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Introducing Your Kids to a New Pet

With help from Dr. Katherine Miller, a certified animal behaviorist and director of anti-cruelty behavior research at the ASPCA, we're here to clue you in on the best way to introduce your kids to a new pet. Here's what to expect when you're expecting...something fluffy.

Discuss the new addition to your family ahead of time.

“It’s similar to when a new baby is on the way,” explains Dr. Miller. “You've got to explain what’s going to happen and what to expect so that it doesn't come as a surprise." She suggests using a stuffed animal to practice the good behaviors your child will need when the pet arrives, such as petting properly and gently, letting the pet sniff them, and setting the animal down carefully. In all initial talks and practice sessions, make sure to stress the importance of calmness. “Children often get really excited and squeal and stamp their feet around pets, as we all know!" laughs Dr. Miller. "But these are behaviors that can lead an animal to react with alarm or defensiveness." Enforce and enable a calmer, quieter spirit from day one, and you, the animal, and your child will all be better off for it.

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Photography by: Johnny Miller

Be a parent to both the animal and the child.

Supervision and guidance aren't just encouraged -- they're necessary. In fact, according to Dr. Miller, kids under the age of 7 shouldn’t be left alone with dogs, large or small. But it’s good to think of that scenario the other way around, too: dogs shouldn’t be left alone with kids. You can't assume your child will always choose the right behavior -- just like you can’t assume that your pet will. “Both have something to learn from you, the parent, the referee,” says Sarah. "Keep your eyes on your kids and pets during active play. Don’t be looking at your smartphone." Simply put, make sure you’re present in the moment, the same way you would be if your child was on a playdate with a friend.

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Photography by: Laura Moss

Give your pet some say in the matter.

It's important that your pet isn’t coerced into interactions with your children. Dogs, cats, and little critters alike can indeed “choose” what they’d like to do, though they might show it in different ways. It’s a little harder to read hamsters and gerbils, of course, but one way to be sure that an animal wants in on the action is to let him take a treat out of the child’s hand. Create some sort of action that allows you to judge whether he's in the mood to interact. “If they're sleepy or cranky, or for whatever reason they're just not in the mood to play, you’ll be giving them more control over the situation,” says Dr. Miller. “Remember: An animal is more likely to interact in a positive way if he actually wants to interact in the first place.”

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Create spaces of refuge.

"It’s a good idea to have a 'pets-only' zone, especially for dogs and cats,” advises Dr. Miller. “The pet can retreat to that area, and the kids will know they’re not allowed there. That way, if the pet needs a little time-out, the kids will have to respect that.”

 

Watch the video below for more information on teaching kids to care for pets.

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