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How to ensure happy, harmonious relationships between kids and pets 

click to enlarge Teach children how to interact with pets and always supervise their play.

Teach children how to interact with pets and always supervise their play.

For parents expecting a baby, one of the most anticipated moments is bringing home their new bundle of joy from the hospital. For new parents with pets, however, the thought can be terrifying.

  "That's probably a very angst-inducing time for parents with pets," says KC Theisen, director of pet care issues for The Humane Society of the United States. "They want the baby to be safe and the pet to be happy."

  Introducing pets to children, or vice-versa, isn't just a concern for new moms and dads, though. Parents with older children, who may want to adopt a furry friend, pose the same question: how does one create a household where pets and kids coexist peacefully?

  Fortunately, there are resources to help parents with these dilemmas. Theisen encourages families to prepare as far ahead of time as possible.

  "Most important is setting ground rules well in advance," Theisen says. For parents with dogs, cats and other pets, that means training the animal months before the mother's due date.

  The first step, according to Theisen, is to introduce the family to the fresh bouquet of smells that will enter the house along with the new baby. She suggests bringing home the crib linens, baby wipes, baby powder and infant shampoos early on, so the pet isn't inundated with the infant's scent and those accompanying smells all at once. Training will be easier when changes happen gradually and the animals are less stressed, she says.

  "Pets live in a world predominately focused on smell," Theisen says. "It helps to get them used to the fact that this whole universe of smells is going to be part of their lives."

  Second, when it is time to start training, the method should be positive — and that means lots of treats, toys and affection, Theisen says.

  For a particularly rambunctious dog or cat, for example, parents can start by training the animal to spend time quietly next to its owner. "Quiet time" can be done on the floor near the couch, on the bed, or in a lap. By rewarding calm behavior with favorite playthings or food, pets will associate training with affection instead of punishment, she adds.

  "You can teach them this is not a bad change in their lives, and that it's very exciting," Theisen says. "They will not feel ousted from your affection if you do it right. They will just understand that affection comes with them sitting on the floor."

  Kelly Cottrell, supervisor of behavior and training at the Louisiana SPCA, agrees parents should leave plenty of time for fine-tuning when training the family pet.

  "When somebody is being proactive and saying, 'I have a baby coming, what do I do?,' that makes me really happy," Cottrell says.

  The case is especially true for dogs, she adds — so much so that parents may want to "trick" the dogs into thinking these new routines have nothing to do with the baby's arrival.

  "You don't want the dog to associate the baby with all these changes in his life," Cottrell says. "Dogs are really great discriminators. They can tell nuanced changes easily. If the only common thing with all changes is the baby, he may not have the best opinion of the baby."

  Since safety comes first, the first things to focus on are basic commands and training, such as leave it, sit, stay and down, Cottrell says. If dogs are allowed on the furniture, owners should start encouraging them to "ask" before climbing on, so they don't throw themselves excitedly on the sofa while someone is holding an infant there.

  And, of course, Cottrell warns to train dogs not to jump up to greet owners or guests when they come in the house, lest they accidentally knock over someone carrying precious cargo. According to Cottrell, that means redirecting the pet to do something safe and productive, such as holding a sit-stay as a form of saying hello.

  "I always try to encourage my clients that have pets with any behavior problem: think what you want the dog to do instead and train that," Cottrell says. "'Don't jump' doesn't mean anything to a dog because he doesn't know what to do instead."

  Safety is also central in teaching kids to deal with adopted pets. Chances are, children will be overly excited by the new family addition, so kids should receive lessons about how to play with pets well ahead of the moment their new friend walks in the door.

  Most experts recommend children attend any family-friendly pet training classes the parents participate in for extra opportunities to learn about animal behavior.

  Positive behavior can be reinforced at home as well, according to Cottrell. This is especially true of families with dogs, since excited shouting, fast running or rough wrestling could elicit an unwanted reaction from a puppy or older dog who is just reacting to a stimulus.

  "As far as preparing kids for dogs, I think the most important thing is to teach kids how to respect animals and interact appropriately," Cottrell says. "And teach them not to expect so much of the dog and [don't] expect it to be just incredibly tolerant."

  Theisen suggests kids with dogs learn to play fetch rather than tug-of-war, and that kids with cats play with toys that have lures on the end of a long pole, rather than more hands-on games.

  Casey Galloway, a trainer in Gretna who con-ducts in-home training in the New Orleans area through her business Casey the Dog Trainer, recommends that kids learn how to be mindful of dogs' behavior when the animals are in potentially vulnerable situations.

  "Don't ever approach a pet while they're eating, sleeping or chewing a bone," Galloway says. "Kids and dogs are really foreign to each other, and dogs might not understand what's going on. It can cause food aggression."

  Instead, she recommends structured and scheduled playtime and age-appropriate tasks for kids to complete, so that trust is built in for both parties and all interaction is gentle.

  For kids wanting to adopt dogs, the animal's age should be considered, Cottrell adds. While it might be tempting to get a puppy, she recommends families adopt dogs three years and older, which have already settled into their temperaments.

  Families should consider which breeds are best for them and their lifestyle. A guardian breed such as a Rottweiler or Doberman might not be the best choice for families who often entertain or have friends visit.

  Regardless of the breed, and no matter how trained the dogs are or how well-behaved the kids, Cottrell says all play between children and animals — especially dogs — should be supervised by an adult.

  "Dogs have personalities and are sentient beings," she says. "Dogs communicate in a nuanced way. Kids don't have the experience to read that as well as we do."

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