For lots of us, our families started growing when we brought home our first pet, long before the children arrived! Like all cohabiting beings pets and kids need to learn how to live together. Setting the ground rules of how to engage with pets can be the difference between happy, life-long relationships with your pets or avoidable dangers.
Let your children be helpers
Getting your kids to help care for your pet at an early age is a great way to create understanding towards animals. Simple things such as refilling the water bowl, picking out new pet toys, or even filling the dog’s treat ball with peanut butter all work towards a better understanding of your pet’s needs and how we care for them.
Teach them boundaries
Just as we teach our kids about their own boundaries and how to respect other children’s boundaries, we must teach our kids that animals are individual beings that have boundaries too. Understanding that your pet doesn’t like to be bothered while they eat or that they prefer to initiate contact first is important information that can help kids and animals form a relationship and avoid negative interactions. Teasing the cat like they tease their brother or sister isn’t going to end well! It’s estimated that half of all dog attacks on children are considered provoked.
Teach them signs of distress
If your child can understand how pets communicate, this will go a long way in preventing negative interactions such as nipping and biting. We all know that a tail between the legs is a sign of nervousness in dogs, but other signs of tension include turning away, furrowed brows, flat ears, wide eyes and a closed mouth. When dogs are relaxed they’ll show soft eyes, open mouth, relaxed ears and a relaxed tail. When cats feel uncomfortable they will likely dart in the opposite direction and hide under a bed or seek higher ground, but other signs include trembling and destructive behaviour.
How to speak with pets
Explain to your children how their behaviour can spark unexpected or unwanted reactions from pets. Playful shrieks and running rings around the backyard are going to entice your dog to join in the fun, but equally kids should be taught to communicate ‘no’ directly with pets. Whether it’s telling Fluffy to give them some space while they’re eating or discouraging jumping, teach your child to clearly and firmly say ‘no’ when they need to.
Some bedtime reading
There are some brilliant children’s books available which focus on being kind to animals. For example, “Tails Are Not For Pulling”, “May I Pet Your Dog?” and “Always Be Kind”. These are a great way to teach your children how to treat animals, especially if you have no pets currently in your life.
It’s important to stay realistic, keeping in mind that things can happen between the best-behaved kids and pets and that we can’t supervise every moment! As parents, we have to teach our kids how to respect pets (in and outside the home!) in order to better protect them and the animals they come into contact with.
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