Most people have a memory of a favorite pet from childhood. If they didn’t have one of their own, they might conjure up thoughts of a grandparent’s, neighbor’s, or friend’s pet they loved at some point in their lives. We think of how cute they are when we look at them, how soft they might feel when we cuddle them (even stroking a snake’s smooth skin can be soothing!), how playful they are when we laugh with them, or any other countless memories of interacting with animals as kids.
Many of us enjoy our time with animals as much as we enjoy our time with other people. Did you know, however, that our enjoyment is based on science? And that we’re biologically designed to engage in cooperation and companionship with other animal species? Had you forgotten for a moment that you, too, are an animal?
Interacting with animals offers many benefits to kids and families. Learning how to properly interact with all kinds of animals will keep everyone safe and happy. Read until the end to find out about the many opportunities we have for you to connect with animals right here at the Museum in the coming weeks!
BENEFITS OF ANIMAL INTERACTION
The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute compiled an extensive list of ways animals and humans benefit from each other’s company. We’re most interested in these five, which highlight the ways kids learn and grow socially and emotionally:
1. Increased self-esteem and confidence
Positive feelings about animals can increase a child’s self-esteem and confidence. The high level of interaction and reciprocation of non-verbal communication lead to children feeling supported and loved. Helping to care for animals’ daily needs like providing food, water, exercise, and love can help a child feel valued and important.
2. Teaches empathy and respect
When children interact with animals, they directly observe the immediate consequences of their actions and the actions of others. If you accidentally step on a dog’s paw, they might yelp in pain. We can share and understand their feelings, reminding us to be careful and respectful. This skill transfers easily to our human friends as well.
3. Nonjudgmental, confidential, and accepting source of support
Animals don’t have the same filters human brains do, meaning they don’t judge the clothes we wear, our hairstyles, or any other superficial characteristics about us. They keep our secrets when we confide in them, and they offer a nearly endless supply of companionship, which may or may not include lots of cuddles.
4. Increased desire to learn and read
Animals help a child’s motivation to read for two reasons. First, animal interaction while reading keeps kids focused for longer amounts of time. Whether the child is reading aloud to a beloved pet or just cuddling the animal while reading, both show an increase in engagement. Second, children who take an interest in an animal species become eager to learn all about them. Parents should foster this interest by checking out the local library for age-level appropriate books about the animals.
5. Lower stress levels
Positive interactions with an animal, even brief ones, are shown to reduce anxiety and negative mood in kids and adults alike. Being with animals makes people feel good. We focus on their well-being, which calms our heart rate, and when we enjoy petting an animal, it releases dopamine in our brains. Prolonged and regular work with animals has even been shown to treat attachment and trauma disorders.
It’s clearly a great idea to spend some time with other species as often as possible! But we can’t just run up to any random animal we see and hope for the best. We talked to Leslie Steen, AKC Canine Good Citizen Trainer and Certified Veterinary Technician, to find out how we can make the most of our time with animals, ensuring everyone is happy about it–humans and animals alike. Steen gave us five tips for proper interaction with our furry (and scaly and feathered!) friends.
HOW TO PROPERLY INTERACT WITH ANIMALS
1. Be quiet
It’s important to use our indoor voices when we are around animal friends. Most species can hear far better than humans, so even our slightly raised voices can be scary for them. Sudden loud noises like a scream or shriek can spook animals and make them run away. If they are tied up or in a pen, it could even cause them to get physically injured. In some cases, animals who are scared might accidentally hurt their human friends, too. An animal may bite out of fear or knock someone down. Speak in a calm, soothing, and quiet tone to make sure animals know you mean them no harm and have no reason to harm you.
2. Move slowly and calmly
Approaching animals is exciting. We are meeting a new friend! Whether it is a dog on a leash being walked by their owner or your best friend’s guinea pig in its cage in their room or even a goat in a pen at a local park, we always want to walk and not make sudden movements. In the same way we don’t want to spook our new friends with loud noises, we also don’t want to confuse them with fast movement or sudden physical excitement.
This can be hard, because our bodies help communicate our feelings. Try to practice being calm when you know you’ll be meeting a new animal. Get your excitement out of your body by jumping up and down and squealing and running some laps around the house BEFORE you are in the presence of the animal. Then intentionally be quiet and still. It will help you focus on the enjoyment of meeting the animal.
3. Listen to the grown-up in charge
The person who owns or cares for animals is called a “handler,” because they are the ones who handle the animal. This person knows their animal the best. They know what the animal likes and dislikes. What scares them (screaming kids, maybe) and what delights them (pets on just the right part of their body, a special food treat). They are their animals’ experts. So, it’s VERY important that we listen to everything they tell us about their animal.
We want to learn about the animal while being respectful to their needs. You might have the very same type of animal at home, so you think you know what to expect, but all animals are different. Your dog, for example, might really love it when people scratch his ears, but the new dog you’re meeting might have an injury or another reason to not enjoy that. Never make assumptions about what an animal will or will not like. Always listen to the handler.
4. Be gentle
Once the handler has said it’s okay to touch or pick-up the animal you’re meeting, it’s very important to be gentle, even with big, strong animals. The handler might tell you to only use one finger to pet the tiny lizard, and to make sure you only stroke his back, not his foot or head or tail. Maybe you’re meeting a guinea pig, and you get to pick them up! The handler might tell you to use two hands and keep one cupped under their back legs at all times.
Tiny animals can have small bones and organs that injure easily, and big animals can have sensitive skin or fur that reacts poorly when stroked too hard or in the wrong direction. Being gentle and listening to the grown-up in charge go hand in hand in keeping our new animals safe and happy.
5. Remember to thank the grown-up
It’s very generous of handlers and owners to let you meet their animal friends. Make sure you show your gratitude by thanking them when you leave. (It’s also a good idea to leave when they ask you to! Some animals can only handle a little bit of interaction with humans, and others may be waiting their turns.)
We thank Trainer Leslie for sharing these good tips with us! (Thinking about getting a family pet? Steen has some good tips for that specific scenario, too.) Let’s use what we’ve learned the next time you meet a new animal friend. You’re in luck, because we have LOTS of opportunities to interact with animals coming up at the Museum this summer:
- Butterfly House Tours are scheduled weekly. Check out the calendar here.
- Thursday, July 7: We Dig Pigs
- Tuesday, July 12: Therapy Dog Louie
- Saturday, July 16: Horses Visiting from Pinewood Stables
- Saturday, August 6: Goat Visit in the Alltech Farm Animal Experience
- Wednesday, August 10: Prairie Ecology Bus Visit with MN’s Wild Animals
We hope to see you at as many of these events as your family can make.