Happy Together 
Taming preschoolers around the family pet

Three-year-old Matthew and his dog-pal Reggie take time out for play.

By Vera Lawlor

Cats, Zachary and Sophie, are perfect prey for 19-month ­old 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, 3 1/2, 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 mean.”

Typical behavior

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 their behavior.

“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 Berman.

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 environment.”

Keep a close eye

One of the biggest mistakes par­ents make when it comes to dogs and young children is not providing enough supervision, says Vmce Ram­bala, who 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.”

Learn by example

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 now,” 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 time.

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 a family with young children that you
-test out the animals to see how they react around children. Make sure you get one that’s not too scared or defensive.”

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 interaction.

“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

  • Tell your 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 point.
  • Demonstrate 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.
  • Let your 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.

Source: Suzanne Berman, social worker.

  • Research breeds before decid­ing on the best dog for your fami­ly. The Internet is a great resource to obtain information on breeds. A good Web site is Choose the “Select -A-Pet” section which is a questionnaire that narrows down the choices of canine possi­bilities depending on your family profile.
  • Consider whether or not you are ready to have another “child” in 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 temperament 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 the dog.
  • Once the new dog is home, never leave the dog and toddler unsupervised and make sure the dog is allowed to have quiet time.

Source: Vince Rambala, profes­sional dog trainer.