Many of us have fond memories of growing up with a family cat or dog. Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jo-Marie Bothma writes about how to teach your children to respect pets in your household.
Aside from building great memories, having a pet in the house plays an important role when it comes to the emotional development and physical health of children. Research in the Journal of Paediatrics in 2012 suggested that children who lived in a house with a pet during their first year of life are more likely to be healthier, compared with children who did not.
Animal contact was also suggested to have a protective effect on respiratory tract and ear infections during the first year of life, possibly leading to better resistance during childhood.
Living with pets can increase empathy and compassion in children and it helps to instil a sense of responsibility. In a constantly growing electronic device culture, pets can also help children to get outside and be more active.
Animals are also used in therapy, and animal-assisted therapy is becoming more popular due to the many benefits involved in the process. Animals can help ease depression, reduce stress levels, help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), enhance verbal skills in children, benefit those with developmental delays and are overall very therapeutic in general.
There is more and more research indicating the many benefits for children growing up with household pets. It is only fair that our furry friends should experience just as many benefits from living with their two-legged companions.
Teaching our children to respect animals can go a long way in teaching them to care for and respect other humans. It is not something we want to ignore as there are some disturbing connections between children who are cruel to animals and subsequent violent behaviours towards people. Teaching children compassion and respect for animals, can help them to develop empathy for their fellow human beings.
Teaching kids to be kind to animals
Children learn best by observing what the adults do around them. Children’s brains can be wired to be more respectful towards animals if they simply observe respectful behaviour, which means no yelling, taunting, kicking, pulling of tails or hitting of animals.
It is also best to model kindness to all animals in general, and not just towards household pets. To shout rude things at a stray cat running in front of your car, shooting doves with an air rifle or merely making fun of a slow tortoise crossing the road can send the wrong message to children.
Make time to take your children to a local animal shelter and let them take treats and offer to help by walking dogs or filling food trays. Take the opportunity to let the vet talk to your children about how important kindness and love is towards animals during your pet’s yearly health and vaccination visit. The opinion of a professional often leaves a lasting impression on young children.
Teach your children how to identify an animal’s discomfort signals such as growling or hissing and what to then do during those times.
Schedule a visit to the zoo, the aquarium or a farm. Children find learning about animals fascinating. Part of teaching children to respect animals is also to teach them to leave animals alone. These visits give opportunities to allow children to observe animals and not necessarily touching or holding them.
Another way to show respect towards animals is by cleaning up litter that can harm wildlife. Picking up a plastic bag on the beach and explaining the risks of certain types of litter can teach children about making healthier choices when it comes to respecting animals.
Read books and watch television programmes where animals are shown in a positive light. This can help children learn to love their environment and the animals living in it.
Make sure to give your children pet-related responsibilities like cleaning out kennels and brushing fur. Children can then experience how their actions benefit an animal and affect their well-being.
Children are most definitely not born knowing how to pet or play with an animal. Parents need to model and teach them that and it should start from a very young age. A one-year old can come to understand the repeated phrase: ‘touch softly’, while a parent models the action at the same time. Always watch your children’s interaction with animals and step in if you notice that the play is becoming too rough.
Offer praise when you notice your children being kind and helpful to animals. Make sure to mention how their action has made the animal feel or how it helped the animal. You can say something like: “Lucy, you were so kind when you filled Kitty’s water bowl – it is really hot today and she cannot open the tap herself.”
Dog bites and attacks
According to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, the majority of victims of dog bites in South Africa are children. This is a sad reality that parents cannot ignore. Fortunately, there are ways to minimise the risk of children becoming a victim of such trauma.
Teach your children how to approach an unknown animal (such as the neighbour’s dog), how to inquire from the animal’s owner if it is okay to touch their animal or what to do when they feel scared around an animal. Do not assume that all animals are happy with children petting them and remember that children do not know the basic rules such as not coming too close to a mother with her puppies or not taking a bone from a dog.
Children are also not always attacked by unknown animals, but often by their own or friend’s pets. Dogtown SA offers an exciting programme that is simple and fun, and teaches children in as little as 40 minutes how to really respect the dogs they know and love. It makes use of games and music videos to get the most important messages across.
Tracy McQuarrie, the founder of Dogtown SA, explains that the programme is simple, but still very comprehensive and entertaining and that the programme can be presented at schools.
Having children grow up with animals in their immediate environment is without a doubt beneficial on many levels. The responsibilities of being kind, helpful and thoughtful towards this privilege can go a long way in teaching children that a mutual relationship of respect is vital in maintaining good relations.