Preparing a Dog for a New Baby
The question often comes up with young couples where life together begins with a dog, but someday the family grows to include a new baby. Preparation starts long before the arrival of the new bundle of joy. The introduction of a new baby will be far less stressful for everyone if you make the necessary preparations ahead of time. And when done correctly, you can ensure that things will go more smoothly. The sooner you begin, the more time you have to prepare, and the better chance you will have of a successful transition.
Prepare In Advanced
If you get a dog knowing that you will be starting a family at some point, or if you will have grandchildren in your future, prepare ahead of time and be proactive with training so that your dog gets accustomed to kids.
First and foremost, build confidence, optimism and calmness in your dog. This will help your dog handle an new situation better. Then, part of your socialization with your dog should include children. It doesn’t have to be fancy or all the time. Your goal - calmness, confidence, and optimism. There does not have to be interaction, especially if you don’t have friends with babies. But merely going on outings to a park, a playground, past a school or a sporting event, or on walks where you pass by strollers and moms with children, are opportunities to teach proper lessons to your dog and allows you to build positive associations and calmness. Consider utilizing noise work as well. You can get CDs and use YouTube to play the sounds of children and babies and teach your dog how to remain calm and confident.
It is a good idea to have all the basics in obedience cues covered with your dog. Whether you self-train or take your dog to obedience class, you will want your dog to have cue control with the basics.
If at all possible, also have your dog work with children, either from friends or from children you meet when covering the interaction part of socialization. Have the children cue and provide rewards. That gives your dog practice in learning to listen to children and also provide a positive working association with them.
Even very well-trained dogs with great cue control can freak out when a baby becomes part of the family. Your dog must also have a good foundation in proper choices and decision-making skills and have a handle on managing his or her behavior as well. Your relationship must be strong, so your dog is good at respecting you and the home space. Confidence, handling novelty, and flexibility are essential factors that need to be addressed. That can be accomplished with confidence-boosting games and “ditching the routine.” Life will get turned upside down when the baby arrives, and your dog needs the best chance he can get to handle that.
One of the best gifts you can give your dog and yourself is teaching your dog to be calm. An off-switch, where your dog can calm down quickly from any activity, even when there is still energy to spare, will be a lifesaver for you. Calmness needs to be rewarded just like any other behavior. Exercise is great, but babies will demand a lot of your attention, too, and so you will find that sometimes the activities you regularly did with your dog will have to wait or get cut short. Exercising your dog is not the only answer, and in fact, that can actually work against you in that you are conditioning your dog and building stamina and endurance. So make sure to make growing calmness part of your training!
Desensitize to Sounds, Smells, and Stuff
When doing training with various sounds (I call this Noise Work), include baby sounds - like crying, gurgles, and babies laughing. Play baby sounds over a speaker at low volume initially but increase over time. Pair these sounds with calming games and treats.
You will want to desensitize your dog to certain toys and baby items like bouncers, swings, strollers, and cradles that move or make noise. Teach your dog to ignore them and to remain calm. Some of these items can be a bit scary for some dogs, so allow yourself plenty of time to do this.
One of the best things I ever did was boundary train my dogs. There are so many applications for the behavior. Having my dogs boundary trained helped me immensely when we brought home our second baby. Boundary training enabled me to have my dogs give me space when needed and have it be a positive association, rather than a negative one. Giving my dogs “a job” of being on their boundary while I took care of baby things gave all of us peace of mind.
Additionally, make the nursery off-limits unless the dog is permitted to enter. Training the doorway threshold as a boundary gives you a buffer and control of the space. Train this so that you can be in the room, rummage around with stuff, squeak baby toys, and even drop items, including food on the floor and your dog won’t enter unless given permission. Practice coming in with permission and going out on cue before the baby arrives.
Before Baby Arrives
Introduce your dog to as much baby stuff as possible. As you get the necessary items (high chair, cradle, bouncy seat, play gym, stroller, etc.), have these items out, and play games (like Sniff It Out) with your dog. Teach your dog calmness and confidence around these items.
