Safety With Animals

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Animals are important beings in their own right, with each species having its unique characteristics. Some children are afraid of animals because they are different. Others can get so excited that they might do things that could harm an animal or cause the animal to harm them.

In both cases, children need to learn how to be safe with animals so that they can enjoy these wonderful beings that share this beautiful world with us. Watching wild animals and learning how they live can be fascinating. Playing with tame animals can be a wonderful experience if you know how to treat them with care and kindness.

The following suggestions come from my own years of helping children be safe with animals at home, in our community, in museums, in aquariums, in parks, on farms, at the ocean, near rivers, at wild life refuges, and in the mountains. In addition, this includes ideas from other parents and animal lovers as well as more official resources.

Teaching Animal Safety

Kids need to understand that animals are not people. Here are a few general animal safety rules to help people of any age to enjoy animals safely:

  • Use your awareness by noticing the animals in the world around you.
  • Use your mind by learning about different kinds of animals. The more you know, the better you will understand how to protect animals from harm and yourself from being harmed by them.
  • Respect an animal’s boundaries by giving it space and noticing when your behavior seems to upset it.
  • If you are not sure that playing with an animal is safe, Check First with the animal’s caregiver – and treat it with caution.
  • If an animal seems to be threatening to you, leave with awareness, calm, and confidence.
  • If an animal tries to attack you, yell and get away, if possible by creating a barrier between you and the animal.

There are many educational programs for children about wildlife, farm animal life, and about caring for their pets that include demonstrations, videos, and literature. In our community, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) provides opportunities for volunteers to learn about animal care. Look for presentations in your area that are committed to education rather than exploiting animals for entertainment.

Don’t Feed Wild Animals!

Children need to understand that wild animals are not safe to play with. We can enjoy watching them, but we make life more dangerous for them and for people when we feed them.

When animals lose their fear of humans, they might become aggressive in their pursuit of food.  My neighbor told me that a raccoon from the gully near our home tried to get into her groceries while she was unloading bags from her car one evening. All over the world, people are describing attacks by aggressive squirrels in neighborhood parks and homes.

These animals will probably be killed to protect people from them. This is unfair because people have created this problem by feeding wild animals to be able to see them, to enjoy playing with them, and to take pictures. The cute behavior of a squirrel standing on its hind legs to beg can quickly turn into the aggressive behavior of a rodent with sharp claws and teeth running up your leg to get at the crackers in your hand.

Teach younger children, that if they see a wild animal, they should move away and Check First with their adults. It’s usually okay to watch, but not to get close or touch.

Teach older children, that if they see a wild animal, remember to Think First. Give it lots of space. Go inside a building or get into a car if they think it may be aggressive.

Pets and People That You Don’t Know Are Still Strangers

Unless you know them well, other people’s pets are strangers. Before assuming that it is okay to play with them, children need to Check First both with their own adults and with the people responsible for that pet. Children and adults also need to remember that people with animals, unless they know them well, are also strangers. The safety rules don’t change just because somebody has a very cute cat, dog, bird, or bunny rabbit – or even a very cool snake or iguana.

Animals have their own personalities and things that they like and dislike. It is important to treat them as individuals, to follow directions about what is okay to do with them, and to be calm around them.

I have a lot of examples from my own life. I constantly had to warn small children not to pet my cute blonde cocker spaniel Bonnie, because she was so high-strung that she would get excited and suddenly nip them. Our rabbits liked being fed carrots, but would scratch and kick if someone tried to pick them up. Our cat Chiquita was lovely to play with unless she got mad because our other cat Phoebe came near her, at which point she would scratch anyone handy. One of our parakeets would sit on your hand. The other would peck hard enough to draw blood.

Adults might choose to pet a friendly cat or dog on the street, but the safety of this situation is not a judgment that children can make unless they have had a lot of experience with animals.

What Children Need to Know About Safety With Dogs

Parents often ask, “How can I teach my children to be safe with dogs?” Children need to understand that, like people, most dogs are good and we can be safe with them most of the time by remembering a few things.

Dogs can’t talk with words but they can communicate if we pay attention to their signals. Is the dog barking excitedly, whining in distress, or growling in anger? Is the dog’s head up and tail wagging or head and tail down? Dogs are territorial and many will growl if someone they don’t know is coming into their yard or home.

