First comes love, then comes marriage … And a dog! For many couples, starting a family means sharing their lives with a dog before the decision to have kids. Later, with a positive pregnancy test in hand, many dog owners worry about how their “first baby” will accept the “new baby.”
From a trainer’s perspective, it’s not so much about whether or not the dog will “accept” the baby, but rather, how well the dog will adjust to the major change in the household. The good news is that babies generally come with months of lead time, giving expectant parents plenty of time to help prepare their dog for the upcoming transition.
“The transition from being pet parents to parenting with pets can be challenging, and there are a lot of unexpected bumps along the way,” says Jennifer Shryock of Family Paws® Parent Education in Cary, North Carolina. Her business specializes in resources specifically geared toward dog-owning households with babies and toddlers. The two main programs, “Dogs and Storks” and “Dogs and Toddlers” are available to families through a worldwide network of more than 200 licensed presenters.
Shryock, a mother herself, first developed the Dogs and Storks program in 2002 after volunteering with her local German Shepherd Rescue and fielding a huge number of calls from people looking to surrender a dog. Often, it was because they were going to have a baby, or because an incident – a growl or bite – had already occurred with a child in the home. At the time, there weren’t many resources available that took an in-depth look at preparing and helping the family dog to successfully live with kids.
While there’s considerably more information available today, the trick is convincing people to utilize it ahead of time. “Unfortunately, families aren’t reaching out as much as we’d like before an incident. Most people still reach out for help after an incident occurs,” Shryock says. “That’s a pattern we’d like to see change.”
It’s imperative that homes with dogs who exhibit fear or aggression toward people, especially children, contact a qualified trainer who can help evaluate the situation and develop a training plan designed to keep everyone safe, while minimizing the dog’s anxiety. But even the most easygoing dogs and their owners will benefit from some thoughtful pre-baby preparation. Here are some things you can do to help ready your dog for the big change to come.
Brush up on training
As soon as you know you’re expecting, take a good look at your dog’s obedience skills, and set a plan for modifying any undesirable behaviors. It’s important to start as soon as possible, as these often well-rehearsed behaviors don’t go away overnight. Helping a dog successfully change his behavior typically requires a behavior change on your part, too.
For example, a common complaint among pet owners – that suddenly reaches a new level of importance when the family is expecting – is the dog who jumps on people as they enter the home. This might be the owners themselves, visitors, or both. A trainer might offer several approaches to this problem:
- Asking the owner to put a leash on the dog and reward him generously for keeping four feet on the floor as people enter.
- Teaching the dog to hold a down-stay on his bed nearby.
- Asking the dog to “sit” and petting the dog only when his butt is on the floor. If he jumps up, he becomes invisible.
- Teaching the dog to retrieve a toy when people enter the home, giving him something else to do, and moving him away from the entry point.
- Scattering a handful of kibble on the floor to assign the dog a task (vacuuming up kibble, often called a “Find it!” game) that is incompatible with jumping up.
- Manage the situation by securing the dog behind a baby gate, in a crate or pen away from the entryway, or in the backyard.
Unfortunately, any potential solutions will fail if an owner lacks consistency and the dog is frequently allowed to rehearse the unwanted behavior. It’s not realistic to expect a 3-year-old dog who has been jumping on people since puppyhood to completely and reliably stop defaulting to this behavior in two weeks – you might not even fix it in two months.
Remember that changing one’s daily behavior is difficult. Yes, it’s hard to remember to always put a leash on the dog (or implement another strategy) on the way to answering the door – but it’s equally as difficult for your dog to give up the jumping habit, especially since it’s likely to have been reinforced by attention of some sort. (Even yelling “Down!” is giving the dog attention – which is usually what he’s after when he jumps up.) Start training as soon as possible, practice often (in the case of jumping, be willing to invite understanding friends and family over to help you), and be patient. Remember, the more time you invest in this training, the smoother the transition will be from pet parent to parenting with pets.
The following are the top skills to master before the baby arrives:
Proper management is key, says Shryock. Teaching a dog to be relaxed behind a baby gate in another room is a wonderful way to help create a harmonious household with two- and four-legged babies. This type of management gives everyone a break from actively supervising the dog while attending to the baby or receiving guests, and later can provide a “safe space” for a dog as the baby becomes mobile.
“It has to be an early priority,” Shryock says. “We all need a break – the dogs do, too. Waiting until the baby is 8 months old and crawling – that’s not the time to suddenly discover that the dog can’t be comfortably left alone in another room.”
