From roaring like a silly lion in a favorite book to watching birdies outside the window, many toddlers are excited by and curious about animals. At this age, toddlers’ language, motor, social, and cognitive skills are improving all the time, so this means they can begin to learn more about animals and their feelings, as well as the right and wrong ways to interact with animals. This is a great time to start to teach your baby about how to respect and even care for animals.
One of the best ways to teach your baby how animals should be treated is by modeling good behavior yourself. This means treating animals with care and respect as well as showing her what sort of interactions are appropriate. For toddlers who have a family pet at home, this furry (or feathered, or scaly) friend presents a great opportunity to learn about these things first hand; indeed, these lessons will be a part of your everyday life.
Toddlers are growing bigger and becoming more capable little people all the time, but they're still learning how to be gentle, how to control their bodies and impulses, and how to understand others’ feelings. This might mean that even though your baby tries her best to gently pat your family cat, she may end up being little rougher (or grabbier, or clumsier) than is ideal. Even if she’s been told not to grab the doggy’s ears, if she really, really wants to because the doggy’s ears just look so very grabbable, she might slip up.
She also probably isn't ready to read an animal’s body language and cues, and so may not recognize when an animal is feeling nervous, afraid, or unsafe. Even at home and even with a gentle, beloved animal, you’ll want to always supervise your baby with your pet. Toddlers this age have a hard time understanding that the cat will be afraid if you pat it too roughly or that the doggy will feel pain if you grab its ears. But this is a great opportunity to talk about animals feelings and how animals should be treated, which will help to foster a sense of compassion.
Having these sort of conversations will also help to teach your baby how to respect animals, including how to respect their space. This means an animal’s personal space, but also their things. Some animals might be okay with your baby playing with food bowls, pet toys, or the like, but others may get aggressive.
For days when your baby may not be great at this, you’ll also want to give your pet a safe space to go to when they feel like they need a little alone time away from your baby. It might be something like a cat home or a dog crate, or even a separate, gated space. Make sure your baby knows that this space is just for your pet, and off-limits to her. Setting up clear boundaries for what is okay and what’s not okay goes a long way. Your boundaries and rules might look something like: no grabbing doggy; no rough play; and no touching doggy’s food bowls, toys, or dog bed.
If appropriate (if, say, you have a friendly dog versus a temperamental bird), you can show your baby how and where to gently pat your pet. You may be able to touch your pet differently than your often clumsy toddler, so it's important to model something your baby will be able to imitate to her. You can have her practice gently patting a stuffed animal, and you can hold your baby in your lap while you hold her hand as, together, you pat your pet gently and slowly. It’s also helpful to talk through what you’re doing, and repeat what’s most important, like “gentle.”
If you have a pet that likes to play, you can also start to teach your baby what sort of play is appropriate. Again, setting some basic rules in place goes a long way here. Can you throw a toy to kitty, but not chase kitty? Can you play fetch with and run around with doggy? As always, model and talk about what’s okay and what’s not okay. As your baby gets older and more capable, she might be one of your family pet’s favorite playmates, and this can help you begin to foster a healthy relationship.
You can even let your little one learn how to help care for your family pet. Toddlers at this age can start to help assist you with simple tasks, and often love to be involved in this way. your baby might be able to help you measure out some food, refill a water bowl, or get a leash or harness when it’s time for a walk. Helping care for a pet in this way will foster a sense of responsibility, promote empathy, and help deepen the bonds between your baby and your family pet.
These sort of lessons don’t need to end at home. This is relevant for all families, but especially relevant for families that may only interact with animals outside of the home. There are plenty of opportunities to model and discuss good behavior around animals when you and your baby are out in the world. When you pass a dog being walked, for example, don’t run up and surprise the animal or pat it without the owner's permission. Always ask before petting or approaching domestic animals; if the animal’s owner seems amenable to it, you might ask if you and your baby can say hello to the animal and how the owner would prefer that to take place. You should talk things through with your little one as you do, saying things like “see, we’re patting the dog gently, because we always want to be gentle with animal friends,” or “this doggy is nervous and doesn't want to say hello now, and that’s okay, so we’re going to let the doggy keep walking.”
If you visit animals somewhere else - like at a farm, a pet shelter, at a zoo, or around your neighborhood - or if you read books or watch movies featuring animals, it’s a great opportunity to talk about animals and how they might be feeling. You can start simple, with things like, “That horse is hungry, just like you get hungry, so the horsey is having some apples for lunch,” or “Those monkeys are playing like you play.” Even something as simple as looking at birds outside your window is an opportunity to observe animals.
Whether at home or out in the world, remember to praise your baby when you like the way she is engaging with animals. If she is gently patting your family dog, tell her that you like how gentle she’s being. (The same goes for your dog who is sitting there patiently while your baby pats them! Positive reinforcement works just as well for dogs as for toddlers.) Rewarding good behavior will encourage more good behavior.
As your baby continues to spend time around animals, these simple lessons will help foster a sense of empathy, responsibility, and compassion for the amazing creatures in the world around her.