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Encouraging Positive Interactions Between Your Pet and Children: Part One – Principles to Follow

Our pets are family members, and so it should come as no surprise that we want our pets to love our children and co-habitat well together.

So how do we foster a relationship of mutual love and respect between our dog and our children?

Safety First

Regardless of the size of your pet, regardless the breed of the pet, and regardless of how gentle, calm and/or well behaved they “have always been,” it’s imperative that any pet and child interaction is supervised by an adult. It is never safe to assume that your pet will automatically know how to behave around a child, even if they behave perfectly around you.

Establish Boundaries

It’s so important to create a “safe zone” for your pet; a place where they can go to feel comfortable, independent, and be away from any children, when they choose.  For dogs, a crate is an ideal environment; for cats it may be a bed or room they can go to.

Keep in mind that older children may understand the instruction to stay away from an area that is designated as “pet only,” however, babies and toddlers may not understand the boundary so quickly/easily.  Make sure to constantly stress the importance of allowing your pet to have alone time, and to respect the safe zone, re-directing the toddler to a different activity if your pet is displaying signs of over-stimulation or needing space.

Animals will display warning signs that they are becoming uncomfortable with their situation. For dogs, it may include tucking a tail, flattening ears, bearing teeth, and sometimes growling. For cats, this may include twitching their tail, flattening ears, growling/hissing or making active attempts to put space between themselves and the child. Don’t punish your pet for these actions—we absolutely want them to let us know when they’ve had enough, so that they can be allowed to go to their “safe zone.” Keep careful watch during all child-pet interactions and stop the interaction immediately when the pet displays their warning signs.

It’s equally important to praise every positive interaction—treats, toys, and attention are great ways to show children and dogs that you’re proud!

Take It Slow

Teach children to always ask permission to pet any pet.  Once they’re given the go-ahead, have them approach your pet slowly and head on; we never want to surprise a pet! Never have a child (or anyone for that matter) approach your pet if they are eating or sleeping, as they may feel as though their personal space is being invaded.  If you have a toddler who tends to be loud, wait until they calm down before approaching your pet. Similarly, if you pet is over-excited, have the child take a step back and wait until the pet has calmed down, or try an interaction at a later time.

Instruct the child to hold their hand out for your pet to observe and sniff. Once your pet has had the opportunity to view the child and sniff them, if your pet still appears relaxed, allow them to gently pet the animal. Instruct the child to focus only on the areas of the body that your pet is comfortable with, most commonly that will be the top of the head, chest and back. Remember to have the child avoid touching your pet’s face, especially at the beginning, as your pet gets used to interacting with the child. As your pet becomes more familiar and trusting of the child, treats may be offered out of the palm of the child’s hand. This will teach your pet that they will get rewarded when they behave around children.

Remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day – slower, gradual interactions between the pet and child will go further than rushing forward, trying to force comfort and trust.

Consistency is Key

It’s vital that everyone in the house is on the same page! If one person is setting boundaries and another is disregarding them, both your pet and child will ultimately be confused and will likely default to doing what they want. The rules on how to behave around your pet should always remain the same and the boundaries should always be respected, no matter how familiar your pet becomes with a child.

Interactions between your pet and children can be one of the sweetest things you’ll witness. Establishing rules, rewarding good behavior, and remaining consistent will set your pet and child up for a successful friendship.

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