Taming preschoolers around the family pet
Three-year old Matthew and his dog-pal Reggie take
time out for play.
ats, Zachary and Sophie, are perfect prey for
19-monthold Courtney Altieri when they are busy eating
dinner. The toddler wraps her arms around their soft
bodies and struggles to pick them up.
"Usually if she is doing something they don't like they
just get up and run away. When they are eating they stay
in one spot - even if they don't like what she's doing -
because they don't want to leave their food," says mom
Dawn Altieti of Ringwood. "We have told her it's fine to
sit and watch them eating but don't touch them."
When the ground rules didn't work, Courtney and the cats
had to be separated at mealtimes. Whether its bothering
cats while they are eating' poking dogs in the face,
pulling at long tails and floppy ears, or chasing
animals around the house, parents of toddlers and
preschoolers frequently find themselves frustrated when
their youngsters can't seem to differentiate between
their soft toys and the family pet.
"My husband and I tell Matthew,
over and over again to pet our cats gently and not to
pick them up because it hurts and scares them. We tell
him if he hurts and scares them they won't be his
friends and they might hit him back," says mom Cathie
(who prefers not to publish her last name), formerly of
Palisades Park and now living in New York State.
"We think he understands but then at some point he can't
seem to control himself and he pokes them and tries to
tickle them. We are raising Matthew to be
compassionate, so when I see him doing this, part of me
understands that it's a phase he's going through, and
part of me worries that he is going to grow up to be
It's not at all unusual for toddlers and preschoolers to
disrespect their pets even when their parents
repeatedly tell them that it is wrong, says Suzanne
Berman, a licensed clinical social worker with a private
practice in Fair Lawn. What's going on? The youngsters
are frequently "testing t.'1.e waters," not only in
their behavior towards their pets but also towards their
parents, their teachers, their siblings, and their
peers, says Berman.
"It is the way they learn and eventually internalize
what is acceptable behavior and what is not," Berman
says. "In most cases, if a child persists in mistreating
his pet, it is not because he is cruel. It is more
likely that the child is desperate to gain his parents
attention, albeit negative, and will resort to whatever
works best to gain that attention."
Another reason children might repeatedly break the pet
rules may have more to do with the parent's reaction to
"Parents may reinforce the child's bad
behavior by reacting strongly to it, and giving the
child the attention he or she wants," says Berman.
In families with more than one child, pets are often
viewed as another sibling.
"It's often more satisfying to tease the dog more than
you would a sibling because the dog can be held
captive and can't talk back or run to tell," says
In these families, it's usually the younger sibling who
has the most difficulty respecting the pet.
"That is because aside from the fact that the child may
be too young to understand how his behavior is affecting
the animal, the child is also trying to gain control,"
Berman says. "He can't control his parents or his older
siblings, but he can 'control' his pet to a certain
extent and that gives him a feeling of power over his
One of the biggest mistakes parents make when it comes
to dogs and young children is not providing enough
supervision, says Vmce Rambala, wno has been training
dogs for more than 12 years.
"Parents with their busy schedules sometimes think the
dog is a babysitter and will occupy the child when they
aren't watching," says Rambala, who trains dogs in
client's homes throughout North Jersey and teaches
weekly group classes in Hillsdale, Bloomingdale, and
Ringwood. "Some toddlers don't know their own strength
and they will grab the dog's ears, tail or skin, and
sometimes they even bite the dog out of excitement."
Many trainers believe that dogs and preschoolers are not
a good match. Rambala says young children and dogs can
get along depending on the temperament of the dog, and
how well the children listen to their parents.
"I have been to a private lesson where the 3-year-old
was out-of-control, never giving the dog a break, and
not listening to the mother's commands," Rambala says.
"Before the lesson was over the dog growled twice at the
child. I could not blame the dog!
"Then I have seen toddlers understand the rules set
forth by the parents'" says Rambala. "They gave the dog
time to relax and get some peace and quiet. These
parents watch over their children and also the dog. They
set the rules."
Ultimately, children will learn how to treat animals by
watching how parents treat the family pet, according to
behavior experts at the Humane Society of the United
States. They'll study how you feed, pet, and exercise
the family pet, and they will pay close attention to how
adults react when a pet scratches the furniture, barks
excessively, or soils in the house. While young children
should always be supervised around pets, they can be
allowed to help in caring for the animals. This helps
create a bond between the child and pet and teaches
early lessons in responsibility.
