Kids and pets are a natural match. After all, what's cuter than a preschooler cuddling a puppy or a toddler's face lighting up in front of a fish tank? Children's animal attraction is so strong, in fact, that often a baby's first word is the name of her pet. Aside from adding fun to your family, animals also teach kids about nurturing, companionship, responsibility, and even life and death.
As a mom, you want your child to reap the benefits of raising an animal without any of the problems. The first step: Make sure each of them is safe with the other. Here's how.
Every year about 400,000 kids need medical help for dog bites, and about 80 percent of canine bites are from animals that children know well. "Dogs may bite because they're frightened -- especially if they're being teased -- or because they're protecting their bed, a toy, or their food," says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States.
* Teach your child to "be a tree" -- to stand still with her hands at her sides and let a dog she doesn't know sniff her. Explain that if she runs away, the dog may think she's playing and chase her. Tell her to curl up into a ball to protect her face and hands if a dog knocks her down.
* Enroll your dog in an obedience class (you can do it as early as 12 weeks), so he learns not to jump on people and to follow some simple commands, which can help keep him under control around kids.
* Use baby gates to keep your dog in a room away from your child when necessary. A crate, which provides a safe haven for him and protection for your child, can be a very good idea.
* Teach your child to avoid dogs that are growling, baring their teeth, or whose fur is standing on end.
* Instruct her never to stare into a dog's eyes, which can antagonize it.
* Show her how to stroke a pup's back and sides, instead of reaching over his head.
* Never play tug-of-war or wrestle with a dog; roughhousing can trigger a bite.
* To prevent diseases caused by parasites: Leave poop scooping to adults, and bring your pooch for regular veterinary checkups.
* Have your dog spayed or neutered (at around 5 months), which can calm him.