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Dogs and babies – there’s no cuter combination! But with all this cuteness also comes a lot of potential for safety issues. There is nothing that changes our lives quite to the extent that the arrival of a new baby does. It’s an exciting time, and it also means big changes in routine.
I’m currently around seven 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!
I’d like to share some of this journey with you in our new Preparing Dogs for Life with Baby blog series – this is Part 3, so if you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out Part 1 and Part 2.
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!
Safe Inclusion for Dogs
Without good preparation, it can become easy for new parents to get frustrated and end up isolating the family dog.
Maybe he’s too interested in the baby and he can’t keep his nose to himself. Maybe she’s a big klutz and she keeps coming dangerously close to trampling the baby. Maybe he’s just underfoot too much and Mom keeps tripping over him!
These can be big problems, to be sure, but isolating the dog from the family is only going to make matters worse. Babies are growing, developing and changing all the time! How is Fido supposed to get to know this new little family member, and how to act around her, without being present?
Figuring out strategies for safe inclusion now will make it easier to implement them when the baby arrives.
Because let’s be honest, we don’t want to turn our pampered couch loungers into sad backyard rejects!
The Five Types of Supervision
That’s where supervision comes into play! You’ll actually hear this a lot – people love to remind new parents to “supervise” dogs and kids. So what does that look like? Family Paws has a wonderful handout that outlines the Five Types of Supervision. Turns out, supervision is more than just being in the same room as your dog and baby.
This one is pretty self explanatory – dogs and babies or children in the same space with no parent present. This can even mean a parent is in the same space but is asleep.
This is not safe, and not a good idea, even when the baby is in equipment. Babies in carseats, swings, and even Pack ‘n Plays or cribs should not be left alone with dogs.
So no matter how cute it may seem, this means no dogs snoozing unattended in the nursery. There’s too much that can go wrong too fast.
This one is very common. A parent or adult may be present, but they are not actively monitoring the dog and baby.
They may be busy with another household task, absorbed by a book, a show, or their phone. This also is not safe – interactions move from safe to unsafe very quickly.
Passive supervision often turns to Reactive supervision quickly.
We weren’t paying attention, and now the pup has wandered too close to the high chair and is trying to steal a snack. Or our newly mobile baby is crawling towards the dog who is in her resting place. Yikes!
Instead of preventing the situation, we react by scolding either the dog or the baby. This doesn’t set either up for success, and doesn’t help them develop a positive relationship down the road.
This is where we’ll be focusing today! Proactive supervision is the best choice when we know our attention will be elsewhere.
Using separation (different rooms) or success stations is the best way to ensure that everyone stays safe and happy when we aren’t able to facilitate and actively supervise.
Active supervision means full, awake adult guidance. This may look different depending on the age of the baby or child, and the temperament of the dog.
What’s important is that the adult is ahead of the game, intentionally creating an environment where both the child and the dog are relaxed, happy, and having a good experience.
What’s a Success Station?
Using a success station is the most inclusive way to practice Proactive Supervision. So what is a success station?
In the words of the Family Paws Success Stations handout, “A success station is any designated spot that a dog is limited to so that they have no options but to succeed.”
Common types of success stations are gated areas, x-pens, crates, and for families with non-mobile babies, tethers. Using these management tools allows us to relax, knowing that both our human and canine family members are safe and comfortable.
But the key to true success is making sure your dog is familiar and comfortable with his success station before it’s needed.
Being Proactive About Proactive Supervision
Try this one evening, while your family is home. Put your dog into a bedroom and close the door while the family congregates in the common space. How does your dog react? Is she relaxed and comfortable? Or is she upset and whining?
How about if you put up a baby gate or x-pen? Your dog is on one side of the gate, you and your partner are on the other. Is he okay with this, or does he paw at the gate, or even try to climb it?
There are many ways to create some space between your baby and your dog. But for a dog that has never had to experience this kind of separation before, some practice may be required. By beginning to introduce these new concepts to our dogs NOW, we’ll have a much better time easing them into it when, say, we also have a stinky blowout to deal!
So how do I get started?
- First things first, explore your home and think about what kinds of success stations would work best for you. Then, begin setting them up.
- Next, put your dog into their success station and reward them with a tasty treat! Begin building positive associations right away.
- Slowly build comfort and duration. Treat your dog for staying behind the barrier for a few seconds, then a few more, a minute or so, a few minutes, and so on! At first, make it easy by sticking close by. You could work on this while sitting nearby and reading a book, or even while watching a movie! We want to make sure we’re not adding too many things at once, so let’s focus on duration by itself before we make it more challenging.
- Use enrichment! One way to kickstart these positive associations, AND to help build up that duration is to use enrichment items like stuffed KONGS, or puzzle toys. Once your dog learns that she gets these special activities in her station, she’ll be much more excited to spend time there!
- Once you’ve built up a strong duration and your dog seems relaxed in her success station, you can begin to add in some distance – moving away from the station periodically, and slowly building up the length of time you spend away.
- Once your dog is solid with both duration and distance, it’s time to get a little silly. Add in some distraction like movement (yourself, family members), noise (different voices, recordings of babies crying or laughing), or anything else you can think of that may present a challenge!
- Even once your dog seems to grasp the concept, is relaxed, and can comfortably hang out in a success station, continue to make it a positive experience! Making sure treats are handy nearby so you can “pay” your pup for going to their station is a great idea. Continuing to use enrichment while she hangs out in her station is always a great idea, too!
Every dog is different, and so is every family. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting creative and finding what solutions work best for YOU!
For me, personally, my house has been undergoing renovations, so I haven’t been able to think as much about what success stations will actually look like when baby arrives.
However, lots of house projects have given us opportunities to practice different versions of separation and divided space.
For example, right now, our family room is having the ceiling replaced, and is too dusty for use. So, we have a gate up, separating the space from the rest of the house.
Although that room is ultimately going to be very different, the dogs are getting used to seeing a gate up, and getting comfortable with not having access to that portion of the house.
Plus, sometimes we have other people working on parts of the house, so the dogs get to practice hanging out in a bedroom with a stuffed KONG for periods of time.
During training, it’s sometimes nice to work with each dog individually. In the past, I may have just had one dog stay on their bed while I work with the other.
But because I want x-pens to be a normal part of our everyday life, I’ve been using one to separate the dogs during individual training sessions.
Getting used to proactive supervision and management tools like gates, pens, crates and tethers doesn’t have to be an exact science. The important thing is to start thinking about what will be useful, and get everyone in the family comfortable with the presence of these tools!
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.