It has often been said, none too politely, that people anthropomorphise their pets – this means that they attribute human characteristics and personality to them, when really they are just cats, dogs, or whatever species of pet you have. However, anyone who has tried to introduce a new baby into a household where there is an established pet will testify that the dynamics that ensue are all too ‘human’. In short, cats and dogs, in particular, can respond in a fairly similar way to an older human child with a younger sibling, exhibiting feelings of neglect, anger and jealousy. They can, however, also turn into a most loving and supportive playmate. Parents, when bringing a new child into the house, are often advised to pay careful attention to emerging sibling rivalry, and to find ways to circumvent it before it turns into a lifelong poor relationship. Sadly, with pets, if they react badly to a new baby and don’t mend their ways fairly soon, the solution can often be rehoming – if they are lucky.
I knew parents with an older dog who have had to create a playpen to protect their baby from the dog, only to be forced to rehome when problems were not resolved. I have also seen a baby introduced into the home of three German Shepherds, and to date, they have behaved as gentle companions to the new arrival. Despite the problems and the scare stories about dog bites and attacks, most commentators agree that these are rare (http://www.childalert.co.uk/article.php?articles_id=57). A successful integration of dog and baby, and if the child is older, a dog into the family, can be a wonderful lesson in love, empathy and care for children. It can also be a rewarding and fun relationship for the dog too. The basic message is, however, that integrating a new baby into your pack (which is how your dog sees it) requires thought and preparation.
Preparing for the new arrival
The Blue Cross (http://www.bluecross.org.uk/2156-2861/advice-on-your-dog-and-your-baby.html) argues that preparation is key to successful integration. They advise that about four months before the birth you need to start making any slow adjustments to your house and dog’s routine to give them time to get used to the new circumstances. These are some issues to consider:
- Get your dog used to be handled, though your dog shouldn’t have to put up with rough handling. I will look at how to encourage dog-friendly behaviour from babies, toddlers and children below.
- Get recordings of the sounds that babies make and play them when your dog is near, so your dog won’t find them too alarming when they meet it in the flesh.
- Have all the furniture and equipment for your baby in place well before the birth, to get your dog used to the new layout and the new smells.
- Plan how you will exercise your dog after your birth. Will you get help from friends or relatives, or will you have to cut down on walks for a while? Whatever you decide, you need to establish a routine before your baby is born.
- Consider formal training, particularly if your dog has a few known behavioural tics. Linda Michaels, a dog trainer, suggests thinking about your dog’s personality beforehand. If your dog is prone to startle easily, dislikes changes to it’s routine or exhibits fearful behaviours, for example, you may want to seek professional help.
- Introduce any change in sleeping arrangements and your dog’s access to areas in the house early and slowly. If you don’t want your dog to go into particular areas, gate them off before the birth.
- Create a toy box for your dog, so they will get used to where their toys are and won’t confuse their toys with your baby’s toys. Get them out of the box when you are ready to play and put them back in when you are finished, so your dog will know that the box is theirs.
- Make sure your dog has a quiet and inaccessible place to retreat.
- Make sure their flea and worming treatments are up to date.
- Doggone Safe also suggests allowing your dog to meet children before your baby arrives.
Of course, establishing these routines before your baby is born is good for you as well. It is difficult enough adjusting to your new arrival in the haze of sleep deprivation and the changes in your routine and feelings when your baby arrives, let alone trying to resolve your pet’s problems retrospectively.
Introducing dog and baby for the first time
Much like introducing a baby to your older child, the first meeting, and how you handle subsequent engagements, is critical and takes a lot of effort. The following tips may help you get through this without too many difficulties:
- When you get home from the hospital or birthing unit, the Blue Cross advise that you should greet your dog without your baby in your arms. Remember, your dog hasn’t seen you for quite a few hours and will be very excited.
- The first contact between baby and dog should take place in an area that is neutral for your dog, and when he or she is tired after a run, as they are more likely to be calm. Allow your dog to sniff your baby while he or she is in your arms, but keep it short.
- Praise your dog when they behave well towards your baby, and offer treats as a reward. Difficult as it may sound, you are training your dog to understand how to behave.
- Give your dog lots of attention, and divide attention as equally as you can between your dog and baby.
- Always wash your hands after touching your dog and before touching your baby. Obviously it can be impractical going to the sink, but you can keep some wet wipes (every parent’s friend!) or antibacterial gel in your pocket or nearby.
- Never leave your dog alone with your baby or child, regardless of their temperament. As Michaels argues, regardless of how good your child is with dogs or how gentle your dog’s temperament is, “No dog should be trusted with a small child and no child should be trusted with a dog”. This is easier said than done, of course. Every parent needs to put their baby down, either to sleep or to get some household chores done. Much of the online advice suggests managing baby and dog separation through stair gates and other physical barriers. Yet, as every parent knows who has these items in the house, they do make your house into an obstacle course and limit your baby’s opportunity to explore. Another option is to go the attachment parenting route. Wear your baby in a sling, which gives you free movement around the house while keeping them out of reach of your dog, and sleep in the same room as them!
- Make sure your baby, when it starts to crawl, doesn’t have access to your dog’s food. The obvious point is that dog food isn’t good for babies (and they will give it a try), but also your dog won’t appreciate a small moving person digging in its food.
So that’s the advice on managing your dog, but what about managing your child and its relationship to your dog? Just as you train your dog to be with children, you need to train your children to be with a dog.
Training your child to be with dogs
The general advice is that if you want to combine pets and animals, wait until your children are over five or six. This is because very young children have difficulties with impulsivity and empathy, meaning that they want what they want now, and they don’t understand that other beings, including your dog, have another point of view. Around five or six your children learn better empathy skills, and, in general, can communicate and regulate themselves better. Of course, this isn’t always practical, as you may already have a dog (hence the excellent advice above) or may inherit one. So what follows is the current wisdom on how best to train young children to be kind to your pet.
While babies can’t speak, they can understand verbal and non-verbal communication, so the best thing is just to talk them through it. Create some clear rules, say them in a clearly intoned voice, and repeat. Gentle yes’s and a firm (but try not to shout) no, can help. Model gentle behaviour towards your dog, to show your baby how to stroke and pet.
Toddlers understand more and have some language skills of their own, but they can be very impulsive and determined. Continue with the clear rules and modeling, but sometimes a reward chart can help with older ones. Don’t have too many rules, because they can’t remember them – about two or three is what they can handle. Reinforce them by repetition and praise, and reward good behaviour as well as reprimanding the unhelpful stuff.
For slightly older children, from pre-school upwards (but you can also try this with younger ones too, just so they get the hang of it), positive descriptive praise works wonders. I got this idea from Janis-Norton’s book Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting. Basically, when your child has treated your dog in a considerate way, such as stroking it gently, you say “that was great, you really were gentle when your stroked Billy, Jack, Poppy” (whatever your dog’s name is). Never shout or reprimand, or be negative. Your child will learn exactly what he or she is doing right, and respond better to positive messages than negative ones.
So that’s all the available advice. Follow it, see what works, remember it applies to dogs and children, not just one side, and keep working at it, as with all relationships. And don’t forget to tell us about any top tips in the comments below. Good luck!
New parents will often read baby and parenting books to prepare themselves for their new arrival. It is just as important to prepare for integrating your dog and new baby. The following is one recommended guide, written by an expert, which does just that.
Kirkham, L. (2012). Tell Your Dog You’re Pregnant: An Essential Guide for Dog Owners Who Are Expecting a Baby. Melbourne. Little Creatures Publishing.