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Keeping Toddlers Safe from Dogs and Cats on the Street

Most dogs and cats are friendly and present no danger to our toddlers.  However, there are dogs and cats that aren’t well socialized, are unaccustomed to strangers or children, are unwell or frightened, etc.:  these dogs and cats may present a danger to our toddlers.  Since dogs and cats don’t come with labels like “I’m a danger” or “I’m not a danger”, guessing which is which can be difficult.  As a result, many proactive parents believe that it’s best to teach our kids to err on the side of caution around dogs and cats with whom they are unfamiliar.  Here are a few tips to keep our toddlers safe around unfamiliar dogs and cats.

Explain that dogs and cats, like humans, have a need for love, social interaction, food, rest, etc., and that, like humans, not all dogs and cats know how to (or are situationally prepared to) behave in a way that makes it easy to give them the love, food, etc. that they need.

Explain that most dogs and cats are friendly but that it can be hard to distinguish friendly dogs and cats from unfriendly dogs and cats.

Explain the possible dangers associated with unfamiliar dogs and cats and why only adults should deal with unfamiliar dogs and cats as a result.  When explaining these possible dangers (i.e., bites, scratches, resultant infections, etc.), we must not create fear in our toddlers:  our goal isn’t to instill fear but to teach prudence.

Do not let our toddlers approach or come in physical contact with unfamiliar dogs and cats.

Do not let our toddlers make prolonged eye contact with unfamiliar dogs and cats.  (Dogs and cats may view prolonged eye contact as challenging behavior.)

Do not let our toddlers feed unfamiliar dogs and cats.

Do not let our toddlers tease or be unkind to unfamiliar dogs and cats.

The foregoing does not mean that we can’t teach our toddlers to exhibit warmth toward and empathy for unfamiliar dogs and cats.  If an unfamiliar dog or cat appears to be feral, homeless, injured, ill, hungry, or otherwise in need, we can call our local humane society or animal shelter and ask that organization to help the animal in need.  We, as adults, may render aid ourselves if we deem it prudent.  Regardless of whether we help directly or by contacting a community resource, we can and should explain to our toddlers that dogs and cats feel love, fear, pain, and pleasure just like we do, and their feelings deserve our respect and empathy.  We should explain the help we are choosing to render to the dog or cat and why the help is deemed necessary.  For example, we may say, “Jonathan, see that puppy by the dumpster?  He’s got messy, patchy hair.  I think he’s got something called mange: he’s sick.  He’s also really skinny, so I think he’s starving.  I don’t think he has a loving home and someone to take care of him.  The poor guy needs some medical care, good food, and some love and attention.  However, he doesn’t know us and probably doesn’t trust us.  We look like stranger danger to him.  Do you understand?  So, in order to help him, we need help ourselves.  I’m going to call the animal shelter.  They can give him the help that he needs and make things all better for him . . . even help him find a new home.  We will wait here until the animal shelter folks come get him.  We can’t approach him since he’s probably afraid of us and may think we’re trying to hurt him, but we can watch over him until the experts arrive to help this little guy.  Ok?”

By following the tips above, we can keep our toddlers safe from dogs and cats on the street, reinforce empathy, and instill prudence rather than undue fear in our kids.

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