By Sandy Modell
Alexandria, VA – For many people, their dog is their first baby. But when you bring a human baby into your home, everything changes. Baby is now the center of your universe, while Fido wonders what all the fuss is about.
Preparing your dog for a baby’s arrival is the best way to ensure a safe and successful integration between baby and dog. Many new parents start by bringing home the baby’s blanket so that the dog can get used to the new smell. If the dog reacts positively, everything’s good, right? Well, not necessarily.
Dogs accept new family members over time as they develop a bond through familiarity and positive associations. Start building these associations in the weeks and months prior to the baby’s arrival. Playing sounds of babies crying, screaming, cooing, and laughing at low volume first and pairing these noises with treats can familiarize your dog to these noises while making positive associations. Walking around the house with a baby doll or a sack of potatoes in a baby blanket is another effective way to start creating a new picture of what your dog will eventually start seeing.
Quite often the early stages of having a new baby at home only peaks your dog’s curiosity. Usually, it’s only when the baby starts crawling or walking around that problems arise. So, what’s changed? A toddler’s sudden mobility can startle a dog. Toddlers are notoriously unpredictable creatures, even for the calmest of pets. They crawl—something your dog is not used to seeing humans do. They change speed and direction frequently. They fall a lot. They screech and cry. And if they’re able to catch up to a dog, they often hit, pull its fur, or try to climb on its back. That’s a lot for a dog to take. Because growling and acting aggressively are usually a last resort for a dog before biting, it’s important to notice small behavioral signs of stress and discomfort so that you can separate dog and child before things go wrong.
To help you navigate through these changes and keep both your toddler and dog safe, here are some helpful tips:
Create a Success Station for Your Dog
Whether it is teaching your dog to stay on a mat, or using a tether, crate, or baby gate, having a location that provides separation from the baby will keep your baby safe and set your dog up for success. Baby gates across doorways allow the dog and your toddler to see each other but gives them both the freedom to play and nap without interference.
Never Leave a Dog and Toddler Unsupervised
This is the most important step in keeping your toddler and your dog safe. Toddlers are unpredictable and uncoordinated. Dogs can hurt a child, unintentionally or otherwise. To keep all your family members safe, never leave a dog alone with a toddler for even a minute.
All dogs may bite when pushed to their limits. It takes only seconds for a toddler to pull a dog’s tail or fall on your sleeping dog. Active and proactive adult supervision should be constant when your dog and baby are together.
Practice Handling Your Dog
Dogs that are used to having all parts of their bodies handled are more likely to accept uncoordinated handling by toddlers. As soon as possible, start teaching your dog to love being handled. Practice looking in your dog’s ears, holding his paws, rubbing his fur, and tugging gently on his tail. Talk to him calmly, rewarding him for accepting all types of handling. Your dog should associate handling with good things, like praise and treats.
Teach Your Child to How to Pet Your Dog
Spend time each day teaching your toddler how to interact with your dog. Sit close to your dog with your toddler on your lap. Teach your toddler the gentle one-hand stroke long way along the dog’s back.
Teach Your Toddler to Respect Your Dog’s Things
While many dogs will tolerate having a child play with their toys, bones, or food bowls, others will not. It’s important that you teach your toddler to leave your dog’s things alone. Give your dog space and privacy while he eats. Teach your toddler how to give the dog treats. If your child picks up the dog’s toys or the dog picks up the child’s toy, exchange it for one of their own.
When to Get Help
Ideally, you should start preparing your dog at least six months before the baby’s arrival. If you are not comfortable with your dog’s body language around your baby or toddler, or if your dog has growled, snapped, nipped, or bitten your toddler, consider contacting a positive trainer experienced in this area. Positive reinforcement works for both dogs and toddlers and is the best way to teach them how to live together in a safe and happy environment.
Sandy Modell, CPDT-KA, is the Founder, Owner, and Head Trainer of Wholistic Hound Academy, Alexandria’s award winning, premier canine training and learning center — offering classes and private lessons in puppy training, adult dog manners, behavior modification, agility, dog sports and canine fitness and conditioning, kids and dogs, pre-pet planning and pet selection. Classes starting soon! Visit www.wholistichound.com to enroll in our programs, and like us on Facebook.com/wholistichound.