Game On

posted March 27th, 2019 by
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Game On

Teaching responsible pet ownership through friendly family competition


By Travis Brorsen


Five-year-old Titan and 7-year-old Hattie had been begging their parents for a dog for years. Their parents, BJ and Kari, decided the kids were finally old enough to contribute to the care of a pet. They debated, researched, planned and finally settled on an Australian Shepherd Mix puppy. Known for their intelligence, energy and trainability, the Aussie Mix seemed like a good fit for the high energy Bender family. Hattie also struggles with anxiety, and they felt a dog could be a distraction and a comfort to her. BJ and Kari introduced the kids to the female pup, and they were instantly smitten. The family decided on the name, Rosé.


At first, the kids couldn’t get enough of Rosé’s spunk and playfulness. It was cute when she scooped up a toy or a sock and wanted to play tug of war. It was funny when she ran circles around them in the living room. In the beginning, Titan and Hattie were eager to help feed Rosé and let her outside, but after a few weeks, their excitement waned. Their parents were left to pick up the slack.


BJ, a senior marketing representative, and Kari, a dentist, both worked full time. While they loved Rosé and believed she was the perfect addition to their family, they were struggling to adjust to her feeding and sleeping schedule and also to match her seemingly boundless energy. Rosé was a gift for their children, but they also added her to the family to help teach them responsibility. How could they get their kids “back in the game” and encourage them to engage in Rosé’s care again?


BJ is a friend of mine from high school, and when he reached out to me on Facebook, I was happy to help. The Bender’s is a story I hear often, especially around the holidays. Kids ask for a puppy for a holiday gift and promise to help take care of it. The parents oblige. However, after a few weeks, the kids lose interest, and the parents take over.


Another issue with puppies is they can play rough. As the old saying goes, “It’s all fun and games until someone starts crying.” If a puppy nips or scratches a child, they may be hesitant to play with her again. It can be difficult for puppies to end a play session since dogs don’t have an on/off switch. Naturally, many of the calls I get after the holidays involve people asking me for suggestions on how to re-engage their children and get them involved with their puppy again.


My training philosophy involves meeting and spending time with my families and assessing their dynamic. I’m interested in what motivates them. I then develop a plan that utilizes their strengths and brings them together as a team. I believe the key when working with kids is to make the process fun and feel like a game! Interestingly, the process is the same when it comes to puppy training.


The Benders are a close-knit and active family. They love spending time outdoors and doing things together. Hattie and Titan both love sports and competition, especially with each other. I realized if I could develop a plan that would appeal to the children’s interests, as well as incorporate what motivates them, we could really turn things around.


My strategy with the Benders was to create a “family fun task chart” so that each person’s duties were crystal clear. For example, each week there are a handful of duties that have to be done: feeding, taking the dog out for potty time, walking, playtime and a training element like “sit.” I established four principal tasks for each week and gave each of them a different one each day. This way, it wouldn’t feel monotonous and, let’s be honest, nobody wants to be on poop duty every day.


I then added bonus points so the kids could be rewarded for going above and beyond. These included extra playtime, practicing the training element, picking up Rosé’s toys and putting them away, just to name a few. The only rule was, if the kids wanted to take on their parents’ tasks, they could get those points added to their name. I created a graph on a dry erase board, so each family member could track their progress. When I left the family that first night, I was going to offer a monetary reward for the winner, but after the parents saw the fire in Hattie and Titan’s eyes, they said family competition would be all they needed to motivate them.


After one week, it was time to check in. I was hopeful, but I really didn’t know what to expect. As I sat down with the family, Hattie shouted, “I’m winning,” and it wasn’t long until each member of the family had a story to tell about an experience they had during the past week. Titan piped in “I don’t mind picking up the poop; I really don’t!” BJ also recalled both children asking if they could spend extra time with Rosé.


I could tell they were on a good path, so I left the family for another week. The objective was clear, and the task was fun. When I returned for the final two-week check-in, I was amazed at what I saw. Rosé was responding to each family member in a different way. Rosé was attentive and responsive to the family. She was also calmer, and so were the kids. It seemed the routines and trust they were all building together had already started making an impact. As I looked around the kitchen, I saw another chart. I asked BJ about it, and he said, “Oh yeah, they liked the system so well, we are doing it with their household chores now.” Say what?!


In the end, BJ and Kari explained, Hattie and Titan didn’t need a tangible reward. All they needed was a little motivation and some friendly family competition.


“It’s amazing what kids will do when we believe in them and use positive reinforcement. It would have been easy to tell them they had to pitch in because they wanted the dog in the first place,” said Kari. “We never thought of turning it into a game. I guess that’s what we do when training Rosé as well, isn’t it?” I had to laugh and tell Kari, “Sometimes I feel like I’m training people with pet problems and not the other way around.”


While participating in this exercise, the children thought they were just having fun, playing with Rosé while enjoying a little family competition. But the reality was, they were creating habits of responsible pet ownership. Unbeknownst to them, they were also engaging in relationship-building activities that would create a bond with Rosé based on mutual love, trust and respect.


I have no doubt the relationships the children continue to build with Rosé and nurture with their parents will teach them life lessons about kindness, caring and learning. These lessons will impact every pet they have for the rest of their lives. I’m so impressed with the Benders’ commitment to Rosé and to each other, and I’m happy to have helped them with their success.



Travis Brorsen is one of the most sought after dog trainers in America today. Travis is founder and CEO of Greatest American Dog Trainers and is Animal Planet’s pet expert and trainer, hosting their new series, “My Big Fat Pet Makeover,” which just finished Season One.

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