I’m currently around six months pregnant. With two sensitive dogs in my life, baby prep has meant a lot more training than nursery decorating for me.
As a Family Paws Parent Educator, this kind of preparation is extremely important to me – also pretty fun!
In the first part of our Preparing Dogs for Life with Baby blog series, I started by discussing the many factors we need to consider when making a plan. Read about making a baby plan for your dog here.
Today, we’re going to talk about how to make sure the behaviors your dog already knows are “baby-proof.”
You’ll also benefit from our Bringing Home Baby webinar, which covers everything I’m doing to help get my dogs ready for my baby!
What does your dog know?
Before you begin strengthening and proofing known cues, let’s make sure your dog knows a few basics. These behaviors might include:
- Comfortable behind gate/in other room
- Comfortable in crate/xpen
- Stationing behavior (go to mat)
- Back up
If your dog doesn’t know any or some of these behaviors, it’s a good idea to start teaching them now! You can always reach out to a positive reinforcement trainer in your area if you need some guidance.
My dogs have most of these down but we have not worked on “back up” in a long time. This is one we’re dusting off and working on again!
What are your cues?
A “cue” is what indicates to a dog that we’d like them to perform a certain behavior. Many times, what we think our cues are, and what our cues really are, are two different things.
Does your dog sit when she hears the word “sit,” or does she sit when she sees you pull out a cookie? Do you use a physical gesture and a word at the same time?
It can be helpful to make a video of yourself asking your dog to perform their known behaviors.
You might see yourself do things you didn’t realize you were doing!
For example, stepping into your dog when you ask for that sit, or repeating the word “stay” five times during the behavior!
I recently made a video of myself practicing our “stay on mat” while pretending to bounce a baby (more on that below!) and noticed that I was inadvertently using my hands instead of the verbal cue alone.
This is great feedback for my next session, as I can make a mental note to keep my hands on the “baby” and focus on strengthening the verbal cue. I need my hands for the baby, not for the dog!
Getting behaviors on verbal cues
Visual cues, like hand signals, can be, well, handy! But when your hands are full with a squirming infant, being able to use verbal cues alone is important.
Many people think they have their behaviors on verbal cues, but use their bodies to communicate at the same time without noticing.
Try this: Put your hands in your pockets and ask your dog for a known behavior. Did she respond? Great! That verbal cue is likely well established. Not so much? That’s okay, we can work on it!
To attach a new cue to a known behavior, simply use the new cue, followed by the old cue, and reinforce.
Then you begin to fade the old cue, by making it less and less perceptible, until the new cue is standing alone.
So is you use a hand signal for sit but want it on verbal that might look like: “Sit,” hand gesture, mark, treat. You can make the hand gesture less perceptible each repetition by making the movement of your hand smaller and smaller until your hand remains still.
Kayla, my boss at Journey Dog Training, has a good video of her working with her dog Barley on some cue discrimination.
You might also find that the “can you listen when?” game is helpful here!
Now let’s add a little chaos!
Once you have your basics down and are feeling confident with your verbal cues, it’s time to add some distraction! Here are a few ways we’ve been working on “baby proofing” our behaviors:
- Practice in the presence of new equipment. Especially equipment that moves or makes noise!
- Practice while playing recording of baby noises or crying babies.
- Practice while holding a “fake baby” in your arms. This doesn’t have to be a doll, but can be anything from a sack of potatoes to a pillow!
- Practice with the “baby” in your arms while moving as if you were holding a baby – bouncing, pacing, hunched over baby as if feeding, rocking in a chair, etc.
In the video below, you’ll see one of my dogs practicing relaxing behind a baby gate while I work on teaching the other to lie on a bed while I’m rocking a “baby.”
Your dog and your baby thank you for all of this prep work. Keep at it! You’ll also benefit from our Bringing Home Baby webinar, which covers everything I’m doing to help get my dogs ready for my baby!
Tressa is a KPA certified dog trainer and writer living in Northern California. She specializes in working with behaviorally difficult dogs, as well as in addressing the challenges that often arise in households with both dogs and children. She works as the Canine Enrichment Coordinator at the Humane Society of Sonoma County, where she also teaches classes and workshops. She lives with her husband, their two dogs, and cat. When she’s not teaching or hanging out with shelter dogs, you can find her hiking with her dogs, or reading books.