Spending time with a pet can be a valuable experience for a child. My 7-year-old daughter, Reagan, has been around dogs her entire life. From the moment she came home from the hospital, our two Pugs, Willie and Bruce, were there to greet her, and they have shared all of her firsts: first tooth, first steps, first word, first day of school. Reagan has always seen the dogs as her brothers and her best friends — in fact, she barked before she talked!
There are a number of ways in which a dog or cat can be good for a child. Pets give kids a way to practice their social skills at the same time that they encourage much-needed physical activity. The strong bond between a child and an animal assists in development of important life skills and personality traits, including responsibility and empathy.
Kids and pets may be a natural match, but that doesn’t mean your toddler and your cat should be left to their own devices. To help ensure safe, happy interactions between pets and kids, follow these five dos and don’ts.
Do Actively Supervise Interactions
Young children should never be left alone with pets. Supervision is about much more than merely being physically present in the same room — effective supervision involves being actively involved in any interactions your child has with your pets. This includes monitoring body language — the child’s and the pet’s — to ensure interactions remain stress free for everyone. It is also crucial that you take the time to teach your child how to properly — and gently — touch and handle your pet.
Be prepared to respond to a potential problem by intervening when necessary: A dog who steals a child’s toy can be told to “leave it” or “drop it” and redirected to his own toys, or a child can be asked to stop petting a cat who is swishing his tail and expressing some level of anxiety. Successful supervision means being fully engaged and gently guiding both child and pet to help keep the interaction as safe and positive as possible.
Don’t Ask a Child to Discipline a Pet
Even the best behaved pets may act naughty sometimes. If your child catches your cat lounging on an off-limits counter or spots your dog stealing snacks from the kitchen table, she should immediately tell you, rather than handling it on her own. Adult intervention is a simple way to help avoid a scenario where the child gets bitten or scratched.
It’s important to remember that children emulate the attitude and tactics that adults use when dealing with pets. For this reason, behavior interventions should be force-free and reward-based.
Do Provide Safe Spaces and Private Time
Getaway spaces and time apart can help both your child and your pet reset when necessary. Train your pet to escape to a “home base” — a crate, bed or perch — when he’s feeling overwhelmed or in need of a break. Make sure your child understands that when the pet is in his getaway space, he is not to be approached, interacted with or petted.
It’s also important to provide a space for your child to be alone if she chooses. A closed door or gated area allows her to play, rest or eat undisturbed. If your child is too young to be alone in a room with a closed door, consider designating a safe room for your pet instead, somewhere he can be safely left unsupervised when your child needs some private time, or even just time alone with you.