Mickey and Pluto. Rapunzel and Pascal. Kristoff and Sven. Somethings are simply destined to be, like children and pets. Children have a natural affinity for all things furry, fuzzy, cuddly, and playful. Many families adopt a pet before baby comes along, while other families find themselves adding furry pets after the children have arrived. And while many children and pets learn to happily coexist, there are plenty of situations in which pets simply will not tolerate little ones pulling, pushing, climbing them, or even generally being in their space. Regardless of whether the pet comes before or after the children, children and pets can coexist beautifully if they have both been taught proper manners and respect for the other.
As a nanny, I love introducing children to animals, especially when the animal is a family pet the child will grow up with. When my sweet Doodle Bug (one of my nanny charges) was born, I began watching her from my home instead of her own. This was a great situation for me, but it did mean that I needed to ensure my dog was prepared to be around a young child, and vice versa. It gave me the opportunity to teach Doodle Bug how to be kind, gentle, and respectful around living creatures.
Below are a few helpful tips and actions to implement between your child and pet during the different stages of your child’s life.
For families with pets and a newborn, I encourage you to let the baby and the pets lay next to each other on places such as the floor, the couch, or your bed. I can almost guarantee that your little one will simply light up when they see that furry creature next to them. Meanwhile, your dog or cat will need the freedom to sniff and inspect your baby, while sensing that you are giving them permission to do so. Parents, do not be afraid to let your pet sniff your baby’s face, toys, etc. If you would prefer to keep baby and pet drool/saliva separate, then a quick washing of toys, hands, and faces after this exercise will suffice. However, please note that pet exposure builds the baby’s immune system, so fret not if Fido or Fluffy gives baby a kiss before you can intervene.
As your child grows and becomes increasingly mobile, I encourage you to have your pet lie in your lap or next to you on the floor, and allow your baby to gently pet/touch/poke the belly or back fur of the animal. I used to have my 85 pound dog lie on the floor and then I would sit Doodle Bug next to her to touch her ears, feet, and belly. Doodle Bug LOVED to do this, and my dog finds this kind of attention impossible to resist, so it was a mutually beneficial experience. As Doodle Bug grew, I continued this “training” of both the child and the dog, and continued to remind the child to be gentle, to touch softly, and to be aware of bottoms and faces. Additionally, this training helped my dog become accustomed to curious little fingers petting and poking her. Keep in mind, this advice is not just for dogs but also for all other furry companions as well!
For families with toddlers and/or older children who are introducing a new pet to the family, you are at an advantage due to maturity and age of your children. Older kids are familiar with the concept of gentle touches, they understand or are beginning to grasp the concept of personal space, and they have most likely already been taught to leave faces and private parts of bodies alone. With that groundwork already in place, you can simply remind them that animals, like people, have appropriate places and ways to be touched. Sit with your child and your pet on the floor, and then talk about and demonstrate safe places to touch; additionally, talk about places on the pet to avoid touching. For many dogs, avoiding the mouth is a good idea. For others, they are sensitive near their ears, their feet, tails, etc. If the pet is an adult animal, talk with your child about the warning signs that the animal is uncomfortable: trying to get away, walking away, growling, moaning, etc. Remind your child that the animal needs to be respected if they are “asking” for space. And be prepared to intervene if your little one forgets.
Pets bring a fun and interesting dynamic to a household. They, like children, love unconditionally. However, both children and pets will also require steady reminders on how to behave. With the right guidance and training, children and pets will make bonds that will last for years to come. Here is a recap on how to introduce your child to a pet, regardless of who arrived first:
- Teach your child how and where to appropriately and safely touch your pet.
- Allow your child to interact with your pet under your supervision, until they are reliable to be respectful. Petting, snuggling, and brushing are great avenues for your child to express love to your pet; however, these should be performed with adult supervision until your child is older.
- Frequently discuss the animal’s signs for space with your child: growling, trying to run/hide, and meowing/hissing are all signs that a pet needs some space.
- Supervise your pet and child during meal times. Many animals prefer to eat alone; likewise, teach your pet to give your child space when he or she is eating.
- Be prepared to intervene for the safety of the child and/or the pet, should one of them get too rough.
My favorite scene is seeing Doodle Bug snuggle up with my dog on the couch. While I can tell the dog doesn’t always totally love the close snuggles, she puts up with them anyway. I worked long and hard to teach Doodle Bug to be respectful, and I taught my dog to be cautious and likewise respectful towards children. I did my job. I am a proud and happy pet owner and child-teacher.
Check out more of Britney’s blogs, here with us, to continue learning.
Britney Fredrickson is a nanny of six years with a B.A. in Child Development. She lives in the Napa Valley with her husband, Great Dane/Border Collie mix, and orange tabby. Having begun as a preschool/infant teacher, Britney now uses her experience and education to specialize in nanny shares, predominantly working with toddlers under age three. When she isn’t wrangling kids, she can be found reading, sewing, and noshing on goat cheese. For real time tips and anecdotes follow her on Twitter @sisternannies.