- 1. show the children how ALL animals should be treated
- 2. visit a petting zoo
- 3. read more books about animals
- 4. make your toddler a fake pet
- 5. go overboard with praise and positive attention
- 6. teach the children what to do when an animal behaves badly
- 7. make sure that a “safe room” is available for your pet
Toddlers are known for many things, but unfortunately, demonstrating the friendliness of pets is not always one of them.
If you were to ask a room full of parents of 2-year-olds about the more admirable qualities of their children, “she is always so kind to the cat” would not be at the top of the list.
And that’s okay, because toddlers have a hard time dealing with everything the world throws at them. Or at least it’s okay until suddenly it’s not like when your toddler and your dog are facing each other and at least one of them growls.
Some of us are lucky to have children who seem to have arrived on the planet with an innate understanding of how animals should be treated.
Others of us… are not so lucky. If you got up way too late and came up with another new idea to teach little Lindsey to be nice to the cat so she doesn’t scratch her eyes out, then you are probably not one of the happy parents mentioned above.
With this in mind, I thought I would share the tips and tricks for teaching animal kindness that have been working with the children who have lived in my home. I am not an expert on pets and toddlers, but the friendliness of pets is crucial in our household, and the relationship you build between your children and your pets is important.
1. show the children how ALL animals should be treated
One thing that I think happens when parents try to teach their children the friendliness of pets is that they don’t always take the extra step and teach the general animal friendliness. I say this: If you teach your kid not to hit a dog, but it’s okay to step on a ladybug just because it’s in your room, you might send mixed messages.
I’m not going to go too far in asking you all to become vegan, but it’s important to remember that your children see all of your behavior, not just the behavior you ask them to see. If you ask Roy to stop pushing the cat off the shelf, but you routinely push the cat off the shelf, it’s not a good look. So if you are trying to teach animal welfare , the best way to do this is to make sure you model animal welfare in general .
2. visit a petting zoo
Petting zoos are super cute! Not everyone agrees with their existence, but I am a pretty big fan. We started taking our son to nearby petting zoos when he was little. As he grew up, he saw that we approach different animals in different ways, but always with sensitivity and kindness.
If you don’t have a petting zoo near you, contact Google and see if there’s a farm with chickens and cows nearby. We love to visit our local farms and have been doing so since our now 10 year old was tiny. This plan has several advantages: you can get farm fresh eggs and milk on your trip!
3. read more books about animals
This may sound obvious, but how many of the books you read to your toddler contain animals? And of these, how many are real animals? I don’t mean Curious George or Daniel Tiger. A walking, talking, gesticulating illustrated animal is not quite the same as a realistic illustrated animal.
The distinction between real and fantastic animals is important. The more children are exposed to stories and books in which there are animals they might encounter, the more likely they are to realize that these animals are important and that the friendliness of pets is really important. At least that is my philosophy.
4. make your toddler a fake pet
Another way to say this might be Go out and get a realistic stuffed animal for your child. Whether you decide to make them together (felt and glue could be a simple solution) or let your little one choose a cute dog or cat at the toy store, having your own “pet” to love can go a long way in promoting pet friendliness in a young child.
5. go overboard with praise and positive attention
Okay, listen: Positive reinforcement works for almost everyone. As parents, you hear it all the time, but it can definitely be hard to remember right now. If your 2-year-old pushes your 13-year-old dog in the eyes again, you probably won’t have the presence of mind you need to find, right after you ask her, not three minutes earlier a positive way to approach the situation.
If you catch your toddler abusing your pet, say a firm “No!” and remove the child from the situation. Don’t spend too much time dealing with the situation – your toddler won’t understand a lecture and you must make sure everyone is safe.
But if you catch your toddler treating your pet well, this is the time to praise your child. Don’t scare anyone, but make sure you really, really, really make sure your child knows that we treat our pets that way. Hopefully your pet will even help by offering a lick or two for the tiny terror in his life.
6. teach the children what to do when an animal behaves badly
Although we all hope that our pets never react to mistreatment by our young children, this happens completely. It is important to teach even the youngest children what to do if a dog or cat fights back – perhaps even more important to teach these children. Since a lot of sublime language doesn’t help and most of what you might say goes over the head of a very small child, you should focus on being clear and straightforward.
When my son was younger, I taught him to be very quiet when the dog snapped at him. I did this by demonstrating with stuffed animals and pretending that they attacked me. I would then become calm and lie super still on the floor until the dog went away. This is of course based on the idea that your toddler would not be alone with any dog or pet – you should always supervise small children when they are around animals.
As my child grew older, I added to the lesson and told him to lie still and shout if he felt he couldn’t escape.
7. make sure that a “safe room” is available for your pet
As important as it is to protect your child, you probably also want to make sure that your pet has a “safe space” where it can be without your child. As much as you may try to make the relationship between your child and your pet work, it will not always be harmonious every hour of the day.
We use baby gates for this purpose with great effect on our dogs and our foster son, who is almost 2 years old. We simply put a gate in the hallway and let the dogs have one part of the house and the toddler the other half when he is in the mood not to leave them alone.7