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Kids and their furry friends

Children usually love creatures — especially dogs and cats — and the creatures almost always love them back. Except for the very rare case.
The love and companionship of a pet can help boost kids' self-esteem and make them more resilient, research suggests.Czarek Sokolowski / AP

Over the years there have been many studies pointing to how beneficial it is for children to live with cats and dogs. Research has suggested that because of a pet’s love and companionship, children with cats and dogs tend to have good self-esteem, bond with their families more, miss less school, are more resilient under traumatic circumstances and are more social than non-owners.

We don’t need studies, though, to see that children are generally fascinated with animals. They usually love creatures — especially dogs and cats — and the creatures almost always love them back.

Except for the very rare case. We all heard of this exception last month in San Francisco when 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish was mauled to death by his family’s dogs.

Faibish's death is a heart-breaking example of what can happen when children and the wrong pets are mixed irresponsibly, according to Karen Spaulding, animal trainer for American Humane Association, an organization dedicated to preventing cruelty, abuse and neglect of children and animals. “The tragedy,” says Spaulding, "is that this could’ve been prevented.”

Keeping kids and pets safe
According to Spaulding and Laura Maloney, executive director of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there are some pretty clear rules that parents can follow when their children are around animals.

“Good pet safety is for the child’s protection as well as the cat's or dog’s protection,” says Maloney.

Cats are most likely to swat and scratch when provoked, which can lead to skin infections. But dogs, because of their size and strength, are usually of primary concern.

Foremost, children should use good dog etiquette with all dogs. Remember, even the nicest dog is an animal. Any animal is capable of nipping and biting if provoked. While a bite from a small dog will never be as serious as a bite from a large one, it’s not correct to single out any one breed — such as a pit bulls or Dobermans — as “the biters.” It’s a dog’s individual temperament, training and environment that matter, experts say.

“Even a Chihuahua can sink its little teeth into someone who is agitating it,” says Spaulding.

So what’s good dog etiquette? When children want to pet someone else’s dog in the park or at a neighbor’s home, adults should chaperone them. Teach them to ask the owner if it’s OK to touch the dog. They should also learn how to approach a dog with their hand down and back of hand extended toward the animal.

“Parents should also always keep an eye on the animal’s behavior," says Maloney. "Dogs always give warnings before they bite — growling, yelping, nipping. If any of this happens, you know it’s time to back off.”

Be clear about who's the boss
When dealing with your own family dog, Spaulding says, you need to repeatedly show the animal that you and even the youngest of the children are the bosses. “Remember that dogs are always opportunistic and they’ll take the upper hand if you give it to them. They need to know the pecking order: they’re on the bottom,” says Spaulding.

That means your children and you should not play games that teach the dog to challenge humans. For example, playing tug-of-war isn’t a good idea. “If the child wins, he’s dominant. But if he doesn’t, the dog will think he is. It’s better to teach the dog to fetch and drop,” says Spaulding.

Another good way to show your dog the pecking order is to always make him last out any door. “People should go first and the dog should wait at the door until he’s given permission to come out. This is a good idea to protect the dog’s safety but it also teaches the dog, again, that you’re the boss,” says Spaulding.

She also recommends working with children on basic dog obedience. Their high-pitched voices are often the problem. Left to their own devices, children tend to scream a command 10 times in a row. In a dog’s mind a high voice isn’t viewed as dominant and it may just excite him. Teach kids to say “no”  or “sit” only once and in a low voice. If the dog doesn’t obey, the parent should interject and make the dog obey.

It’s also critical for the child’s safety to teach him not to go near the dog’s food. Many otherwise mild-mannered dogs are food-aggressive and will growl or nip if someone comes close to their dish.

Remember, too, that children are often very hard on animals, says Maloney. “You really have to work on teaching them how to treat pets.”

Teach them to approach dogs from the side, not head on. A side approach is viewed as less-threatening. And, of course, they should pet softly. “Toddlers especially won’t have the coordination to pet gently on their own. If you just take their hand and direct them they’ll learn, though,” says Maloney.

Also remember that very young children shouldn’t be left alone with even a very old, slow and lovable family dog. This is more for the dog’s protection. Toddlers have been known to inadvertently poke a dog’s eyes, pull his tail or lie on him.

“Dogs do tend to recognize young things and tend to tolerate more from youngsters, but you don’t want the animal to get hurt,” says Maloney.

Supervision is critical
Supervision, in fact, is the best tip of all. While parents shouldn’t fear exposing children to animals — and in fact they should relish it — supervision is the key.

Nicholas Faibish’s mother said that she put her son in the basement playroom and put a shovel against the door so the dogs wouldn’t have access. The female dog was in heat and the male was acting aggressive because of it. According to reports, she told her son to stay there until she returned from her errands but, tragically, he didn’t.

The best tip is one learned from the fate of this young boy. Children of any age shouldn’t be left alone with a dog showing any hint of aggression.

Spaulding notes that dogs can be extra volatile if not spayed or neutered and she says it’s not even a good idea to have children in a household with sizable dogs that haven’t been fixed.

“It’s appalling to me that they had an aggressive animal in the house with a child present. It should never be done,” warns Spaulding.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the new book "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.