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