How to pet your pet: A guide to safe interactions between kids and pets

One of the main reasons people drop their pets off at shelters is because of a negative interaction with their kids. This could be anything from a growl to a nip or bite. It’s such a sad prospect for pets to end up at shelters, especially here in Las Vegas where we have on of the highest intake shelters in the country. This means we also have high euthanasia rates and there is a good chance a pet dropped at a chelter will be put to sleep.

The good news is most of the problems between kids and pets can be avoided. Whether it’s a new baby or an older child, there are always ways to encourage positive interactions between kids and pets. We have all seen horrific accidents, like the case of the local dog, Onion, plastered on TV. By following a few simple steps you can have happy kids and pets.

1. Do an assessment and know your pets. If you are pregnant and you have pets that might be high-strung or nervous with a new baby, enlist the help of a behaviorist or trainer before the baby is born. They can help teach you safe introductions and ways to make the transition of having a new family member easier. Having a straightforward plan will make for less stress later on. A lot of the rescues, as well as many of my clients, use Daniel Chavez of Danny’s Dogs.

Since I don’t have any kids of my own, I asked my friend and fellow animal advocate Jennifer Cloer if she ever has concerns about how her small kids and pets interact.

“We were definitely worried about the interaction with our babies & our dogs…especially when it’s your first baby & you’re bringing them home for the first time from the hospital to meet your first babies – your pups! We tried to be on top of it. We had the bassinet and a few baby things out.Before bringing her home, my husband brought one of her hats home for the dogs to learn her scent. It worked like a dream and they were amazing with her. It was a little crazier the second time around, but still great. We were adamant about making their interactions work. You can’t give up your fur babies just because you have a baby. It doesn’t go the other way around so it was not an option for us. Is it hard work? Yes, but your pups are still family and family stays together.”

2. Learn your pet’s body language. Chances are if you have had your pet for a long time you know exactly what they want and when. Even though they don’t speak English, every pet lover knows animal speak. If you have a new pet though, you may not know or be used to their body language.

“Body Language is one of the most important aspects of pet ownership. Knowing if your pet is frustrated, excited, sick or in pain is important to them, but also important to those around them” says Amy Herzlich who created and teaches the Animal Massage and Care Program at UNLV.

Kids are often so excited to play with their pets they overlook or don’t understand common “leave me alone” signals. The ASPCA has a good guide to canine body language. It has pictures and descriptions of different positions and what each one means. Use these tools to show your kids what your pet’s body language means.

3. Give your pets personal space. You know how annoying it is when someone stands to close too you in line at the grocery store. Well sometimes we are that person to our pets. Of course they love us but sometimes they want to be left alone, especially when kids are getting excited and rowdy. Make sure pets have a special area that is just for them. For cats, that could mean a tall cat tree> For dogs, it could be a secluded area in the laundry room. These areas should be off-limits to kids. Make sure you tell your kids that when their pets retreat to these areas they are to be left alone.

4. Teach soft petting. I think this step is lost on so many people. When I foster dogs, I stand at adoption events and I see parents just let their kids run around from dog to dog picking them up, grabbing them around the neck and putting their face right in the dog’s face. This is an absolute recipe for disaster. Kids can be very unpredictable and pets pick up on this. Always teach children to approach an animal slowly and don’t reach over their head. By petting an animal on the cheek or chest it allows the animal to see what you are doing. Whereas, reaching over the head to pet them could be perceived as threatening. Always make sure your children pet all animals softly and gently. Don’t allow tail pulling, ear pulling or grabbing of the head and face.

5. SUPERVISION!– This is by far the most important step. You must be a responsible parent and pet owner and ensure the safety of all your family members, furry or human. I see videos of kids jumping on pets all over the internet. I cringe because I know an adult sat and took a video of their kid doing it. A good rule of thumb is: if you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t let your kids do it to your pets.

Jen Cloer says it is a continuous process.

“We have 3 dogs and wanted to ensure BOTH the dogs’ safety and our kids’ (now 1 and 3 years old). We make sure the kids don’t pull on their tails, whiskers or ears. We try to make sure the dogs stay away from the kids while they are eating and vice versa. We have a really snippy Pomeranian and we honestly taught the kids to give her space. She’s extremely anxiety stricken and skittish and for us it’s been easier to teach the kids to respect her space than the other way around.”

Kristen Corral is the owner of Little White Dog Co., a pet services company specializing in pet sitting, animal massage and dog yoga. Email her at

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