You’ve had a dog for a while — or maybe you took it as a baby step (pardon the pun) toward seeing how you would handle a family and all the responsibility involved with caring for another life.
But now you’ve committed to the idea of both. And 9 months later, it’s no longer a concept. You have your very own hairless puppy.
Unlike a lot of trainers and people who parrot dog advice without the joy of experiencing a child, I’m finding that plenty of points come to mind given that I’ve just walked that walk with our infant son.
I’ve been around all sorts of dog breeds and mixes, but being around Alaskan Malamutes as my base breed has taught me a lot over the years. Because these dogs aren’t “once trained, always trained,” dealing with them isn’t too much different from dealing with a child.
They talk back, they listen for tone to determine how serious you are and they even occasionally go overboard.
I was raised by a pack of wolves — my dad’s Malamutes, that is. He trusted them, and I trust my dogs. But there are certain rules you must establish and maintain throughout the life of your dog as your baby grows.
Preparing for Baby’s Arrival
So, you’ve rushed off to the hospital suddenly. You were at home watching the big game, and suddenly your partner turns and says, “I think my water broke!” Your journey begins.
But your dog has no idea what is going on. He can sense something is different with the belly, the shifting of furniture and the smells (that we can’t even begin to detect).
Did you arrange for someone to look after your pet? Do you have a hierarchy established in your house? What’s your home structure like? These are just a handful of questions. Before you rush off to the hospital, get these basics in order.
Here’s a punch list of items you should plan for, and it’s what we did during pre-labor:
- Dogs are pack-oriented and need their boundaries. They feed off our energy, too. So make sure your leadership is established. No dogs on the bed or couches, or anywhere you might place your infant. That place is now off-limits to your dog, as it should have been previously. Establish or re-establish that now, not when you are functioning on 3 hours of sleep and distracted by crying or wrist-deep in poop.
- Order any new furniture early. This allows your dog to become familiar with the changing environment. We made the nursery off-limits for the first stages. This will create a border in their minds. Eventually you may allow them to explore the area, but always use recall to bring them out of the room. This will maintain the boundary, and both parents should practice this.
- During your planning visits to the hospital, let the dog sniff you when you come home. This will make those smells less foreign and will come into play when the baby comes home.
- Arrange for someone to care for your pets. You don’t know how long labor will last. We arranged for a dog boarder to pick up our dogs because we have no family here in England. Ask a family member or friend if you have that option.
Here Comes Baby
Now you’re in the hospital and focused on all the energy in the room. It’s a joyous moment that changes your life forever. Whether you have a new boy or girl, when you come home you and your partner will both be exhausted in different ways. When my wife and I came home from the hospital, we had almost everything in place (we are über planners), but bits and bobs will come up. Why stress yourselves out with the larger issues if you don’t have to?
Regardless of who you arranged to watch your dog, make sure that your best buddy comes back a day or 2 after you do. This is important to establish your routine as parents. It will create a calmer energy for your dog. When your dog does return home, make sure he has had some good exercise to partially exhaust him. The excitement of returning home plus all the new scents will cause loads of stimulation.
Here are some practices we observed — and the rewards are still returning now:
- Allow your dog to greet you in a calm manner. This isn’t a routine change but a way to show the dog you are pleased and happy while allowing him to smell the changes.
- Remember when you came home from the hospital-planning visits? Now you reek of those scents, plus a cuter one: your baby. Claim his/her scent. Burp clothes, blankets, and other clothing or accessories are a great way to introduce the baby’s scent. Challenge your dog to sniff from a distance. Maintain the boundaries for now. Once you introduce the baby, this will help maintain a calm state. We use the key word “mine” with all items of our son’s, including our son.
- Whoever is holding your newborn should also be in a calm state. Again, let the dog sniff from a distance. Maintain the boundaries and allow the dog to sniff. Use praise when the dog is exhibiting proper distance and sniffing. As time passes, you will allow closer interaction.
- If your dog is overzealous: Take him for a long walk and try these steps again.
Eventually closer interaction will happen, but these basic steps will ensure that a long-term positive association will take hold. As your baby grows and develops, gradually increase the interaction, but remember one key point: Safety of your baby is the top priority.