Explain to children that dogs have their own way of understanding and behaving in the world. Some basic ways to communicate respectfully with a dog are:

  1. to let the dog come to you rather than going to the dog;
  2. let the dog  smell you before you try to touch the dog because what you smell like is how a dog gets to know you;
  3. to think about where you touch the dog (to a dog vulnerable areas are often the head and neck); and
  4. to respect the dog’s personal space, so if the dog moves away don’t follow her or him around.

Even if a dog seems friendly, she or he might play rough by jumping up and knocking a child over. A friendly dog might get so excited that he or she snaps at a child. Even a normally calm dog that is being hurt or teased or feeling sick might bite suddenly.

This means that children need to pay attention to how the dog they are with is behaving and stop behavior that seems to be making the dog unhappy. Tell children to stop playing and move away calmly if the dog they are playing with starts to get too excited or seems nervous. If a child is not used to being with different kinds of dogs, you will want to monitor both the child and the dog and help the child learn. Younger children need to be closely supervised because they might not understand a dog’s signals or might suddenly change their own behavior.

To be safe, children should check with you or another adult in charge before trying to pet or play with dogs they don’t know. Tell children if they are somewhere outside and see a dog they don’t know, its important to use their awareness. If possible, its safest to move out of reach, no matter how friendly the dog seems, until they have checked first with you or another adult. Adults should also model checking first with the dog’s owner before getting close to a dog. Ask questions like, “Is it okay to pet your dog?”

Even if both their adult and the dog’s owner say that it is okay, children should remember to approach a dog gently, carefully, and respectfully.

If you meet a dog that is acting scary by growling or barking, it is usually safest not to run. Dogs are likely to chase someone who is running. Tell children that they can wait for the owner if this seems safe or they can back away slowly, quietly, calmly and confidently, saying things like, “Good dog!”  It is better not to make direct eye contact with the dog because this can seem like a challenge to him or her.

A few dogs are aggressive and might attack people or other dogs for reasons we don’t always understand. If a dog starts to run towards them in a threatening way, tell children that they can yell, “NO!” and put their hands in front of them with their palms out to make a barrier. Let children practice using firm loud voices and sounding and looking like they mean it. They can back away and go out of the dog’s territory, saying loudly, “Go home!” Or, “Stay!”

Remind children that dogs cannot open doors or climb trees or fences. If they are being threatened by a dog, their safest choice might be to get into a car or a room or to climb up something that is too high for the dog to jump onto.

If the dog attacks and is biting them, children have the right to fight back to defend themselves. They can put their arms up to protect their face and neck, kick the dog to get it away, and go quickly to a safe place in order to get help.

Mountain Lion and Other Predatory Animal Safety Tips

Large predatory animals can be a danger to people, although the reverse is far more likely to be true. Animals might attack people for food or because they feel threatened, especially if they are females that have their own young with them or nearby.

In places where children might be endangered by a lion, bear, alligator, wolf, crocodile, shark, or other large animal, follow the same principles as teaching them about safety with potentially dangerous people. Learn about what the hazards might be and about what the experts say is likely to work the best to prevent and stop problems. Pay attention. Make a safety plan based on what the experts recommend. Supervise children until they are able to protect themselves. Stay calm. Create role playing situations and give children practice in being successful by rehearsing what to do.

For example, there are mountain lions living near my home. These beautiful animals are normally very shy, but there have been a few attacks on people in places where my family goes. The California Department of Fish and Game gives the following suggestions based on behavior analysis of attacks by mountain lions, tigers, and leopards. Many of these are very similar to suggestions for being safe around other types of predatory animals.

Do not hike alone. Make plenty of noise to reduce your chances of surprising a lion. Go in groups, with adults supervising children. A sturdy walking stick is a good idea: you can use it to ward off a lion.

Keep children close to you. Observations of captured lions reveal that the animals seem especially drawn to children. Keep children within your sight at all times.

StopDo not run from a lion. Back away from it slowly, but only if you can do so safely. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion and stand upright. Make eye contact. If you have small children with you, pick them up so they won’t panic and run. Although it may seem awkward, pick them up without bending over or turning away from the lion.

Do not bend or crouch over. Do all you can to appear larger. A person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal. Raise your arms. Open your jacket, if you’re wearing one. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can grab without crouching down or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a large voice.

Do not approach a lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

Fight back if attacked. Try to stay on your feet if a lion attacks you. Lions have been driven off by prey that fights back. Some hikers have fought back successfully with sticks, caps, jackets, garden tools, and their bare hands. Since lions usually try to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal.



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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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