Don’t give your dog extra attention before the baby arrives, or your dog will be in for a shock when the baby does come home, and all of a sudden, the attention decreases. Instead, prepare your dog for the change in lifestyle and make the adjustments you can foresee now. Prepare your dog for less attention! Change up any routines you have and be unpredictable, so your dog learns to be more flexible. The expectations around certain activities need to be the same, but “if and when” those activities happen will be random. For example, if mom has always walked the dog, have dad take the dog for walks so they can build a relationship with walks, too.
There are going to be things you will want your dog to ignore. Baby toys can look just like dog toys. Diapers and other baby items can smell tempting. They are new and novel! Teach your dog how to ignore these items with games like Room Service. Also, teach cues like “Drop” and “Leave It” for control when you need it. Some dogs can learn the difference between their toys and the baby’s toys. I did this with my dogs through games, so the process was positive and fun. My Border Collie even learned the difference between her squeaky baseball and the baby’s squeaky soccer ball!
You might also need to prepare your dog for the situation of being home alone or with a friend or family member for a couple of days while you are at the hospital. Make the necessary arrangements ahead of time, and even run through it with your dog before the big day arrives. If your dog is going to stay with someone, be sure to visit that place and get your dog comfortable there. If someone is going to stay at your home, have them over and go through things they will be doing for your dog - feedings, play and walks, etc.
Bringing Home Baby
While you are at the hospital, if someone can bring a baby blanket home that has the smell of you and the baby on it, that’s great. Allow the dog to sniff it, and create positive associations and calmness around it.
If someone can take your dog for a walk and play a bit, and then bring your dog down into calmness before you come home, perfect!
When you arrive home, have one person stay with the baby while the other goes and says hello to the dog. Then switch. Allow your dog to smell the new scents on you before you bring the baby into the picture.
You know your dog best, and you may need to put your dog on a leash for the initial introduction. Taking precautions never hurts! This way, there is an element of control in case something happens. Allow your dog to drag the leash. If your dog seems excited or nervous around the baby, the leash allows you to gain control until your dog settles and gets used to the newcomer.
Introductions should start with you standing and holding the baby. Allow your dog to sniff the baby’s feet. Do not do face-to-face greetings. Then have your dog move away for some yummy treats and help promote calmness if necessary. Use your cues like Sit and Down to maintain control and teach your dog acceptable behavior around the baby. Praise your dog, use a calm voice, and pair with treats to promote positive emotions. If your dog does not want to approach the baby, that is fine. See below for tips.
Adopt a “No Pressure” Perspective
Never force your dog to do something that makes him uncomfortable. Not all dogs are keen on the idea of this strange creature invading their home. Never cue your dog to interact with the baby. Never use “Come” and call your dog to sniff. Allow your dog to adjust and take things at his own pace and comfort level. Always pair your baby with positive things for your dog, including lessening pressure and getting space. If your dog wants to retreat to a safe place away from the baby, that is perfectly okay. Your dog needs time to get used to the idea of a new baby.
Some dogs can be quite confused, nervous, or fearful. For these dogs, time to adjust is crucial. So is no pressure. Here is a game that you can play to help build confidence and positive associations with your baby and have fun without putting pressure on your dog.
Treat - Retreat Game
Hold your baby in your lap. Your baby can have a toy to play with, be sleeping, nursing, etc.
- Have a bowl of treats next to you.
- Toss a treat over your dog's head, and away from you. Make your dog turn around and move away from you to get the treat.
- Wait for your dog to orient back to you again.
- Then toss another treat over his head and away from you.
- Play this no-pressure game to teach your dog that taking space is a good thing and for positive associations with the baby.
- It might take just a couple of sessions, or a few days, or more. You will see your dog getting closer and closer to you after turning around. Your dog is starting to feel more comfortable!