Never leave dog and baby in a room unattended. Even a well-behaved dog may become curious and accidentally injure a baby by sniffing too closely or trying to peer over the edge of a crib.
Work with a trainer who specializes in baby introductions if you have any concerns. There have been instances where babies and toddlers have been injured or worse, but it is less about breed and more about training and temperament.
Working with our Malamutes, I’ve learned — as has my wife — to read behavior a mile way. Pay attention to that energy. The best way to maintain a calmer energy is to not neglect your routine and interaction with your canine.
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When the baby is awake, spend time with your dog as well. When the baby sleeps, let that be a down time for the dog, too. This will prevent potential jealousy and maintain a calm command of the home. Gradually closer interaction will happen, and your dog will accept the baby as much as you do.
A fun observation: Our Duncan has now tried to present his squeaky monkey toy for our son to throw. He can’t throw it yet, but I have a feeling it will happen soon, in addition to teaching him where the cookie jar is.
Dealing With Extended Family
As the holidays descend upon us, families will gather and create a lot of unfocused and chaotic energy. You may have family members who bring their pets to your home or visit homes with dogs.
Once you have your routine with your small pack, be aware of introducing your child to the larger family pack. Make sure to establish the same rules as in your own home. Ask your family members to sequester their pets to the guest room, and follow the steps above as you would in your home.
Once you are at their home, prevent any direct, face-to-face encounters your child has with the dogs. If you see nervous behavior exhibited, immediately remove the animal from the environment.
Here are 4 signs of stress in dogs:
- Licking the lips
- Showing the whites of the eyes
- Panting when not overheated
- Turning the head away
A happy-go-lucky dog is much easier to introduce than one that is stressed. One of my sisters has a dog that isn’t very sociable or the best-behaved with handling except by her. Because of this, I don’t want to run the risk of stressing ourselves or the dog, or run the risk of an incident. Communicate with all of your family members before the event and plan ahead.
Prevention is key. Too many times I’ve seen events occur that were preventable with proper education of the child and adequate introduction with the dog. Follow these rules and if all else fails, remove the dog from the situation.
Growing your pack is a wonderful experience that requires a careful and considered approach. But when you follow the basics, you create the proper foundation for years of enjoyment for the entire family.
Babies and Dogs: The First 6 Months
Where have the 6 months gone? You welcomed a lovely bundle of joy into your pack. You’ve spent countless hours feeding, comforting and, when not wrist deep in poop, loving.
If you heeded the advice above, you’ve created the necessary structure in your household and seen a shift in your pet’s behavior. All dogs react differently.
But if you’ve created the pack structure and reinforced it with the right affirmations, you should be well on your way to creating an affinity between your pet and your child.
When Crawling Starts
But wait! Your child is now crawling. Eek! What should you do?
I’m sure you’ve seen the look in your dog’s eyes when your child crawls around. The variables have changed, and for some animals this transition can be quite off-putting. Yet for others, they see a creature who isn’t dissimilar from themselves.
Our dogs found James’s ability to move absolutely exhilarating. Dinah and Duncan had this creature who wasn’t just a bump on the bed expressing unintelligible sounds. Nope, he’s moving like a little hairless puppy.
This is where you have to step in to guide the relationship.
Maintain the Dog’s Sanctuary
Duncan, as a free-loving spirit, loves to interact and just have a good romp. His energy is easier to channel than the opposite.
Dinah, as a matriarch in our family, was very patient with James. But when Dinah didn’t want to interact, she would leave the room or go to her private space. This is a more typical response when your animal is properly introduced in the first place. But it’s the space that is integral to your success — especially when you have a dog who is reluctant to interact.
Every dog should have space to seek sanctuary. Our dogs have their crates and their beds. This is why crate training is so important.
Your child isn’t going to know any better as to where he/she is wandering. As a parent, it is up to you to be aware of the movement and direction. You create the structure — both your canine and your child look for this guidance.
Here are some key points to bear in mind:
- Place the dog crate and bed in 1 section of the house.
- Remove the dog toys and put them next to the crate/bed.
- Keep your child away from this area (6-8 feet if possible).
