Babies and Dogs: The First 6 Months

You’ve prepared the dog for your baby, and now baby is home. Read how we started building the relationship between our child and our canine kids.

Baby J and Duncan. Copyright 2014, Xavier Santiago.
Baby J and Duncan. Photos by: Xavier Santiago

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 from my last article, 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.

Baby J and Dinah. By: Xavier Santiago.

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.

This video shows a baby determined to keep touching and prodding a dog — it is another chance to teach baby what is acceptable touching:

Teaching Respect

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.

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Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 in an occasional series on how to handle dogs and a young child. Part 1 discussed preparing your dog for a new baby.

Xavier A. Santiago

View posts by Xavier A. Santiago
In addition to working as a producer and on-air talent — including as a judge and host on Animal Planet's Groomer Has It — Xavier Santiago is a second-generation breeder, owner and handler of Alaskan Malamutes, and a professional handler and trainer of other breeds. Growing up around animals, Xavier always had a special connection and love for dogs. Trained by some of the best, known for his love of the sport and, most important, placing the care of dogs above all else, Xavier constantly strives toward embodying the spirit of dog fancying. Working with rescue groups, community organizations and politicians, he has led a battle to improve animal welfare. He lives in London and New York City with his wife and dogs. You can visit follow Xavier on Twitter or check out his Facebook page.

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