- It is up to the dog to decide how much space he needs to feel comfortable. Never force your dog to get closer or rush the process! Let your dog decide, and you will see over time that your dog will handle the idea of baby better and better and not feel so anxious or scared.
- Play until your dog feels comfortable being next to you and taking treats.
Building the Right Associations
You want to be sure to give your dog attention when your baby is awake, not just when the baby is asleep. Help your dog learn how to behave and be a part of the family when the baby is active. You want positive associations with all things baby!
Pair everything baby with treats, dog toys, affection, praise, calmness.....!
SUPERVISION, SUPERVISION, SUPERVISION!!!
Supervision is active, not passive. You need to be there with your baby and your dog and supervise. Even the sweetest dog can bite. Babies don’t know that pulling on a dog’s fur, tail, or ears can hurt. Be there and keep both your baby and your dog safe! NEVER LEAVE YOUR BABY ALONE WITH YOUR DOG, NO MATTER HOW DECILE OR SWEET YOUR DOG MIGHT BE. I never put my baby on the floor with my dog unless I was right there, supervising. My dogs never showed any aggression towards my boys, but things can happen real fast. You never know, and I am not willing to take the chance and risk harm to either my pups or my children.
Build Mutual Respect
The relationship between your dog and your baby will need time to grow. It will not happen overnight. Not all dogs and children become best friends, but some will build a unique and beautiful bond that will last a lifetime.
You need to not only train your dog to behave appropriately, but you will also need to teach your child how to interact appropriately and respect the dog. It goes both ways! Overly affectionate children can quickly become overbearing to the dog and cause the dog to want to avoid the child. Children want to hug and cuddle, and this can make a dog very uncomfortable. Never let your child sit on your dog! That is so rude and disrespectful and can be dangerous for both dog and child. Be an advocate for your child and your dog and help them build a good relationship through appropriate interactions built on mutual respect.
Learn to Read Your Dogs Signals
Understanding dog body language is crucial. Dogs will give off clear signals through body language that will let you know when they have had enough. Don’t ignore these signals or let your child continue to interact. Lip licking, yawning, turning the head away, scratching, checking the genital area, still and stiff, among others, are signs that your dog needs space. Never punish growling - be thankful for the warning! Watch! Listen! Act!
Teach Proper Behavior In Real-Life Situations
Teach your dog what you want, when you want it. For example, when your baby is on the floor playing, have your dog lie down with you give your dog treats. Begin with yourself between your dog and your baby. Once you know your dog is comfortable, all three of you can be down on the floor together and share some family time. Get your dog used to your baby down at his level and being calm and respecting your baby’s space. Interactions can happen when your baby is on your lap, and treats can be put on the floor for your dog to eat, so there is no pressure for contact, and so the critical lesson of four on the floor can be reinforced. Practice cues as well, but don’t forget to teach your dog how to manage his behavior through games.
Go On Walks Together
Walks are a fantastic activity for your dog. It gives your dog the freedom to be a dog and sniff, burn off some energy, get outside and enjoy the outdoors, and engage in an activity with the baby that builds a sense of family. You can even take walks with the stroller before your baby arrives (if you get your stroller early) so your dog can get accustomed to the stroller and walking near it.
Growing Up Together
It is wonderful to have children grow up with a dog. But the proper lessons and relationships need to be built, and that requires adult guidance.
Have different spaces set up so that you can have your dog and child separated for when you have things to do, or for when they need breaks from each other. Then have a space where all of you can be together and hang out and play. You are the teacher and guide for both your child and your dog, so they can learn to be with each other safely and build a good relationship.
If anything you see makes you uneasy, or if your dog shows any behavior that makes you uncomfortable, contact a professional trainer for help.
With dogs, you just never know what will happen until you are in it. So, take all necessary precautions to give yourself and your dog the best outcome possible. Be proactive and take measures to prepare and prevent as best you can, increasing your probability for success and minimizing stress for everyone. With proper preparations and time, the training you put into place will make the difference. That and treats - lots and lots of treats!