Why do I recommend these steps? Well, in your dog’s mind, even if the child is partially accepted, he or she now sees a creature who can move about and enter into their domain. In a dog’s mind, and a Malamute doubly so, “If it’s on the floor, it’s mine.” Some dogs, and I know ours did, start viewing the crawling child as a puppy. Certain instincts will switch on.
In order to avoid a problem, we reinforced the existing structure. We maintained an area where both parties knew their toys/possessions were safe. Our son wasn’t allowed to touch the dogs’ toys, and the same was reinforced with our son’s toys.
We even created a small blockade that allowed the dogs to reach their “sanctuary” but not our son. This allowed us to concentrate more on the interaction with our child and the animals.
Start Training Before Crawling
So, how do you handle the crawling? Again, every dog is different, but the training starts before the child is even crawling.
Imagine for a second what your dog will see. A creature moving just like themselves at eye level but without the familiar action that a canine would exhibit. Babies poke, grab, tug, latch on and even fall over while doing all those actions. It’s your job to demonstrate these behaviors.
We would be on our hands and knees interacting with our dogs in that manner. Whenever the dogs exhibited positive behavior for each exercise, they were given a treat. Take your time and be patient.
- Try poking your dog with your pinky finger.
- You can then work toward grabbing with 2 fingers and a thumb and give a tug on their hair.
- Next, work on the ears and tails. I’m not sure what it is about ears and tails, but children love them. Try pinching on the ear and then working on a massage with your fingers. Although it is a different behavior, it will help them be more relaxed.
Reassure the dog that these types of different touches are OK. Dinah and Duncan participate with therapy work and are accustomed to strangers, but we still went through these exercises with them. We would reassure our dogs with a phrase such as, “It’s OK” or “Easy” with a smile in our voice. Say a word and smile; you will hear the difference. So long as they didn’t snap or growl, we would continue the interaction.
Dogs can be adaptable and if you’ve created the trust in your relationship, they will explore these exercises with confidence. Always return to your normal petting and interaction. This reminds them that there are many types of positive touch.
Moving Around the House
What we found to be most successful was to be on the ground with the baby and the dog. We would start on J’s play mat and track him.
Duncan found this entertaining and wanted to join in, but we didn’t allow him to do so immediately. At all times, you should be between your dog and your child. This establishes boundaries. We tend to use the word “mine” to emphasize and reinforce this boundary.
Just as there should be safe space for the dog’s possessions and area, a boundary should be established for your child’s toys and play area. Remember the structure you created with the crib? Now the principles are extending from that room to other areas of the house.
- Let your baby crawl.
- If the dog becomes too excited, reset the scenario and begin again.
- At all times, you should be between your crawler and the dog. Even if the dog desires to play nicely, your reactions will be nowhere near as quick as theirs.
Sometimes a gentle outreaching paw or nuzzle is enough to knock your crawling baby off-balance. Our dogs had an instinct to corral our son back to his play area.
Although this well-intended behavior is acceptable with a puppy, it goes without saying that a baby is more delicate and he/she should be higher in the pack structure. In order to calm this behavior, we would have 1 hand on the collar and reassure Dinah or Duncan. Once positive behavior was exhibited and reinforced with the almighty cookie, we’d repeat the exercise. We would then extend range by having the dog on a leash.
Once your dog is more accepting of the child crawling around, you can create more freedom for both. However, it is safest for you to always be between your child and the dog. Never leave a baby and a dog alone unattended.
As the neural pathways form in your child’s mind, the behavior you demonstrate will create a learned pattern of respect.
- When you interact with your dog, show your child the gentle ways to touch. If they grab a handful of hair and yank, reset him or her and demonstrate the proper way to interact.
- Use the phrase or words that associate with positive touch.
- A soft touch or light stroke is a good way to show affection. We would rest our son’s hand and simulate a soft touch. Eventually he would catch on to the appropriate way.
Case in point: Our son saw that Duncan likes a firm pat on the ribcage and scratches. He saw me do this 3 times and mimicked it recently. Patting Duncan on the chest was a positive touch, and both appreciated that moment.
Remember, at all times both your child and your dog are learning respect from you.
Overseeing their behavior in such a way will build confidence in their relationship. If you ever feel in doubt, contact a trainer for a few in-home visits or guidance, and always err on the side of caution.