

puppy party

In a moment of what was either brilliance or insanity, I turned to address the pack of preteen girls swarming in front of me. “Hey guys. I have an idea for a game...”


We were at a birthday party for a family member. It was getting late, the party was wrapping up, and I had wandered out to the backyard, where about half a dozen of my younger female cousins were playing. I sat down on the patio to observe. I wasn't sure what they were playing, but it involved a lot of screaming and giggling and running. I must have caught the tail-end of the game, because pretty soon, they started winding down.


They were getting bored.


This was so not good. Do you know what happens when a bunch of 8-to-12-year-old girls, all hopped up on birthday cake, soda, and all-you-can-eat piñata candy start getting bored?


They start getting snippy.


Snippy and dramatic. As I braced myself for the soap opera about to unfold before my very eyes, I happened to glance at a backpack on the table next to me. The backpack had a clicker attached to it via key chain. It belonged to one of the older girls, who watched my videos and was starting to try some clicker training on her dog (I'm maybe a little proud). The clicker reminded me of an exercise I had learned at a Suzanne Clothier seminar a few years back. I'd always thought that particular dog training exercise would make a good party game, and I needed to act fast if I wanted to preempt any cousin drama. What the hell. I told the girls I had a idea.


Five pairs of eyes instantly locked on to mine.


I have socialized lots of litters of puppies. When you enter the puppy pen, there is a moment when their eyes get really big in wonder. They can scarcely believe their good fortune at having a living, breathing chew toy voluntarily enter their midst.


This moment with my cousins felt a lot like that.


Only slightly fearful for my life, I began to explain the rules of the game. The group would break into pairs, and in each pair, one girl would be the trainer, and one would be the dog. The trainer had to teach the “dog” to do a trick. The catch? In place of the standard dog training words (sit, roll over, good dog, no, etc), the trainer could only speak using the names of fruits and vegetables. They then had to teach the dog what each word meant.


The kids jumped into the game with enthusiasm. The backyard quickly erupted into a cacophony of barking, growling, and “Watermelon! Carrot, WATERMELON!” It was going great, until two of the girls turned their attention to me.


“We want to train you!”


So as I sat on the ground trying to figure out what “grape” meant, It occurred to me that this was a lot like working with puppies.


-Prevent bad behavior. If you can clearly see that your puppy is about to pee on the carpet, you don't wait until he does to do something about it. Same with this pack of preteens, who were headed toward Drama Zone before I intervened.

-Focus on what you want, not what you don't want. If I had said, “come on guys, don't fight” instead of suggesting the game, how do you think that would've gone? Instead of telling your puppy, “No! Don't jump! Stop biting me! Don't eat the furniture!” try offering safe alternatives.

-Be prepared for short attention spans. Don't get me wrong, these particular kids are perfectly capable of focusing on a project for long periods of time, but not while in overly-caffeinated, overly-sugared Birthday Party Mode. Don't expect your puppy to be interested in long training exercises. Have a few different training games up your sleeves, and take frequent breaks.

-Keep your sense of humor. There is no dignity in hopping up and down on one foot wondering if you are performing “apple” correctly. Similarly, there is no dignity in hopping up and down saying “GOOD PUPPY! You went potty in the right place! Whattagoodgirl! Who wants a TREAT! You wanna TREAT?” in a high-pitched voice. If you can't make fun of yourself, then you have no business owning a puppy – or providing party entertainment for a bunch of kids.


As for how the game went, it was fun, but it quickly devolved from mostly positive techniques to compulsion-based training as the “dogs” were beaten with balloons for misbehaving. Oh well. The concept of positive dog training may have been lost on this group of kids this time around, but by the end of the game, they were happy, tired out and not fighting. And isn't that the whole point of entertaining puppies -uh, I mean, children?  


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