'Best Behavior' includes being kind to animals

October 28, 2005|by LISA PREJEAN

Elizabeth Verdick could tell that her 4-year-old loved animals.

He didn't always make the best choice in showing how he felt, but she could tell he was longing to connect with a fur-covered friend.

She found herself giving him short, easy-to-remember phrases so he would know how to respond:

"Pets are for cuddling, not squeezing."

"Pets are for loving, not teasing."

"Tails are not for pulling. They're for wagging."

She especially wanted to explain these things clearly to her son because he has special needs, she says.

Yet she realized that not only children with special needs should be taught how to respond around pets.

Being kind to animals is a lesson that should be universal and is one that never grows old.

Verdick's relatives told her that, when she was a toddler, she chased the family pets around the house and pulled on the cat's tail.


"I guess I thought that was a good way to get the cat's attention," Verdick said this week during a phone interview from her home in Minnesota.

She also recalled that her daughter, who is now 8, wasn't sure how to respond to animals.

She thought that perhaps other parents' experiences were similar to hers.

The result? Two versions of a children's book, "Tails Are Not for Pulling."

The early childhood version is a board book intended to be read to children 3 and younger. A paperback expanded version of the book is designed for ages 3 to 8.

The books are part of Free Spirit Publishing's "Best Behavior" series.

"It came from my own kids interacting with animals," Verdick says. "I'm an animal lover. I've always had a lot of pets."

Verdick's family has four pets - a dog, two cats and a guinea pig.

"They all get along famously," she says. "It has given my children the opportunity to learn about animal care and safe handling."

Verdick says she wanted to keep the tone of the books fun and joyful, not preachy - to help families improve children's behavior in a positive way.

In both books, she appeals to a young child's sensitivity. She asks, "If pets could talk, what do you think they'd say?"

A cat might proclaim, "Fur is for petting, not grabbing."

A rabbit might say, "Ears are for listening, not yanking."

And a bird might plead, "Feathers are for fluffing, not plucking."

Verdick encourages parents and caregivers to share interesting animal facts with children. She includes a few in her book.

Did you know that ...

... a mouse really can run up a vertical surface because sharp nails help it cling? (This gives the song "Hickory, Dickory Dock" a little more merit, eh?)

... parakeets have two toes that point forward, and two that point backward.

... rabbits can be trained to use a litter box.

... cats can make up to 100 vocal sounds.

... a dog's sense of smell is about 1,000 times better than a person's.

"These are the kinds of facts both parents and children can enjoy," Verdick says.

Here are some tips from Verdick that parents can use when teaching their children how to respond to and interact with pets:

Use a stuffed animal to teach a child how to pet a real animal. Talk about places that the animal might like to be touched and places that the animal might not like to be touched. Place your hand over the child's hand and show him how to make gentle strokes in one direction.

Ask for permission before touching someone else's pet. This shows respect for the pet owner and the pet. It is also important for the child's safety. A pet might be scared and act defensively if approached by a stranger.

Teach a child to look and listen for warning cues that a pet might be trying to give. If a dog growls, shows his teeth, or if a cat hisses or arches her back, it might be time to step away and choose a calmer approach.

For more information, go to

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to

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