Dear Dr. Debbie,
My son is 20-months-old. We have no pets at home and I’ve noticed he seems very uncomfortable regarding dogs and cats when we’re out visiting.
He even gets alarmed seeing a bird or a squirrel outside. How can I help him have a healthy attitude toward pets as well as wildlife?
Sharing The Planet
The best way to impart your positive attitude toward animals is to spend time with your son around them. Since he has already taken on a cautious stance, you might want to start with baby steps. Use picture books to spark conversations about animals’ names and characteristics. Some board books have textures to feel – simulating fur, feathers, and scales – to add to your son’s familiarity. Look for toddler puzzles with animal shapes, and also find small toys made of wood, plastic, rubber, or fuzzy fabric that could help him get comfortable with these kinds of beings. Staying clear of teddy bears, think of animals that represent the real ones he is likely to encounter – dogs and cats for example. Most toddlers enjoy bath toys shaped like ducks, frogs, fish, turtles, etc. which can help them to be curious, if not comfortable, when they meet a real one for the first time.
Gradually introduce your son to live animals, for very short visits at firsts, as you calmly name the animal and nonchalantly go about your business in its presence. Maybe start with the pet of a close friend or relative. Respect your son’s nervousness and expect to hold him during the entire visit. Take a picture of the animal so you and your son can review it, while calmly talking about the animal, several times before you visit again. Talk about how the animal moves, what it plays with, where it sleeps, how it eats and drinks, what sounds it makes, etc. until your son becomes an expert with this information. If all goes well, he will become desensitized to the sight of this pet and you can advance to touching it together.
Make animal sightings and animal encounters part of your weekly agenda. You can visit a pet store to study the behaviors of fish, parakeets, lizards, and other tame creatures. Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis has several resident pets, some of which are touchable. Wildlife in the surrounding park includes many woodland birds – robins, cardinals, wrens and others, as well as water birds in and around the creek – ducks, herons, geese in the winter, and ospreys in the summer. Nearby at the Phoenix Center, a specialized public school on Cedar Park Road near the Naval Academy stadium, there are goats outside that can be safely watched through the double fence.
My hunch is that your son’s apprehension is merely due to inexperience. This is easily overcome by working up to making animal watching, and safe animal touching, a regular part of your time together.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.