Monday, May 2, 2011

11 Ideas for Integrating Children and Pets

I have been an animal lover for my entire life.  I grew up around a farm and always had cats.  Shortly after my husband and I were married, I needed to have some pets in my life.  We got a couple of free kittens.  Then, he got me the one pet I had always wanted, but never had - a basset hound.  My first dog.  We learned a lot together.  Over the years, my love for dogs resulted in running a non-profit dog rescue.  My extremely supportive and tolerant husband, myself and a small handful of volunteers saved over 100 dogs in about five years.  
While the dog rescue is much smaller than it used to be, we do have 1 foster and I will put her shameless plug right here.  Chloe is a 5 year young beautiful american pit bull terrier who is looking for a family to call her own :)
Our family now includes Chase the basset hound, the only dog ever accquired from a breeder before we learned about the millions of homeless dogs, Gracie a small furry mixed breed rescued from our local dog pound, Jasmine an american pit bull terrier rescued from a life of abuse and neglect, Max a cat who was abandoned on our doorstep when he was a kitten, Felix a cat who was abandoned at the manufacturing plant where I used to work, and most recently Reese and Pete The Cat (we have a Mickey Mouse addiction here), two keepers of the litter of five that was left on our doorstep.

It is important to me that Gumby be involved with the animals and have a positive experience with them and they with her.  We want her to know how to effectively communicate and safely interact not only with our own pets but with any others she may encounter.

Here are a few ways that we are getting there:

Gumby holding Elle, one of the kittens from our Fall drop off litter.
Elle was spayed, updated on shots and happily rehomed

1. Supervise, Supervise, Supervise
Animals can be unpredictable.  Children can be unpredictable.  Never leave them together unsupervised. 

2. Gentle Touches
We strive to show and tell Gumby what she *can* do and not concentrate on what not to do.  We are very careful with the words we choose and try to set up a successful environment.  For petting the animals, when she was small we would always tell her to use "one finger".  That is how she petted them for a long time.  It's impossible to be rough, smack, or pull anything using just one finger.  Now she understands the word "gentle" and uses her whole hand to stroke their fur very gently.

3. Dogs Eat Alone
This one is plain, simple and self explanatory.  It is a positively framed statement of how the dogs eat that was  told to her daily when it was time to feed the dogs.   Now, she will tell anyone simply that "Dogs eat alone."  We never said "Do not go near the dogs when they eat", "Do not take their food", or other statements that concentrate on what she is "forbidden" to do or actions she should not take.  We do not try to invoke any fear of what happens if one takes food from a dog who doesn't do well with that sort of thing (though we have told her that not all dogs like to share as a reason *why* they eat alone); in fact, we encourage her to watch them eat from a reasonable distance.

4. Only Pick up Toys from the Floor
Gumby loves handing the dogs toys and playing fetch with them.  What we needed to help her learn was that once they take the toy, it is their toy.  We are always there during play to ensure she is not reaching into their mouths.  Accidents, grumpy dogs, whatever the reason, it is simply never a good idea for a child to have their hands in a dogs mouth.  Our dogs know a "Give" command and Gumby knows how to use it.

5. Involvement in Training
Training pets is a wonderful way to bond with them, work together with them and to establish rules through fun.  Gumby loves giving the dogs and cats treats.  The dogs know they are not to take food from her hands and they are to wait until she drops the treat to the ground.  We have what I call well behaved beggers.  Our dogs beg, but have always only been rewarded for sitting or laying.
Gumby, just over 2 years old, using the hand signal for "Down" and two of her dogs obeying and awaiting their treat!

6. Involvement in Feeding
It is important for the pets to see good things coming from this little, loud, fast, unpredictable creature that moved into their home.  As mentioned above, Gumby loves giving the dogs and cats treats.  In this house, she cannot take an active part in feeding the dogs just yet because they eat raw meat, but she can and does feed the cats and give the dogs water, treats and special stuffed kongs. 
Gumby, age 2, feeding Max and her own kitty some milk.

7. Know your Children, Know your Pets, Know and Respect Their Limits
Nobody knows your child or your pets better than you.  If your dog will happily chew a bone on the couch with a toddler sitting on him, great.  But, if your dog can get a little grumpy with a bone and your well-meaning playful toddler thinks trying to take things from the mouth of the dog is a fun game for both of them (and maybe with a ball, for example, it is), maybe giving Fido a high value bone when the child is nearby is just something the dog isn't going to handle well.  All people and animals have limits.  Limits are natural and deserve our respect.

8. Create a Yes Environment
Creating a "Yes" Environment for a child is doing what needs done to ensure success such as baby proofing, putting away items that the little one is not ready for yet or that isn't safe, putting away things that cause the parent to have to say "No" repeatedly, creating unnesseccary tension and stress.  This can apply for pets as well.  You will note that none of the pictures I will ever post of our dogs has a dog bed.  A certain grumpy hound dog does not like to be bothered once he is all curled up and comfy on his dog bed, ie: he growls.  A growling dog is giving a warning and sending a message for his need for uninterrupted rest the only way that he knows how.  While we talk to Gumby about letting sleeping dogs lie, if you will, there is no need to take unnesseccary risks.  When we saw the dogs beds become a problem, we picked them up.  If there are toys the dogs treasure or guard, remove them.  Anything that could possibly be a point of contention or set anyone up for a mistake should be removed.  I am not advocating that the dog's owner not seek to help work on these problems, but I am saying this should be done at a specific training times and not when a little one is possibly going to be interacting with the pet. 

9. Pets Need Their Own Space
We didn't throw those dog beds out, however.  The dogs can all enjoy them from their own little doggie room.  They can go there to sleep, to enjoy special treats such as kongs, or just when they dont want to play and need some quiet time.  When they tell us they want quiet time, we put up a baby gate and they can have the rest they need and can return when they are ready.

10. People Need Their Own Space
The pets needing a break from the child seems to go hand in hand with the child needing a break from the pets in this house.  Sometimes the dogs are giving too many kisses, sometimes the kittens have attacked our feet just about as many times as we can take, sometimes they just won't play the way Gumby is expecting them too and it upsets her.  We let Gumby know that it's okay to "take a break" from the pets.  Instead of hitting them, kicking them, swatting at them or doing whatever other behaviors a toddler may do because they are expressing themselves the only way they know how, Gumby knows to ask Mamma or Deeda to move the pets or to take a break from them.

11. Let Everone Know When they are Interacting Properly
Positive feedback goes a long way.  When the dogs are playing gently, sitting for treats, laying to be covered with blankets or whatever else, tell them they are being good.  Slip them an extra snack.  When Gumby is giving out toys, we tell her that makes the dogs happy and they love their toys.  When she is touching them gently, we tell her that makes them feel safe.  While the dogs are rewarded solely for their behavior, Gumby is given feedback about how her actions are affecting the dogs feelings and well-being to help her see the positive impact that she can have on their lives.
Gumby ensuring everyone is safe, warm and comfortable :)
What have you found useful to integrating your pets with your children?  What challenges have you had?


  1. Hi Kim,

    This is great information. I have a high-energy boxer and have been worried about how he'll react to kids. I also want to get another dog, so these are definitely tips I'll use in the future. I do enjoy these posts, even though I don't have kids yet. I like the idea of positive parenting in a peaceful atmosphere.

  2. This is a great post, Kim. We have been working on "gentle" with our daughter (17 months), but she just isn't getting it. I am going to try the "use one finger" approach. It's more concrete than gentle. Luckily, my dogs are very tolerant, but she really wants to pet the cat but the cat isn't having it because she grabs handfuls of fur :0( So...I'm hoping this will help! Paula