Lots of companion animals (pets) will get along well with children, and many households with kids have successfully welcomed companion animals into their families. But it does take planning and careful consideration to make sure that the introduction goes smoothly, that kids know how to behave around animals, and that kids and pets can live together harmoniously.
Choosing a pet
Of course, before deciding to get a companion animal, you should thoroughly consider your lifestyle, your finances, your living situation (i.e., do you live in an apartment or a house with a big backyard?), and the current and future make-up of your family. These considerations should inform what species you get, but also things like the breed, size, age, and personality of your potential pet.
Parents often decide to get a pet as a way of teaching their kids about the responsibility of pet ownership – if this is a factor for you, just be aware that adult responsibility and supervision is essential, even if the day-to-day care of the animal is shared with your child.
If you’re bringing a pet into a family with kids, adopting from a shelter like the RSPCA provides a great opportunity to get to know the available animals before you commit, bringing your kids along to meet them, and assessing who might be the best fit for your household. RSPCA staff can let you know what animals would be best suited for your family and what animals have lived with kids before. Some individual animals are just not suitable for living with children, no matter what you do – shelter staff will be well-placed to let you know if this is the case.
The basics of children and pets
Children should be supervised with companion animals. Make sure that cats and dogs can get away from children (or adults, or other pets!) if they want to – your pet should have an area where they can go to if they’re feeling overwhelmed and want to have a break from the child.
Having a pet is a valuable opportunity to teach kids about compassion, empathy and how to care for a pet (such as feeding and exercise); as well as the basics of animal behaviour. For example, you can teach your children that dogs should be left alone when they’re eating, sleeping or overly excited. You can also teach your children how to recognise signs of stress or fear in animals – not just the ones that most adults recognise such as growling or hissing, but also less common signs such as yawning or frequent blinking in dogs or swishing of the tail in cats.
Teaching children to safely handle and interact with animals by encouraging gentleness and respect will help create a bond of mutual trust and will help everyone get along happily and safely.
Introducing a dog or puppy
Introducing a new dog or puppy to your family is a special and exciting occasion but in can be overwhelming for humans and canines alike.
When it’s time for the children to meet the dog, make sure that the children sit calmly and quietly, and the dog will usually come to investigate out of natural curiosity. Teach the children to speak softly and slowly and to gently stroke the dog on the shoulder, not the top of their head or tail. Reward the dog for calm behaviour with a food treat (by the supervising adult) – this helps the dog associate children with something positive. After this, take the focus off the dog by giving the children another activity.
In addition to continuing to directly supervise children with dogs, you should avoid forcing any interactions – let the dog get to know the children at their own pace. If either the children or the dog are over excited, it’s best to avoid the interaction if possible – early interactions in particular will likely be more successful when both parties are calm. You can read more tips about introducing dogs and puppies to kids on our Knowledgebase.
Taking the time and making the effort to get the introductions right will help set your children and pets up to have a great relationship.
This piece was originally published in Australian Community Media newspapers