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Many children, particularly if they have grown up around animals and are pretty fearless of them, view dogs and cats as oversized cuddly toys. They are there to be cuddled, kissed, carried about, dressed up and sat on. The truth is that many children do not understand the behavioural cues when an animal is anxious or unhappy; and many animals find small children unpredictable and noisy.
It is very important to teach children from an early age to give animals the respect they deserve – they are cherished members of the family, they are not toys. Teach them to say hello to an animal, particularly one that they do not know, with caution and only after asking the owner first. Tell them to offer the back of the hand for the animal to sniff first and if it seems friendly to stroke it under the chin rather than going straight for a pat on the head. As for family pets, it is worth setting boundaries on what are acceptable forms of affection – i.e strokes, tummy rubs and high five’s, but not cuddles round the neck or kisses to the face. Be aware yourself of the classic sigs of anxiety that an animal will display when it is feeling uneasy; such as low tail carriage, avoiding eye contact, yawning and licking. These subtle signs will often precede the more obvious ones such as hiding away, growling and eventually biting. Above all NEVER leave a child and an animal unsupervised together, however friendly and docile the pet is. Even the happiest Labrador can grow tired by the fifteenth ear pull from a well-meaning toddler.
The RSPCA has some lovely easy-to-read leaflets on managing dogs and children happily in the home.