Close En­coun­ters

Teach­ing chil­dren how to in­ter­act com­fort­ably with dogs and cats comes with life-long re­wards, writes Roger Crosth­waite.

Australian House & Garden - - THE CHRISTMAS ISSUE DECEMBER -

Teach kids to be com­fort­able and safe around pets.

For some kids, pets are in­te­gral to their lives – mem­bers of the fam­ily, fa­mil­iar and easy to re­late to. Hav­ing a dog lick their hand or a cat sit on their lap and purr comes nat­u­rally to kids when they’re raised with pets in the home. And the ease that comes with hav­ing pets them­selves trans­lates to ease with other peo­ple’s animals: dogs they en­counter in the street or cats who step up for a cud­dle when they visit some­one else’s home. And as noted by men­tal-health pro­fes­sion­als for decades, a lit­tle in­ter-species schmooz­ing is a great way to de-stress.

But what if, in­stead of joy and de­light, a child’s re­ac­tion to a dog or cat com­ing close to them is one of fear and panic? Some kids may never have re­cov­ered from a first meet­ing with a ram­bunc­tious dog that knocked them over in an at­tempt to play, or a cat that lashed out and scratched them when they ac­ci­den­tally fright­ened it. The an­i­mal might not have meant any harm, but the child doesn’t know that, and un­com­fort­able early in­ter­ac­tions with animals can lead to a life­time of mis­trust and un­ease around them.

Chil­dren don’t au­to­mat­i­cally know how to re­late to animals. They need to be taught. And even when they know what to do – and, more im­por­tantly, what not to do – when in­ter­act­ing with a new cat or dog in the fam­ily home, they still need to recog­nise that every dog or cat they en­counter isn’t nec­es­sar­ily go­ing to re­act in the same way.

‘ THE DOG WAS CRE­ATED ESPE­CIALLY FOR CHIL­DREN. HE IS THE GOD OF FROLIC.’ Henry Ward Beecher, so­cial re­former (1813-1887)

So, how do you fa­mil­iarise your kids with animals, espe­cially if you don’t have pets your­self? In­tro­duc­ing them to the pets of friends and rel­a­tives is a great place to start, just as long as the animals they’re go­ing to be meet­ing are calm and gen­tle, and fa­mil­iar with chil­dren and strangers in gen­eral. A bit of su­per­vised pat­ting and play­ing will help tod­dlers get used to the idea of in­ter­act­ing hap­pily with animals, but that’s just the start.

The RSPCA of­fers great op­por­tu­ni­ties to fa­mil­iarise kids with animals. For in­stance, the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Queensland head­quar­ters in Bris­bane of­fers tours for kids to meet and have phys­i­cal con­tact with var­i­ous animals. The Vic­to­rian branch has hol­i­day pro­grams for kids aged five and over, where they can in­ter­act with all sorts of animals at the Bur­wood East Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre. And in NSW, cour­ses in dog safety and re­spon­si­ble pet own­er­ship can be ac­cessed in or out of schools, with hol­i­day pro­grams for kids run at the NSW RSPCA’s nu­mer­ous lo­ca­tions. Check with the RSPCA in your state to see what’s ap­pro­pri­ate and avail­able, so your kids can grow up ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the fun of frol­ick­ing – with­out the fear.

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