Let’s start with a dose of reality. If you think it would be fun to have a puppy and a toddler at the same time, think again.
“Every family is different,” acknowledges Shelagh MacDonald, program director for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, “but I don’t think getting a dog is usually the best decision at that point. Toddlers require so much time, and puppies can be almost as demanding as children. And the early stages of a puppy are so important – the time and effort you put into the first two years in training and shaping their behaviour pays off years down the road. It would be a real challenge to train and socialize a puppy at the same time as having a toddler.”
So if you’d like your child to be pals with a puppy, a couple of years from now is likely to work out better.
But maybe you already have a dog, or are taking in an adult dog for a friend who’s become allergic. Maybe you’re considering a lower-maintenance cat, or also have an older child who is begging for a smaller pet like a guinea pig or budgie. With proper precautions, your toddler and pet can coexist, happily and safely.
Toddlers are at higher risk for a dog bite than older children, explains MacDonald, because toddlers “don’t know how to read dog language.” They don’t know, for example, that dogs may not like to have a bone taken away, or what it means when a dog stiffens, flinches or growls. It works both ways: Toddlers are unpredictable. They lurch and grab, and dogs can feel uneasy about their behaviour.
So, says MacDonald, you need to teach your toddler to be gentle. You need to praise the dog for being calm and tolerant, and make sure his play and exercise time is not neglected. But the bottom line remains: Dogs, even friendly dogs, and toddlers should always be supervised because, as MacDonald says, “you just don’t know.”
And if you see your dog doing things that make you uneasy – growling, “glaring” at your child, guarding food or acting fearfully – find a good dog trainer (your vet might give you a referral) and get some professional advice. It’s far better to invest the time and money to work with your canine now, than deal with the sometimes tragic results of a dog bite down the road.
On the health front, be diligent about cleaning up after your pet in the yard, and make sure he has regular vet care to keep him free of disease and parasites. Remember, even nice clean dogs from good families can get tapeworm.
Finally, even if you don’t own a dog, start teaching your toddler “strange-dog etiquette.” Kids should never pat a dog without first checking with the owner. Show your child how to offer her hand to sniff first, then slowly pat her new friend.
Cats, being easier to care for, fit in more easily with a toddler-led household, though MacDonald cautions that “kittens can be very rambunctious; really, they can get into everything.” They play hard too, with their claws out, so that’s a stage toddlers need protection from.
Older cats tend to put up with less abuse than dogs, but when they’ve had enough they’re likely to simply take off. “It depends on the nature of the cat,” says MacDonald – some are very gentle, while others meet unwanted overtures with a quick swipe.
Allie Colbon, whose three cats coexist nicely with the children in her home daycare, notes that cats can accidentally scratch when playing. She trims her cats’ claws with a regular nail clipper every week or two, and says it minimizes the damage.
Finally, you will have to somehow toddler-proof the litter box – this is not a good toy, though it sure could interest an 18-month-old! So find a place your cat can get to, but not your child.