When pets and young children share a home it's important
that pets, like children, get some down time. Pets need
to have their own space in the home where they can
retreat from the children and should never be put in a
situation where they feel threatened.
A year ago, Cathie says, Matthew would have been more
likely to ignore their cats but in the last few months
has become obsessed with them: trying to pick them up,
hugging them, blowing in their faces, and rearranging
them from one seat to another. The cats, Jet and Pilot,
10, and To, 16, spent most of their lives child-free but
seem to understand that Matthew is a family member, and
refrain from lashing out at him. Instead, they whine and
grumble and then run away.
"Matthew realizes that there is more personality with
live animals than with his soft toys, and maybe that's
why he pays more attention to them no""," says Cathie.
"He gets a reaction out of them."
When not in his rough-housing mode, Matthew is quick to
show his caring side. He helps mom feed the cats by
placing the dishes at the correct feeding stations and
is learning how to gently brush the kitties at grooming
Meanwhile, the Altieri's cats also show restraint at the
hands of little Courtney. They were adopted from West
Milford Animal Shelter when Courtney was 9 months old.
"We looked at a bunch of cats that were laid back and
not too excitable," says Altieri, a former volunteer at
Bloomingdale Regional Animal Shelter Society in
Bloomingdale. "It's very important when picking out a
cat for afamily with young children that you
out the animals to see how they react around children.
Make sure you get one that's not too scared or
Certain cats will run away and hide when they see
children, Altieri said. She brought Courtney to the
shelter to help choose the cats.
"Our cats were curious and came up to Courtney and were
sniffing her," says Altieri. "We really lucked out. They
are sort of mellow and will let Courtney do a lot before
they get upset. If she is doing something they really
don't like, they just get up and run away rather than
scratching or biting her."
Courtney is also learning respect for animals from her
grandparents,' who take care of her on weekdays, and
have two cats of their own. Luckily those cats -
Crackers and Sox, both 5 years old - also retreat to
their own space when they've had enough toddler
"I hope Courtney grows up like I did thinking back on a
childhood with her cat," Altieri says. "Some of my
greatest memories are of coming home as a teenager and
hugging my cat when I'd had an especially tough day."
Vera Lawlor is The Parent Paper's pet columnist. You can
contact Vera at
child to treat his pet as he would like to be treated.
So, if the toddler is pulling the dog's tail, ask him,
how would you like it if someone pulled your hair? You
can give his hair a little tug, just to emphasize your
to your child how to be "gentle" to his pet. Show him
how to stroke his pet in a loving way and show him how
to tell whether his pet likes what he does, or doesn't
like it. For example, if your dog growls when you touch
his face or hug him too' hard, it is a sign that the dog
doesn't like it, and it is a warning from the dog to
stop, or you just might get bitten. These cues are not
always obvious to toddlers or young children.
child know in advance that if he mistreats his pet (you
need to be very specific in terms of what behaviors you
are referring to), he will get a consequence and tell
him what that consequence will be. If the child
continues the behavior, separate him from his pet and
deliver the consequence in a calm manner. Don't yell or
show a strong reaction. If you do react strongly you
will be reinforcing the negative behavior by giving him
attention for it. A possible consequence might be to
simply separate the child from the pet for an extended
period of time.
Suzanne Berman, social
• Research breeds
deciding on the best dog for your family. The
Internet is a great resource to obtain information
on breeds. A good Web site is pedigree.com/home.asp
. Choose the "Select -A-Pet" section which is a
questionnaire that narrows down the choices of
canine possibilities depending on your family
• Consider whether
or not you are ready to have another "child"
the house. A dog or
puppy needs attention, training, exercise, grooming,
socialization, feeding, and medical care. Be
prepared to dedicate time to train the dog and to
care for the dog for its lifetime.
• If getting a dog
from a breeder,
ask about the
of the dog's
grandparents and parents and ask for references from
past owners. Also, ask the breeder which puppy would
be suitable for a home with a toddler? A good
breeder will know her puppies and know which one
would be a good fit.
• If planning to
rescue a dog from a shelter or rescue group, plan a
few visits to
watch how the dog interacts with family members.
Shelters and rescue
groups may have limited information on the dog's
history, but they may be able to do an evaluation
that gives them a sense of the dog's "personality"
traits, and the type of home that would best suit
• Once the new dog is
leave the dog and toddler unsupervised
and make sure the dog
is allowed to have quiet time.
Rambala, professional dog trainer.