On November 5, Parenting Now! and Greenhill Humane Society held a content panel on Pets & Families. PN!’s Anita Huffman, Greenhill’s Sasha Elliott and Cary Lieberman, and retired veterinarian Sandra Smalley answered our burning questions related to kids and family pets. Below are their answers:
Q: My two young children play rough with our dogs. Recently, my 4-year old was playing “Dinosaur” with our dog and he bit the dog on the ear in play. Unfortunately, our dog snapped at my 4-year old and scratched his face. I feel awful about this – I can’t blame the dog and my son is just figuring out that biting anyone or anything is bad. How can I prevent this from happening?
A: This is a great example of how both dogs and young children are unpredictable creatures! Kids don’t have enough experience to be able to read an animal’s body language and behavior, and dogs will react with a toddler that is hurting them like they would another dog. Dogs don’t have words to tell someone to back off and your dog’s reaction was totally normal and appropriate in a dog’s world. But your dog’s reaction was clearly not appropriate for kids – this is why we talk about animals being unpredictable. No matter how much you trust an animal, you can never say with certainty that this kind of situation won’t ever occur.
Fortunately there are several things you can do to prevent this from happening again. First of all, never leave your child unsupervised with your animals. Your presence is more than just being there in case of a problem – this is also an important way of teaching both your children and your dog how you expect them to act. Observing how your child is interacting with your dog and commenting on appropriate and inappropriate behavior is a wonderful life lesson. Showing compassion and empathy for the family pet is a great place to start in teaching your child about how to care for others. Talk to your child about soft or nice touches and point out when your animal is enjoying what your child is doing.
Likewise, show your child how your dog behaves when your child does something your dog does not like. If your child can identify when your dog does not want to interact with them and then leaves the dog alone, you may be able to prevent another interaction like the one you described. Greenhill has child-friendly materials that can help you talk with your child about safe and risky activities and behaviors with your pet.
Q: My child is very interested in cats and dogs, but I know that not all animals like kids. What’s the best way to introduce a child to a cat or dog?
A: Great question! Kids sometimes will chase after an animal and some animals might snap to get away if they don’t like kids. Teach your child to ASK:
- Ask you as their parent if it’s OK if they approach an animal.
- Ask the person with the animal if it’s OK to approach the animal. If a dog or other animal has a yellow flag on their collar or leash, that’s a sign that the animal might not be friendly towards others.
- Finally ask the pet if they are interested in interacting. In general, trying to interact with a dog or cat when they are eating, sleeping, or playing are the times when a bad interaction is most likely. Wait until the animal is calm and watching you before you allow your child to approach. For cats, that means extending a finger out to the cat as a non-threatening invitation. If that cat turns away, that could mean the cat is not interested in interacting. For dogs, have your child extend their closed fist (little fingers can look like snacks).
If the animal is not interested in your child, that doesn’t mean that the animal doesn’t like your child or will never play with your child. Talk to your child about safe space and how all of us can be uncomfortable when someone invades their space or stands too close.
Q: We don’t have any pets right now but we’re interested. What’s a good starter pet for our family?
A: First of all, think about your goals for getting a pet: Do you really have the time and space to be a good caretaker? What kind of animal would fit your lifestyle? Will you be able to care for an animal for the next 5 years? 15 years? Children don’t have a sense of time and longevity and can’t see past the cute puppy in front of them. Be realistic to set your family up for success.
Involve your children in the conversation about which pet would be best for your family. Parents might be set on adopting a dog but the child might be more interested in having a cat join the family. Allowing them, within reason (!), to provide input and feedback can help provide a deeper sense of responsibility and connection knowing they were part of the process.
It’s best to start with something that’s not too expensive, and easy to care for. Believe it or not, rats are great starter pets. They are easy to care for, have a lot of personality, and are a low-risk kind of pet. Another good choice is a fish – not expensive and easy to care for and no risk to children.
Once you’ve decided on a pet, let your child help care for the animal in an age-appropriate and supervised way. Accept the fact that you will be the animal’s primary caregiver, but that your child can also take on important roles like grooming, participating in training, and playing with the pet as appropriate. Taking your child along when you go to the veterinarian is also a great way to teach your child about caring for your pet, as well as show how healthcare providers are helpful if you’re a human or an animal.
If you’ve decided that it’s just not realistic for you to bring a pet into your family, there are still options. Fostering an animal is a good way to teach your child about caring for an animal. There is lots of support for fostering an animal and it’s a short-term project if needed. There are also programs in our community where children and pets can mingle – there is a Reading with Cats Program at Greenhill Humane Society, as well as Dog Tale Time programs at both the Eugene and Springfield libraries.
Q: We have a dog, but after we brought him home with the kids, we’re just not sure this is going to work out. What can we do?
A: If you’ve got a pet and you’re feeling like this is a stressful and negative experience, call Greenhill (541-689-1503) or your veterinarian for support. There are many things you can try that might salvage the relationship and allow you all to experience the joy a positive pet relationship can bring to your family. Greenhill offers safe, nonjudgmental support to help you explore your options.
It’s a difficult decision, but giving a pet up can be the kindest thing possible – for your family and for the animal to find a home where they fit.
Q: What are other ways to bring animals into your children’s lives if you’ve decided that adopting a pet isn’t the best option for your family?
A: There are a myriad of possibilities in introducing animals safely and compassionately to your kids without having to adopt or foster a pet.
The Reading with Cats Program at Greenhill is designed to help the young children give back to their community while developing their reading skills and their sense of compassion. It also promotes animal-savvy behavior, and helps the cats waiting to be adopted get positive, calm time with children. Children ages 6-years through 12-years old are welcome to participate in this program.
Greenhill also offers the Youth Volunteer Program for 12 to 15-year olds. This is a long-term volunteer opportunity. While at the shelter, Youth Volunteers must be under the supervision of a parent or guardian over the age of 18 at all times, no exceptions.
Children can be great supporters of the animals and contribute to the efforts of Greenhill Humane Society. Because of staffing concerns and safety issues, they are unable to offer volunteer positions to people under 12-years of age, but there are many ways to help without actually being at the center:
- Children can make colorful bandanas for the dogs waiting to be adopted and drop them off at the shelter.
- Children can help fundraise for the shelter with lemonade stands, yard sale, bake sale, etc.
- Birthday parties! Children can ask their friends and family to bring presents, gift cards, or donate money in their name for the animals. Kids can then bring the items to the shelter and give them to the animals themselves!
- Your child can also have their birthday party at Greenhill! One of the benefits of having your child’s birthday party at the animal shelter is that children learn compassion for animals and responsibility for their community. Birthday parties at Greenhill last approximately 2 hours and include a 30 minute tour of the shelter for educational animal time.
For more information about family pets, pet care, and a list of adoptable pets, visit www.green-hill.org.