The ability to be calmly separated from the family is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to many dogs. Dogs want to be near those to whom they are bonded. Even dogs who are successfully crate-trained might associate the crate only with sleeping and as a place to stay when the humans leave the house. That’s different, in the dog’s mind, from accepting the crate as a place to rest when the family is home and awake. Teaching a dog to stay behind a baby gate is a nice alternative to a crate, especially for potentially longer stretches of time, as it gives the dog more space to move around.
“I wish this was standard practice for all dogs to learn,” says Shryock, noting that she’s encountered many families for whom this behavior would have likely prevented the family from ultimately deciding to rehome the dog.
2. “On your spot” or “place.”
This behavior is useful in any home with a dog, but teaching a dog to reliably go to his bed – and stay there until released – can be especially helpful in homes with newborns. I recommend having multiple spots for ease of access. When a dog can calmly stay on his spot in the living room, he can enjoy calm integration with the family, even when visitors are present. A spot in the nursery offers a similar rest area for the dog that keeps him out from underfoot. Having another spot in your bedroom provides an alternate sleeping arrangement for the dog when you’re nursing the baby in the middle of the night and don’t want him on the bed.
3. Prompt name recognition.
One of the best ways to ensure that a dog responds to a known cue is to make sure you have the dog’s attention when you deliver the cue. Teach your dog to quickly orient himself to you when he hears his name!
This is also a useful way to help divert potential mischief. Imagine that your dog is cruising around the nursery, about to stick his head in the diaper pail. Or maybe he’s headed for the baby swing and you don’t want him to lick the baby. In both cases, you can use his name in a positive-sounding voice to reorient his attention so that you can redirect his energy to a more desirable behavior.
4. Fluent “sit” or “down.”
Does your dog know how to sit or lie down? How well does he know these behaviors? What does “He knows it” mean to you? To be “fluent” in a behavior means that the dog consistently responds to the cue quickly, without the aid of lures (food, toys) or prompts (touching the dog, etc.), and can do so even in the face of distractions and in a variety of settings. Many dogs sit like rock stars in the kitchen when it’s time for dinner, or whenever the owner is holding a treat, but struggle in other settings.
“That can be really tricky for many families, but it’s so important,” Shryock says. “When a new parent is sitting on the couch and can say, ‘sit’ or ‘down’ and their dog can do it … that means so much to families when they’re holding a newborn. It’s definitely worth fine-tuning this behavior.”
Teaching a dog to touch his nose to your open palm has several useful applications. Many trainers use “touch” as the foundation for a solid, come-when-called behavior. Some people teach the dog to hold the position in order to “station” the dog during grooming or other husbandry behaviors. In a home with a newborn, Shryock says “touch” is a useful way to move the dog around the room. When a dog learns to love this targeting behavior, a clever parent can use it to cooperatively guide the dog from place to place without having to potentially nag or forcefully move the dog.
6. Safe leash walking.
Walking politely on a loose leash is a difficult behavior for dogs to master because it almost always requires them to walk more slowly than their natural pace. Add that to the fact that it’s a behavior we typically ask dogs to perform for long periods of time, and under constant environmental distractions, and it’s no wonder we see so many dogs travelling through life on a tight leash!
That said, for safety reasons, it’s important that dogs learn not to pull expectant mothers. This is especially important when the dog is prone to lunging at things in the environment, whether from excitement or arousal/aggression. The more comfortable you are with your dog’s leash-walking skills, the more likely you will feel motivated to continue walking him after the baby arrives. Let’s face it, it’s sometimes hard to get excited about walking an unruly dog on a good day when you’ve had a full night’s sleep. Now imagine motivating yourself to walk the dog when you’re on two hours of sleep and under-caffeinated since you’re limiting your coffee intake while breast-feeding!
Many expectant parents worry about the possibility of injury to mom or baby in the event that the dog pulls mom off balance. For this reason, I often recommend that expectant parents teach their dogs to comfortably wear a head halter or front-clip harness to help physically manage the dog while working on polite leash walking, and as a bit of added protection for mom. This is especially helpful in cases of big, strong dogs and petite handlers. It can also make it easier for other people to walk the dog after the baby arrives, when friends and family want to know what they can do to help.
Once your dog can consistently walk politely, it’s time to introduce the stroller if you plan to walk the dog with the baby. To be fair to the dog, begin by introducing the stroller as a stationary object, and reward your dog for his calm investigation of the baby’s future ride. Gradually introduce the slight movement of the stroller near the dog. Avoid rolling it at the dog – we don’t want him to think the stroller is chasing him. Always give your dog the option to move away from the stroller if he’s uncomfortable. Over time, and only progressing to the next step when your dog is happily engaged in the previous step, work up to short leashed walks with the empty stroller.
