It seems so natural for many families…parents, children, and pets all living together and having a great time! However, if we are unsure how to introduce our child to a new dog, or how to introduce our sweet cat to our new baby, then things may not always go smoothly. Dogs and cats may not know how to behave around our tiny human children, and our children may not know how to behave around our fur babies!
Even if we do not have pets of our own, our children will spend time with friends and family who have pets, or encounter them at the neighborhood park or on a walk in front of our home. Knowing when and how to approach and interact with animals is beneficial and necessary for all of our children.
Knowing how to interact with dogs and cats appropriately is also the first step in learning to love animals and fostering fulfilling friendships with pets for the rest of our lives. Children who learn to be friends with animals also learn compassion and how to nurture others, they learn responsibility, and relationships with animals positively affect their development.
Today, April 26th, is National Kids and Pets Day so let’s take the time to make sure our children know what to do and what not to do when meeting a new pet so that everyone can remain calm, happy and injury-free as well as learn to develop great friendships!
Supervision and Modeling Behaviors
Dog and cat populations in the United States have been steadily increasing for decades. Many families have multiple pets at home, like I do. This means our children WILL be interacting with dogs and cats at an early age.
To our children, most dogs and cats seem sweet, fluffy and cute. If a child has never been exposed to a strange animal before, they may think that any behavior on their part is appropriate. But adults and parents know that while most animals are friendly, there are aggressive and fearful dogs out there as well as cats who like to use their claws. There are also pet owners who do not train their dogs to follow commands or not jump on children, and then there are some pets who think that children are just plain strange and do not want anything to do with them.
If we have a family dog or cat then we can teach our child from a very young age how to interact with him, and we should! Teaching correct interactions should start at home with the family pets. Children should learn to treat all animals with respect, even if they know the dog or cat and they are comfortable around him.
If there is no family pet to practice with, then one of the first things we can do as a parent is set up supervised encounters with the dogs and cats of friends and family who we already know to be friendly. While we are on these encounters we can practice proper ways to interact with animals alongside our children.
To do this, we should always model the proper way to interact with dogs and behave around them as well. As we know, children will do as we do, not as we say, and they are always watching! If we display the correct way to read body language, approach and pet animals, then that is how our children will do these things as well.
It is also important to remember that small children, as well as many dogs and cats, may not know their limitations and should not be left alone with each other. They should always be supervised to prevent injury to both the child and the animal.
How to Meet New Cats
Children need to know how to interact with both dogs and cats, but the rules with cats are pretty easy. Cats who do not want to be petted will either run away, find a high perch out of the way, or let children know they are not interested by making an unwelcoming noise.
Children should know that when cats hiss or growl, they should ALWAYS be left alone. When cats run away, then they should be left alone and NOT chased. Many people have their cats declawed to prevent having their furniture destroyed, but this is definitely not always the case and we should never assume that cats are declawed. Cats with claws are usually not scared to use them when they feel threatened or scared. Also, cats without claws can still bite!
Cats that are willing to be petted will usually stay still when approached without making any unhappy noises. Children should pet them gently on their back or head, and SHOULD NOT pull on a cat’s tail, fur or ears, or pick up a cat who is not used to being handled, and not without the owner’s permission.
If we follow these rules, then children should have positive interactions with cats they don’t know!
Doggy Do’s and Don’ts
When we are preparing our children to meet a dog for the first time, here are a few things we should review:
- NEVER approach and/or touch a dog you do not know.
- ALWAYS ask the owner’s permission before petting their dog.
- Once they receive permission, children should quietly wait for the dog to approach them to say hello.
- Children can then stay still and allow the dog to sniff them, or slowly offer their balled up fist out toward the dog so he can sniff their hand.
- Once the dog has sniffed the child, then the child can very gently pet the dog with soft strokes.
- When spending time with any dog, make sure your child has calm, gentle, quiet interactions instead of frantic yelling and playing.
- If a friendly dog does jump on your child playfully, they should not scream, cry or run, but instead ignore and turn their back on the dog, causing him to drop back to the ground. A dog will think screaming, crying or running mean the child wants to keep playing with them!
- If you have a family dog, you should teach your child to participate in his care and routine from a young age.
- No hitting, no poking, no pushing (especially on the hips), no hair, ear, limb or tail-pulling, no hugging or kissing, no sitting on or riding dogs.
- Never walk directly toward a dog or make direct eye contact, instead approach him from the side.
- NEVER try to pet or approach a dog who is eating or who has a treat or chew. Dogs who are otherwise very docile can be aggressive around their food or treats.
- Never yell in a dog’s ear or face and never yell or stomp near a sleeping dog.
- Do NOT stare directly back at a dog that is looking very intensely at you. Avert your gaze.
- Do not follow or chase a dog who is walking or running away.
- If a strange dog does seem like he may become aggressive by growling or baring his teeth, or runs toward your child in a scary way, teach them NOT to run away or scream, but instead to remain as calm and as quiet as possible and stand still with all limbs held in at their sides.
What If My Child Does Not Follow the Rules?
I know parenting styles differ and I don’t want to offer unsolicited advice. However, if our children do not follow the rules we have laid out, then I would suggest calmly separating them from the dog or cat immediately. Then give a clear, unemotional consequence for any misbehavior on the child’s part (or the dog’s) so they know that these are serious rules that must be followed.
We should also praise our children when they DO follow the rules! It is also important that our children understand that dogs and cats are living, breathing creatures that can feel pain and can become angry or sad. Teach them to be empathetic to an animal’s need for a break or a nap, and teach them to leave pets alone during these times.
Advanced Technique: Reading Body Language of Dogs
As our children get a little older, we can make sure that they are learning to read the body language of the dogs they encounter. We won’t be able to supervise their encounters with animals for long as they start growing up, so instead we can make sure that we have taught them how to be safe around new animals by reading body language. Talk with children about constantly observing the body language of dogs around them and what certain postures and behaviors mean. This way they can begin to become versed in reading the body language of dogs themselves and their knowledge can grow over time.
Positive Body Language Basics:
- Relaxed face while looking at you
- Averting gaze from you
- Closed mouth or slightly open mouth (known as smiling)
- Relaxed, normal ears
- Natural tail position or wagging accompanied by other positive body language
- Overall relaxed body language
Negative Body Language Basics:
- Wide eyes
- Intense staring directly at you
- Lips pulled back to expose teeth
- Excessive, exaggerated yawning
- Growling, aggressive barking
- Ears pinned back on head
- Tucked tail
- Stiff tail with rigid wagging accompanied by other negative body language
- Raised hair down the back/shoulder blades
- Hunched body/making himself look small (may bite out of fear)
- Stiff, tense body
Supervision, Supervision, Supervision!
Remember that supervision, especially around younger children who have not learned to read a dog’s body language yet, is key! We should never leave young children alone with a dog or cat, even if the animal’s owner says that they will be fine and his dog is not aggressive. People tend to play down any negative behaviors in their own pet (or child!). Remember that young puppies and will jump, scratch and nip as they are learning appropriate behaviors, so we even need to provide supervision around them.
We should review these do’s and don’ts with our children regularly. If we have a family pet at home, the same level of supervision should be in place while our child is young even though we think nothing could go wrong because our dog is the sweetest! Why take chances with safety? Children, dogs and cats all misbehave and forget how they are supposed to act sometimes.
This is not an all-encompassing list, but it’s a good start to begin to teaching children how to interact with family pets and unknown dogs. Let me know if you have any stories about kid and dog interactions below in the comment section!