When is the right time to teach your child about animal behaviour?
If you asked me I would say from day one, however the early months are more about teaching your pet to be comfortable and accepting of this strange little addition to the family. Babies can worry many animals because their movements are uncontrolled and erratic, their smells are intriguing but unfamiliar and they grab and stare making funny noises that are all un-nerving to other species. The most important thing is to make sure your pet still feels safe and try to give them the same level of attention as before, dont over compensate as what will help them the most is the continuation of their routines. There are many guides on introducing smells and boundaries but fundamentally no animal should be left unattended with a child and even when they are with you, body language should be monitored; if they are too intense or interested they should not be allowed near the child and their attention should be redirected to prevent escalation. Most of the time it will be duration that is easiest to control to help desensitize both animals and children but it can often be distance as well (especially in the case of the horses) – I used to carry the baby in a pouch whilst feeding and checking the horses and fields, initially my mare ran back from the fence-line and was visibly trembling, I turned my body sideways and looked away while holding my hand for the horse to smell, she tentatively approached and then sniffed near the baby, from that point on she was fine. I realised that not only did I have this strange moving thing attached to me but when I walked towards the mare, my baby had been facing straight on, arms out wide and starring intently.
When your baby starts reaching, sitting and moving, I would start explaining and controlling their interactions with the pet, they need to be able to lean on the boundaries slightly as you want to slowly increase the tollerance of the pet but never exceed the pets comfort zone to a point that they could react negatively, for example: my toddler would walk and stroke the cat so lightly that his skin would twitch… I would stop this after at most 1 minute as I didnt want my cat to feel the need to defend himself. She would also put her arms around his shoulders from behind and cuddle him… he was very tollerant of this and often also cuddle back with his head, but if he was not cuddling back I would stop the interaction after 5 seconds (approx), as her language started I would explain to her that he is not happy, is frightened or does not like what she is doing, I would try to explain to her about his ears pointing back or sideways and the end of his tail flicking.
I wouldn’t raise my voice or rush to remove her from interacting with any of our animals as this could create panic and instigate fear of that species, if with our horses it would also risk frightening them and increasing their fear. I would, instead, walk calmly to her, take her hand or pick her up and remove her (incidentally I use the same approach when other children are frightening her or grabbing at her).
At 21 months my child has just started correctly identifying facial expressions with the emotions they represent (sad, happy, grumpy, cheeky, shy and frightened). I have decided this could mean she is ready to be shown pictures and videos of animals exhibiting different behaviours and explaining to her what those are, eventually this will progress to ‘don’t touch when…’ or what to do with her body to react appropriately to the animals displayed language (although I consider this last step to be very advanced considering it takes a lot of self awareness and recognition of others and the effects of your interaction on another individual).
I will keep you posted as to how successful my teaching animal body language to a nearly 2 year old is.