“Oh, he lets them do anything,” boasts my client while her two kids play tug-of-war with a hound dog’s ears in the exam room. Judging by the nonplussed expression on the poor creature’s face (and the complete lack of expression in his tail), I suspect she’s right. He will let them do anything. But it really seems to be more out of resignation than appreciation.
Pets and kids can make for extraordinary friends. Apart from the simple joy of having a fuzzy playmate, pets also bring unique lessons in compassion and responsibility which can shape children for a lifetime. If these relationships are going to develop in a safe, loving, and rewarding way, it is important that they begin with mutual respect and understanding. Because while many animals will politely tolerate a good yank of the tail now and then, it’s safe to say they’d rather not.
Of course, children don’t do these things out of malice. Older children may just forget that while they enjoy a friendly wrestling match with a sibling, the dog may not be in the mood for a half nelson. Younger children may simply not have the control to express their enthusiasm properly, resulting in four knocks to the cat’s head instead of a gentle scratch between the ears. It is important to spend time teaching children how to approach pets calmly and quietly, and always from the front to avoid unintentional surprises. And children should learn to understand that when dogs and cats run off to be alone, it’s because they want to be alone. Not only will this keep your pet happier, but it will keep your child safer, especially if she meets a less gracious animal elsewhere.
It’s not just the kids that need some guidance when bringing pets into the family. Animals need to learn a few ground rules, too, and the children should be as involved as possible in the training process. It is important for animals to recognize that commands from children are just as important as commands from adults. Feeding time is a perfect opportunity to drive this home. Put kids in charge of this simple duty, and have them issue simple commands like “sit” and “down” before setting down the bowl. Not only is it good training practice, but it will establish the proper lines of trust and respect between your child and your pet. And if you plan on signing up for training classes (which is a great idea for most dogs), ask if children are welcome to join.
Veterinary visits are another chance to bring kids into the fold, increasing their sense of responsibility and ownership of the family pet, and making the experience more rewarding than just another stop on the family’s to-do list. Encourage children to come up with their own questions and concerns when the next appointment rolls around. Some of the most interesting questions I’ve been asked come from children (and I fondly recall one polite child raising his hand through the entire appointment until it finally dawned on me to “call on” him).
As with any other friendship, the bond between animals and children is strongest when it runs both ways. Laying the proper groundwork at the start can help make sure the years to come are healthy and positive for everybody involved.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since. Got a question for Dr. Fietz? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.