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 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!
I’d like to share some of this journey with you in our new Preparing Dogs for Life with Baby blog series. If you’re expecting a little one, or considering beginning your journey into parenthood, these posts will give you some practical tips and tricks that you can apply to your own life.
Even the most easy-going dog may be challenged by some of the changes that come along with a new baby. Preparing ahead with training and a fail-proof management plan will go a long way in maintaining harmony in your home.
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!
If you need extra help preparing your dog for a baby, you can schedule a consultation with me – I’ll help you out via video chat.
Know Your Dog and What Will Concern Her
The first step in this preparation process is figuring out what exactly you need to prepare for! Luckily, no one knows your dog better than you. I have two dogs, and I knew right away that each would have separate challenges.
Muchacho (aka Mooch) is my more “challenging dog.” He was rescued from the streets of Tijuana as a puppy, and has a lot of fears. He is dog reactive, and can be reactive to strangers as well.
Once he’s been carefully introduced to new people over time, he is the most affectionate guy you’ve ever met. And the same can go for well-matched dogs that he’s been introduced to with care. So with Muchacho, I predict my challenges will be:
- The initial homecoming – I am planning a home birth, but my dogs will not be present. For many people “homecoming” is mom coming back home with the new baby, but for us it’ll be the opposite. The dogs will be arriving back home, where I’ll already be with the baby.
- Acclimating to new noises and movements, especially startling cries. The Train Away App can be great for this.
- Eye contact as baby’s vision develops. Mooch finds direct eye contact from people he doesn’t know well very confrontational and upsetting.
- Development of mobility, lack of stability. These toddling motions are often scary for dogs!
My other dog, Koa, is a much more confident dog. She does fine with strange people, although she is generally aloof.
One challenge with Koa is that she does not like “horseplay” or sudden movements. Wrestling, play fighting, and similar activities stress her out.
She is particularly sensitive and vigilant about this around children. One of the houses we’ve lived in had a swimming pool, and while Koa was fine with adults in the pool, she became stressed when children were in the pool.
She would circle the pool, vocalizing anxiously, and actually try to pull kids out of the pool if they were near enough to the edge. As endearing as this concern may be, it’s clear that it comes from stress and it creates the potential for a lot of inappropriate behaviors.
The other potential issue is that Koa has a history of resource guarding food items. While she has not shown guarding behaviors to humans, there’s no guarantee that this behavior wouldn’t crop up in this new situation she’ll soon be in. So with Koa my possible challenges will be:
- Distress noises from the baby.
- Development of mobility, lack of stability.
- Development of mobility, access to resources.
- Baby being passed from person to person, especially if the people are not familiar to her.
Think hard about what stresses your dog out, what excites your dog, and what other challenges might come up for your dog.
Ask Yourself Questions About Your Dog’s Needs
If you’re expecting, I encourage you to sit down and have an honest conversation with your partner.
What potential challenges may your particular dogs have?
Each of you may see something the other does not. This does not mean that your dog is not suited to live with children, or that they can’t develop a wonderful bond down the road.
But being practical and thinking ahead about what potential issues could arise is your best bet for setting your dog up for success!
Ask yourself, “How will my dog react if…”
“…I come home with baby in my arms, perhaps after being away for a night or two?”
“…baby cries for the first time?”
“…I am up and down at strange hours of the night for feedings?”
“…I am sensitive or sore and unable to bend down to pet, be jumped on, etc?”
“…new equipment is introduced around the house?”
“…the baby is passed from one adult to another?”
What other situations can you imagine having a new baby will create? How will your dog fit into that picture?
Make A Plan to Smooth Things Over
Based on your assessment of your dog’s potential sensitivities, and your thoughts about how your dog will fit into the picture in various baby scenarios, you can begin to make a plan.
A very substantial part of that plan may be management, and that’s absolutely okay! Management is a key part of any successful dog/child household! What behaviors do you need to teach? What behaviors do you need to strengthen?
After my initial assessment, I felt like I had a sense of what each dog may need:
- Counter conditioning to baby noises. Although recordings are still different from the “real deal,” this will give us a head start. Counter conditioning in this case means pairing the sound with something pleasant – tasty food! By doing this I can change the association of the baby noises for my dogs into something positive.
- Strong stationing skills. Being able to send each dog to a mat or crate will be enormously helpful. This is a great alternative to behaviors like getting under foot when the dogs are concerned about weird baby sounds, to create space when given valuable resources, to prevent unwanted behaviors around guests, and in general to making sure the dogs don’t infringe on the baby’s space when we’re hanging out as a family.
- Comfort behind barriers. When mobility comes into play, or when full, active supervision is not possible, using gates, x-pens or other barriers will be important. Luckily, Koa loves her crate. But I don’t want that to be our only option, so we will practice relaxing behind baby gates and x-pens. Having flexibility to use a variety of tools is important to me!
- Practice with known cues in different body positions and with additional distractions. Being able to communicate with a baby in my arms, while feeding the baby, or during other situations that arise, will be very important. Going back through our repertoire of known behaviors now will help us spot any weak points. This will make it easier to incorporate the “real life” distraction of our new family member.
Adding equipment that will be needed – like baby gates – ahead of time is a great way to neutralize these new items. Other baby equipment that may take up space, move, or make noise, are good to introduce ahead of time.
We want to reduce the amount of “surprises” that pop up at once. Each new thing will seem much smaller and less significant when introduced on its own.
As silly as it sounds, practicing with a “baby” in your arms is a great way to prepare. This will not only to prepare your dog for the new picture, but also get you used to giving cues with a baby in tow. We’ll discuss this more in the next segment of this series!
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.