Be sure to reward generously to help keep the dog walking alongside you and the stroller while maintaining a loose leash. Always use your best judgment when deciding if you can safely manage a stroller and a dog at the same time, or if walks should become a “family outing” where one person pushes the stroller and another handles the dog.
A word of caution: If your dog is prone to extreme arousal or aggressive outbursts while on walks, please do not single-handedly attempt to walk the baby and your dog. Dogs who struggle with reactivity need your full attention when out in public, and it’s impossible to do this safely while also being responsible for your baby.
Practice Early & Often
With all of these behaviors, the best advice is to start training as soon as possible. Most of us have dogs who exhibit a least a couple of behaviors we aren’t fond of, but that we begrudgingly put up with, often because tolerating the behavior feels easier than investing the time to implement training solutions. But these same behaviors often seem like potential deal breakers once the baby arrives; not addressing them ahead of time leads to unnecessary stress for everyone. as Shryock says, “So many dog-human relationships go south right there, because the second they bring the baby home, so many of the interactions become about yelling at the dog and it becomes really hard.”
Expect the unexpected changes to your dog’s routine
If your dog is used to a predictable feeding schedule, it’s wise to start mixing things up now. The arrival of a newborn often signals the start of sleepless nights and frequent visitors, which can easily throw everyone’s – including the dog’s – schedule out of whack.
Start small, by varying mealtimes within a short 30-minute window, and consider working up to feeding within the span of as long as three hours. Ideally, you want your dog to trust that his daily sustenance is coming, even though he can’t predict when. This way, he’s less likely to exhibit attention-seeking behaviors when his internal body clock says it’s time to eat. For this reason, many trainers recommend never feeding a dog on a deliberate schedule once they are past the puppy stage where a strict feeding schedule helps with housetraining.
If your dog routinely “demands” to be taken for a walk every evening at 6:30 sharp, consider a similar routine jumble, walking some days at 5 p.m. and others at 9 p.m. You may even go so far as to skip the walk occasionally and substitute a good mental enrichment activity instead. (Serving his dinner from a frozen food-stuffed Kong or kibble scattered throughout the yard are two useful alternatives.)
It’s important that your dog continue to have his exercise needs met, but even the best-laid plans will fall short from time to time as parents adjust to new sleep schedules and the reality of caring for a tiny human. Helping your dog adjust to a less predictable schedule before the baby arrives can help reduce his stress level as he adapts to this life-changing event.
Does your dog sleep on your bed? Might this rule change once the baby arrives? Should it? (If your dog ever displays “cranky” or aggressive behavior while on the bed, we’d advise nixing that privilege and contacting a trainer for additional support.) Take the time to discuss the options with your spouse and decide what you think will work for your family.
For example, if your dog is used to sleeping between the two of you, and you now want him to sleep on his blanket at the foot of the bed, start this training as early as possible. Realistically, there might also be times where you don’t want the dog on the bed, so make sure to practice having him sleep on a dog bed on the floor nearby, in a crate, or in another room.
Ideally, your dog will learn to be flexible with his sleeping arrangements. Most importantly, don’t just assume that your dog will go with the flow and accommodate the sudden change once the baby arrives. Create specific training situations that simulate you being distracted by something interesting in order to practice having him stay at the foot of the bed or on his bed on the floor while you attend to your activity, and later, the baby.
What about the baby’s room? Will your dog be allowed to accompany you into the nursery, or will you prefer that he wait by the door? Teaching a reliable “place” behavior is a nice compromise for many families. When your dog knows to hold a relaxed down-stay on his bed, a bed in the nursery becomes a comfortable hang-out spot. Be sure to practice this behavior often – in the nursery – even if his bed stays are stellar in other rooms. Dogs can be slow to generalize behaviors, so a dog with a great “place” behavior in the living room while you watch television might not immediately have a solid “place” behavior in the nursery when you’re busy with the baby and the scent of a ripe diaper pail is wafting nearby.
If you prefer that your dog stay out of the nursery, install a baby gate to simplify compliance with the new house rule. This is especially useful for a room where your dog has historically had access. Even the most athletic dogs can be taught to respect a baby gate.
Set up training sessions where you reward your dog for being on one side of the gate (with tasty treats or a food-stuffed Kong toy) while you’re in the nursery. Practice often, long before the baby arrives, and keep a tin of kibble or non-perishable dog treats in the nursery to continue to reinforce desired behaviors once the baby arrives. Maintaining a high rate of reinforcement not only supports your training, but can also help condition a positive association with the baby, since the rewards often come when the baby is nearby.
What’s That Smell?
Babies often smell like the products we put on them. To help lessen the dog’s natural curiosity in the baby, many trainers recommend habituating the dog to some of the most common odors (baby powder, diaper rash cream, baby lotion, etc.) ahead of time.
