Stuffed animals can resemble the puppies and kittens that live around the neighbourhood – and while that’s a cute thing, one that acclimatises kids to the idea that there are other sentient beings that share our space, it does not ready them for that initial encounter.
The result is often a happy shriek from the child in that first meeting and intense fear on the part of the little animal. It’s doubly bad because they aren’t just responding to the hyper body language but also to high pitched squealing that’s piercing their ear drums. The fear is real.
US-based Animal Rescue Professionals Association calls for teaching kids to use their ‘inside voices’ around cats and dogs. “Animals are often afraid of kids because they like to squeal and scream and yell, so teaching children to use their inside voices around animals will help prevent the animal from being spooked. Teaching them to speak softly to animals also encourages care and kindness,” it says.
Veterinary Nurse Laurel Osgood at Al Barsha Veterinary Clinic told Gulf News in an earlier interview, “All children should be closely supervised when interacting with the family pet(s) until they are old enough to interact with them appropriately. Children should be taught … to respect the pet's boundaries and understand when the pet is communicating that it does not like what the child is doing.”
Ask for consent
And so step one of meeting a new friend – as in humans – is to ask for permission from the fur baby’s mum.
Samantha Vince, General Manager at Dubai-based Dogwalk, explains: “The first thing to do when you meet a new dog is to ask the owner if it is okay to approach and say hi. The owner will let you know if it is fine or not. Remember, reasons for the owner saying no could be that the dog is extremely nervous and/or reactive, or they could be in training. You must respect their decision either way.”
Once you’ve got the green signal, it’s time to teach the child about good and bad approach. Dog trainer Mohammad Ghannaj of Pet Station Group, explains that rushing at a pet is a big no-no. “It's wrong for kids to go running behind the pets during the first meeting; they will end up scaring the dog who may growl or even bite.”
It’s best, he says, for the child to wait until the dog comes up to him or her and sniffs an outstretched hand.
“If the owner agrees that you can greet the dog, try to keep your body language as neutral as possible. This means you should keep your body slightly turned away from the dog, with no direct or prolonged eye contact. The dog should then be free to approach you without force on his/her own terms,” adds Vince. When one makes eye contact with a dog, it is perceived as a challenge and may force it into (unwanted) action.
Good touch, bad touch
We tell kids from a young age about appropriate and inappropriate encounters – for this next step, one can use the same language to teach them about appropriate petting behaviour. “When going in to pet a dog, try to avoid putting your hand directly on top of the head as this can be unsettling for a dog when meeting you for the first time. Try touching the shoulder or chest area and keep your movements calm and steady,” says Vince.
Ghannaj says if a dog accepts you then generally you can pet their head, chin and stomach – “almost like a massage”; but, he warns, they don’t like their paws touched.
Some dogs are friendlier
Like people, some dogs and cats are friendlier than others. But while, there is an element of breed pre-disposition, a lot of it depends on life experience. “We have seen rescue dogs who are friendlier than the Labrador or golden retriever and we have rescue dogs that are aggressive, they are always coming for behavioural training – it depends,” Ghannaj told Gulf News in a previous interview. Having an abusive past can mean wariness around people, which can translate into unfriendliness or aggression.
Body language is important
Most dogs – but not all – will growl or bark before rushing to bite. Either way, they will display some signs of fear; of fight or flight. “If a dog is not comfortable with your attention, he/she may try to move away, bow their head/ears down or become stiff. If you see any of these signs then pause your petting and give the dog some space to move away if they choose to,” explains Vince.
Another easy tell is the state of the tail: Up and wagging, the dog’s in a friendly mood; down, the dog is unhappy, says Ghannaj.
Christos Savvidis, Dog Trainer at Dogwalk, speaks of teaching through doing. “As your children grow up, you need to ensure that they interact with all dogs in a caring and gentle manner. They will learn from you, so show them the correct way to pet and handle a dog from an early age,” he said.
The Animal Rescue Professionals Association adds that while an animal’s tail may be hypnotic to a child, they must be warned not to pull it. It says: “Kids are fascinated by animal tails. It is important to explain to children that pulling on a dog or cat’s tail is like having their hair pulled. It hurts and we certainly do not want to hurt the animal so we should not do that. This gives them a reference point and helps to teach them empathy for animals.”
It’s not just dogs who can get frightened of an enthusiastic kid. Ghannaj, who also has a cat, says that because his cat is used to a torrent of people, it’s gotten accustomed to them and is okay with new company, but it isn’t true of all cats – they may get stressed in ‘friendly child’ situations and may hiss and snap. Vince says: “The same rules apply in the calmness of approach, but unlike dogs, cats usually prefer to be petted on the head and face around the facial glands. Some cats also like scratches on the back/close to the base of the tail, but each cat is different – the owner will usually know the cat’s favourite petting spot so you can ask them what they prefer.”
Use those cuddly little stuffed animals to explain – a gentle touch, a soothing sound and a loving pet can go a long way in making four-legged friends for life.
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