Dog meets baby
For many couples, their first baby is a fur-baby. A puppy is often our first try at parenting, and the dog is often the center of our attention for many years. So when a baby is due to arrive, new parents often wonder what they can do to ease the transition for themselves as well as their dog. The key to creating a healthy and safe relationship between your dog and baby is to start preparing your dog early. The steps you take in the months leading up to the birth of the baby are much more important than the actual first greeting.
When a couple learns they are expecting their first baby, they should begin to think through the ways in which their pup’s life will change. Will there be a new schedule? Will the feeding and walking routine change? Any new rules? What new sights, sounds, and smells will become a part of our household? Dogs are creatures of habit and are much more oriented to their senses of smell and hearing than we are, so it’s valuable to look at any anticipated changes from your dog’s point of view.
Expect that your dog’s meal, nap, walk, and play schedule will vary erratically, especially during the first few weeks with a newborn. It can be helpful to get your dog accustomed to a more variable schedule months ahead of time, so that he eats, walks, and plays at different times throughout the day. If your dog is an uncompromising creature of habit and prefers to eat right on schedule, you may consider an automated feeder with a built-in timer so that at least his meal times are predictable. If possible, start using the new feeder months ahead of time so that your dog has time to adjust to it.
Many new parents find doggy daycare or a dog walker invaluable, both to give the new parents a rest and to provide the dog with a fun, positive outlet away from the baby. Only consider doggie daycare for dogs that truly enjoy interacting with other dogs. Keep in mind that it can take several months to interview dog walkers and to find a doggie daycare; there are typically behavior evaluations, mandatory trial classes, and sometimes long waiting lists.
You’ll also want to decide early on if there will be new household rules for your pooch once the baby arrives. Will he be allowed in the nursery? Will he still be allowed on the couch or the master bed? If the rules will change, begin these new habits as soon as possible. For instance, if you don’t want your dog to enter the nursery, you can begin teaching a “down-stay” command outside the nursery door or place a baby gate in the doorway. Waiting until the baby arrives to make these types of changes can lead to your dog feeling confused and isolated from his family. Your dog will need a good foundation in basic obedience and simple commands to establish some of these new habits. Good manners are also crucial for your baby’s safety. A dog that jumps up on your knees or runs under your feet can be a hazard. With training, you can redirect your dog from jumping on you into a “sit and look at me” position, for example, which is much safer for everyone. If your dog doesn’t know basic commands like sit, down, stay, leave it, and drop it, you’ll want to enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer1 and get started early.
An essential part of basic dog manners is knowing how to settle down around the baby. You’ll want to establish several places around the house where your dog can be quiet, calm, and happy by himself. This can either be a dog crate or a tie-down (also called a tether). The ideal spot is a quiet corner or nook of the room, not in the center of the action. If your dog is already crate-trained, you can practice having your dog spend more alone-time in the crate with a yummy chew toy or frozen, stuffed Kong. For dogs that are not comfortable in crates, you can use a tie-down or tether in a corner of the room. Put a comfortable, familiar bed in the nook, and tie one end of a leash under a leg of heavy furniture or to an eye-bolt in the floor. This provides a safe area with a limited perimeter for your dog to stretch out and relax. Your dog’s settle-spot will come in handy when you’re breastfeeding, changing a diaper, or later when the baby is crawling. As you begin purchasing baby items, this is the perfect time to start getting your dog used to the new sights and smells of baby. When you open the bigger items such as the stroller or car seat, allow your dog to sniff the items. If he becomes over-excited or destructive, do not punish him, but rather redirect him to do something else such as his “sit” and “down” commands. You can also start using the baby lotions and shampoos on yourself, so the smells become gradually more familiar. If your dog hasn’t been around babies before, the crying, screaming, and cooing can be very stressful. You can help your dog become accustomed to these sounds with a CD of realistic baby sounds. A good one is Terry Ryan’s “Sounds Good: Babies.” The best strategy to desensitize your dog to baby sounds is to start quietly, go slow, and always associate baby sounds with positive experiences. For example, start playing the CD at a very quiet level and use that time (perhaps 5-20 minutes) to play with your dog or do commands with special treats. When time is up, stop the sounds and then go about another activity not involving your dog.
Once your dog is happy to play with the sounds at a quiet volume, you can play the sounds at a slightly higher volume for the next few sessions, again coupling the sounds with happy play and yummy treats. Do not raise the volume until your dog is very comfortable with the current volume. With each progressive session, your dog will become less and less reactive to baby sounds. And, ideally, this strategy should help your dog to associate baby sounds with pleasant feelings. If your dog has been well prepared, the actual coming-home with the new baby can be an almost non-event. It’s ideal if there is no formal introduction between baby and dog. Contrary to popular belief, your dog does not need to sniff, lick, or greet the baby to make it official. You can invite your dog to sniff the baby (the feet are a good place to sniff, not the head area), but never force an interaction. Also, never scold your dog for being curious. Since the early months with baby are typically all about feeding, napping, and diaper changes, there is very little opportunity or need for direct interaction between baby and dog. While you may be tempted to allow the baby and dog to nap together or lay on a blanket together, it is safest to keep the interactions indirect. If you’re feeling tired or need a nap yourself, be sure to secure the dog in his crate or tether him to his tie-down. Never leave the baby and dog alone while you sleep. Always be alert and directly supervise whenever your dog and baby are together. As much as you love and trust your dog, your dog is a dog, and he has limitations. You never want to put your dog’s limits to the test. Although these transitions can be very challenging, taking the time to prepare your dog and include him when possible will set a solid groundwork for a healthy and safe relationship between your new baby and your fur-baby. As they both grow, the relationship between your child and dog can be one of the most meaningful in your child’s life.
Dr. Michelle Forgy is a small animal veterinarian and owner at Pinnacle Animal Hospital, a cat and dog practice in San Jose, CA. She is also the mom to two young girls, two dogs, and a cat. One of the favorite parts of her job is helping families build safe relationships between their pets and kids.