To do this, put a small amount of one product on a rag and leave it (out of reach) near the dog’s sleeping area for a couple of days. Take a day off between odors, but randomly work your way through all of the assorted products. The idea is for the dog’s interest in the novel odors to wane as they become an increasingly common part of the everyday environment. (It reminds me of how, when I first started teaching group dog training classes, my own dogs would give me a thorough sniff-down every time I came home. After a while, they got used to me smelling like I was “stepping out” on them, and the olfactory interrogation ceased!)
What’s All That Noise?!
Babies make a lot of noise! The sometimes seemingly endless wails emanating from an unhappy baby can easily stress the calmest of dogs (and humans!). Desensitizing your dog to baby sounds can help him stay relaxed when the baby is fussy and everyone is likely to be feeling the effects.
There are CDs and on-line sources (such as findsounds.com) of assorted baby noises ranging from baby babble to full-fledged wailing. To start, turn the volume all the way down and begin to slowly turn it up, watching for the first sign that your dog hears something. You’ll likely see an ear twitch, or maybe he’ll cock his head, but it shouldn’t be loud enough to cause any concern.
Let the sound play while you feed treats, while he eats a meal, or while you play his favorite game, and sometimes leave it on as simple background noise. After a couple of days, repeat the process at a slightly louder volume, slowly working the volume up to a more realistic level. As you progress, if your dog looks at all concerned, you’ve gone too far; lower the volume back to the level where he appeared not to care.
Plan for the Big Day
As the anticipated due date (or scheduled C-section) approaches and you pack your hospital bag, decide who will take care of the dog, and plan accordingly. Designate a person whose job is to look after the dog, either house-sitting in your home or taking the dog to her house for a few days. Make these arrangements well in advance, as babies are known to arrive early. The last thing you want to deal with in the heat of the moment is trying to remember if your dog sitter has a key!
The Happy Homecoming
When mom and baby come home for the first time, remember that the dog will likely be most excited to see mom. She should reunite with the dog first, without the baby, to help lower everyone’s stress levels and make sure everyone feels like they get to enjoy a proper greeting.
Your dog will likely be curious about the baby, and it’s fine to let them “meet” by allowing the dog to sniff (or briefly lick, if you’re comfortable with that) the baby’s feet. This should only be done under direct adult supervision.
We recommend letting the dog sniff the baby’s feet, rather than the baby’s face – not as a way of making the dog subordinate to the baby (be wary of trainers who recommend making the baby “alpha” over the dog), but as a responsible safety precaution. All dogs have teeth and it’s good practice to routinely keep those teeth away from your baby’s face, in favor of safer interactions, which will change as your baby grows.
Important: If your dog does not willingly investigate the baby, don’t force the issue! Let him acclimate at a pace that’s comfortable for him.
The Road Forward
As the family settles in to its new dynamic, there will be several things to consider. Many dogs are comfortable sharing space with a newborn, but quickly become concerned when the baby starts to crawl, and later walk. The baby’s newfound mobility means she can follow the dog, potentially invading his personal space. The increased coordination that accompanies mobility also signals the opportunity for the infant or toddler to interact with the dog in ways he’s not used to. Try as they might, infants and toddlers don’t pet dogs like more experienced adults do.
Parents must be sure to teach both species how to properly interact with each other. Take the time to thoroughly learn about dog body language in order to recognize the subtle signs of annoyance or discomfort that often go overlooked in seemingly innocent interactions between dogs and kids of all ages.
Most importantly, they must supervise every interaction. Shryock says a lack of awake, adult supervision is the most common mistake families make.
“People don’t take supervision as seriously as they need to,” she explains. “We are living in a distracted world, and people easily forget that when you’re looking at your phone, it’s easy to get engrossed in something. If your baby is crawling on the floor, and the dogs are around the corner, that can really become a problem quickly.”
Awake, adult supervision is not just about setting down the iPad. Parents must understand that lack of sleep or medication can negatively affect their ability to provide proper supervision. This is when employing a management strategy such as separating the dog behind a baby gate becomes so important. “Lack of proper supervision is where a lot of people make mistakes that really are preventable,” Shryock says.
Everyone makes parenting mistakes along the way, whether they are parenting a dog, a child or both. Knowledge is power. The more we know, the better prepared we are to handle issues as they arise – and they will! “It’s really important that this is ongoing education for families,” says Shryock. “Babies grow and dogs age, and we have to continue adjusting with every stage.”
To reach Jennifer Shryock or the Family Paws Parent Education, see familypaws.com or call (877) 247-3407.