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Parenting Tips: “Pets and Newly Adopted Children”

Parenting Tips
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Adoption counseling
a ministry of America World Adoption
 “….a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”Ecclesiastes 4:12



For a child adopted from an orphanage or foster care internationally, coming into a home with a pet can be a new, and potentially scary, experience.  Many of these children have never been exposed to a four-legged friend; some of these children may have only seen these animals from afar, as in strays running freely in the streets, and some may have had interactions with animals that caused them trauma or pain.  In some cultures keeping animals in the home is absurd, akin to letting a cow sit on the couch or a horse sleep at the foot of the bed.  Many children will not know how to behave with a pet and may pull the pet’s tail, poke in the pet’s ears, or try to take food from the pet.  And since this child probably does not speak English, instructing the child to be gentle is not likely to be effective.

Pets, too, can be unpredictable.  Even the most docile of friendly animals can be pushed to the limit by a screaming child or a child who, out of curiosity, pinches or pushes or pulls.  A child who moves quickly or erratically can provoke fear in an animal.  Animals who are not normally aggressive can become territorial or defensive, and a child with little exposure to animals may not recognize the signs that an animal is getting worked up.  They don’t know that teeth bared or a low growl means back off, and again, the language barrier may prevent the parent from communicating the potential danger to the child.  Some animals can be a threat to a child out of their own exuberance, knocking a child over in their eagerness to play, and even a wagging tail can whip a child in the face and turn a happy moment into tears.

Here are some tips to help make the transition smoother and foster a bond between animal and child:

1.  Caution and supervision are absolutely essential when children and pets interact, particularly in the beginning months after placement.  Do not leave your child and pet alone at any time and be sure that if your pet is loose that you are nearby to intervene if necessary.

2.  Model appropriate behavior for your child.  Show your child how to pet the animal gently, on the pet’s back and away from the pet’s mouth.  Do not roughhouse with your pet in front of your child; what may be playful for you may be dangerous for your child.  Do not take food from your pet or pry anything from the pet’s mouth while your child is watching – your child may think it is okay for him to do that, and the reaction of the pet may be very different than when you do it.

3.  Before you allow your child to pet the animal, make the animal sit or lay down.  Then give your child permission to approach the animal.  It is important that you control the interaction, both to show the animal that you are in charge and to encourage the child to wait until the animal is calm before interacting.

4.  Feed the animal at a time when the child is not around.  Feed your child at a time when the animal is not around.

5.  Be sure that your pet gets plenty of exercise to work off stress, and plenty of one-on-one time with you to reduce jealousy and resentment.

6.  Recognize your pet’s nonverbal cues of agitation and intervene before a situation escalates.

7.  By the same token, recognize and respect your child’s reaction to the pet.  Don’t minimize the child’s feelings; a frightened or crying child should not be told, “oh, don’t worry, Fido is friendly” or “go ahead and pet Sparky, it will be fine.”  Instead, remove either the child or the pet from the situation until emotions are calmer and then slowly try again.  Sometimes that may mean letting the animal and the child simply observe each other from afar before encouraging them to interact, or sitting the child on your lap while the animal lays at your feet.  The point is to not rush their contact because pushing the animal or the child beyond their limits is not beneficial for either one.

Over time there is the hope that the animal and the child will become BFFs.  Until then, the safety of the child and the pet should be your utmost concern.  Give them time to get to know one another and feel comfortable together.  There are so many benefits for children to having a pet.  Exercising wisdom in the first few weeks of introductions will maximize the chances of creating loving and healthy relationships between human and furry family members for years to come.

Diane Hood, America World AdoptionThis article was written by Diane Hood, Clinical Supervisor with America World Adoption, and the Director of Social Services in our Georgia office.  Diane has more than 20 years experience in the adoption field and she is a parent by birth and by adoption.  
ACT (Adoption Coaching and Training) is a ministry of America World Adoption designed to support families through training, support groups, and individualized coaching.  Explore ACT services, and reach out to us today for a free consultation to make a plan to meet your needs.

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