Many parents-to-be often worry if their dog will behave well around their baby, or whether he will accept a new addition to the family. Even the most easy-going dogs will benefit from some preparation, because introducing a new baby to a dog in any household is a major lifestyle change, and the more you can prepare the more likely your dog is to succeed.
Prepare your dog for inevitable changes
Change to schedules: If your dog is used to a predictable feeding schedule, it’s a good idea to start varying your routine now. New parents often experience sleepless nights and frequent visitors which can easily throw everyone’s schedules. So start by helping your dog to feel comfortable with the unpredictable. This way, he’s less likely to exhibit attention-seeking behaviours when his internal body clock says it’s time to eat.
If your dog routinely “demands” to be taken for a walk every evening at 6.30pm sharp, consider for example walking some days at 5.00 pm and others at 9.00 pm. You may even go so far as to miss a walk occasionally and substitute a good mental enrichment activity instead (e.g. delivering his dinner via a Kong Wobbler in the garden, or simply scattering his biscuits in the grass for him to find).
Changes to rules: The most common rule changes that occur once baby arrives home are usually: will the dog still be allowed to sleep on your bed, be allowed on the sofa, and will you allow him access to the baby’s room? I encourage parents-to-be to think about what their dog is allowed to do now, and how this may need to change once they bring baby home. Ideally, start this training as early as possible. Don’t just assume that your dog will go with the flow and accommodate the sudden change once the baby arrives.
Prepare for strange baby smells: We all know dogs have an incredible sense of smell, so any new smells will trigger your dog’s curiosity. I advise parents-to-be to get their dogs used to the most common new odours such as baby powder and lotion by putting a small amount of one product on a piece of material and leave it out of reach but near your dog’s bed or crate, for a couple of days. Do this with all the different products you may use, making sure to have a break between odours.
Prepare for noise: Babies make a lot of noise, and this can easily stress the calmest of dogs. Getting your dog used to baby sounds can help him stay relaxed when the baby cries. There are CDs and on-line sources of assorted baby noises. The secret to preparing your dog successfully is to start with the volume turned all the way down and only then begin to slowly turn it up, watching for the first sign that your dog hears something. You’ll likely see an ear twitch, or maybe he’ll cock his head, but it shouldn’t be loud enough to cause any concern. Let the sound play while you feed treats, while he eats a meal, or while you play his favourite game, and sometimes leave it on as simple background noise. After a couple of days, repeat the process at a slightly louder volume, slowly working the volume up to a more realistic level. As you progress, if your dog looks at all concerned, you’ve gone too far – this is when you should lower the volume back to the level where he appeared not to care.
Tackle those training issues you’ve always meant to deal with, but haven’t!
As soon as you know you’re expecting, look at your dog’s obedience skills, and set a plan for tackling those behaviours that you’ve not been fond of for some time but have put up with. For example, maybe your dog jumps on people as they enter your home. You won’t want this when you’ve got baby in your arms, or when the midwife comes to visit.
It’s important to start training as soon as possible as these often well-rehearsed behaviours don’t go away overnight. Practice often, be consistent and be patient with your dog – using reward-based training. Dogs learn to repeat behaviours that are pleasurable to them – that’s why it really pays to reward all behaviours you want to see more of with tasty food (such as cheese or chicken).
New behaviours you may want to train BEFORE baby arrives
- Get your dog used to being separated
There are going to be times when you simply can’t actively supervise your dog while looking after your baby. This is when employing a management strategy such as separating your dog behind a baby gate becomes so important. Simply reward your dog for being on one side of a baby gate (with tasty treats or a food-stuffed Kong toy) while you’re on the other side e.g. in the nursery. Practice often, long before the baby arrives, and keep a supply of non-perishable dog treats (or his regular dry dinner) in the nursery to continue to reward calm behaviours once the baby arrives. Rewarding your dog in this way not only supports your training, but can also help condition a positive association with the baby, since the rewards often come when the baby is nearby.
- Teach a “on your spot” behaviour
Teaching a dog to reliably go to his bed and stay there until released will be an extremely helpful behaviour. I recommend having multiple spots for ease of access. When a dog can calmly stay on his spot in the living room, he can enjoy calm integration with the family, even when visitors are present. There will be lots of this laying around while you are busy with feeding, changing, and rocking your baby, so practice now. Put your feet up and give your dog a food-stuffed Kong. He’ll learn to entertain himself until further notice!
- Practice safe lead-walking
There’s nothing more off putting than walking a dog that is prone to lunging at things when out on walks – and it’s not safe when you’re pregnant or pushing your baby in a pram. So it’s really important that your dog learns not to pull. The quickest and most convenient tool you can use to teach your dog to comfortably wear a head halter or a front-clip harness. These will help you to physically manage your dog while working on lead walking skills, and are particularly helpful if you have a big, strong dog, as well as making it easier for other people to walk your dog after the baby arrives, when friends and family want to know what they can do to help.
First day home for baby
When you arrive home for the first time with your baby remember that your dog will probably be very excited to see you. Therefore, I advise new mums that the best approach is to allow your dog to greet you first without your baby present. This helps to lower everyone’s stress levels and make sure everyone feels like they get to enjoy a proper greeting. It’s also a good idea to have someone else take your dog on a long walk or activity before the introduction so they have the least possible amount of energy in their system!
Once your dog has calmed down, let someone bring your baby into the room. During this first meeting, don’t bring the baby too close. Your dog will naturally be curious but try not to yell at him or make any demands. This will likely frighten your dog and create a negative association with your baby. Positive associations are much more important at this stage that introductions and greetings. So make sure that each time your baby is getting attention you give your dog something enjoyable, such as a chew or stuffed Kong, that will keep him occupied and form positive associations with the baby.
It’s very important that ifyour dog does not willingly investigate your baby, do not force the issue. Instead, let him acclimatise at a pace that’s comfortable for him and ensure he has an escape route if he wishes to take himself off to somewhere quieter. It’s important that everyone stays calm, and if your dog is behaving nicely around the baby, be sure to point that good behaviour out by offering plenty of verbal praise and food rewards.
Active supervision is crucial for the safety of children around dogs
It is critical that you supervise every interaction between your dog and your baby. It’s not enough just being present in the same room – you need to be awake and alert. We live in a distracting world, and we can easily forget that when you’re looking at your phone, it’s easy to get engrossed in something. If you can’t supervise, this is when baby gates are fabulous tools.
Learn to understand what your dog is telling you about how he feels
We all tend to know a dog is unhappy if it growls, snaps or bites, but they give many more signals way before this stage that can give us a clue that they are feeling uncomfortable about a situation. Very subtle early signals can include behaviours such as looking away from the baby, or freezing slightly, licking their lips rapidly, or yawning.
If your dog does growl at your baby or child – under no circumstances shout or punish him, as this has the potential to make him more fearful and more likely to bite without warning in the future, having learned he gets punished for growling. Instead, calmly remove your child immediately.
Seek qualified help If you own a dog who already exhibits fear or aggression toward people, especially children, I strongly advise that you contact a qualified canine behaviourist well in advance of your due date. A behaviourist can help evaluate the situation and develop a training plan designed to keep everyone safe, while minimising your dog’s anxiety. The Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) (http://abtcouncil.org.uk/clinical-animal-behaviourists) or the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) will have a list of qualified animal behaviour practitioners in your area (www.apbc.org.uk/apbc/memberlist).