The following suggestions should help your dog to safely and calmly adjust to your new baby. A little effort can go a long way and I always prefer for prospective new parents to think well ahead to prepare the dog for a new baby in the home. After the baby has arrived and you find that the dog is not prepared for such a disruption to its life and routine, this can cause a lot of unnecessary stress for the dog and you.
The essence of this article is to set out a number of practical things that can be done to help your dog to accept a new baby into the home with the minimum of fuss. Stopping and thinking ahead by a few months before the baby is born can go a long way to head off problems further down the line. Ask yourself if your dog already has any behaviour problems that might have an impact or become a day to day problem once a baby is introduced into the home.
Dog Behaviour Problems and Babies.
What sort of dog behaviour problems can have an impact on family life and a new baby? By stopping and taking stock of your dog's behaviour well in advance we can usually head off problems before they arise. Here are a few that come to mind, but in no particular order:
- Separation Anxiety in the day or night
- A dog that seeks human attention to an excessive level
- Aggression to animals or people
- Overly excited and reactive within the home, such as excessive barking or frequent jumping up
- Overly protective of the owner. This may include aggressive guarding of the owner
- Obsessive behaviours such as light or shadow chasing
- Guarding objects or possessiveness of items in the home
Due to the sheer depth and variety in the behaviour problems I set out above, I encourage you to contact me for assistance before the birth of your baby so that we can comb through any behavioural issues you may be experiencing, no matter how big or small they might be. This will then help set the scene for a calm and relaxed home environment once the baby arrives.
A system that can work very well on my behaviour visits is that I give the first of two meetings before the birth of the baby and then the second visit once the baby is born and home, usually when the baby is about two months of age. This allows us to set up a variety of basic training and behaviour routines before the baby arrives and then we can see how they stand up in light of being a new parent, making any adjustments as we go.
I have carried out numerous dog behaviour visits that focused on the relationship between the dog and the newborn child as the dog was in some way or another not coping with the change in family circumstances. Whilst the vast majority of these cases resolved well, there have been a couple of cases whereby the dog was re-homed due to perceived and possible dangers of harm to the baby, or that the stress was so great that moving the dog on to a baby-less home was a relatively clear-cut decision. Such outcomes are thankfully rare, yet remain distressing for everyone at the time. Being a dad myself as well as a dog owner and full-time dog behaviourist, I can fully understand how upsetting this would be to cope with.
I was a stay at home dad for five years when we first had Katie and so this subject remains close to my heart. Katie will be 20 in March 2019, so time really does fly. Being a new parent is such a thrilling and joyous thing, that having to cope with a dog that is suffering in some way as a result of a new baby in the home can turn everything on its head and cause a great deal of upset.
Signs That Your Dog is Jealous of the Baby
To address this heading, the signs that you may see in your dog that suggest it’s feeling left out or jealous of the new baby are:
- Increased attention-seeking behaviours. These could be very obvious or pushy
- Unusual poor toilet training behaviours such as marking or soiling in the home
- Your dog starts to become destructive or causes damage in your absence
- Your dog may be become withdrawn or appear to hide away
- Aggressive behaviours being displayed such as growling or snappiness
It’s important to not over-humanise the thoughts that a dog may be having once your baby has arrived home. He is not lying there thinking to himself “How could they do this to me?!” or “I hate this new smelly, noisy bundle!” It’s really the change itself that some dogs find hard to cope with, as initially the demands and needs are much greater for a newborn child over that of the dog.
Despite the arrival of a new baby, it is still important (maybe more than ever now) to ensure that your dog’s needs are met each and every day. Walking and exercise routines should be stuck to, as a tired dog is usually a good dog. During my stay at home years, I would place Katie in a rucksack on my back once she was old enough and I would walk at least an hour each and every day as I was also carrying out gun-dog style training with Amber my Wire-Haired Vizsla who we had at that time. I would carry a few gun-dog dummies and get her to find these in all manner of ways whilst Katie was gurgling and babbling behind me. Happy memories. I’ve had a look on Amazon and this is all but identical to the baby rucksack I used 20 years ago. The flip out frame at the base is so simple yet makes it very stable on flat surfaces.
One of the most common issues that arise is the dog’s ability (or lack of) to cope with the change of focus that inherently means that the dog is suddenly experiencing a dramatic reduction of the owner’s time and attention as the baby is getting all of the focus, and understandably so. Babies demand a great deal of time and input and this lasts for months, leaving parents tired and then perhaps stressed if the dog is not coping well with the changes that have become necessary.
If for example, your dog was already displaying aggression to dogs to some notable degree before the arrival of your baby, this may have been manageable prior to the babies arrival, but when you’d like to take a gentle stroll through the park with your baby in a pram and chat with other mums, this may then be quite a challenge to stay with the baby and have your dog relaxed by your side due to its errant behaviour in the park.
Another example is the subject of separation anxiety in dogs. If you were previously working from home or had made daycare arrangements, this would have allowed the dog to cope and to keep the ‘problem’ under control, but when you are not able to spend as much time with your dog when a new baby is at home with you, your dog may find this too much and start to show signs of greater distress and anxiety and work even harder to get and keep your attention. There is the possibility that your dog may start to become unsettled at night or to bark and cause stress-based damage in the home when left alone even for the shortest time.
I have been on a few dog behaviour visits that included looking at the dynamic between dog and baby to find a mum on the floor interacting with the baby on a play mat and the dog pretty much on the same mat determined to get a slice of the action. The dog does need to learn that it cannot be the centre of attention as it once was and the owner needs to have confidence that they can, in fact, issue a send to bed command to the dog as they play with the baby for a time, to change a nappy, or to feed the baby in their arms or later on in a high chair.
Setting Sensible Boundaries for Your Dog
I think that in an effort to keep the dog included and to feel valued as a part of the family, some owners fail to balance this out by setting some sensible boundaries for the dog to follow within the home. To give a dog a feeling of security and guidance and that it is being cared for, these boundaries are critical to helping give the dog that feeling of security. In my experience, dogs love to understand clearly what their role in the family and life is and it is our job to consistently demonstrate to the dog a set of rules and values that are easily understood by the dog. This approach from the outset with any dog will greatly help create a balanced dog, free from anxieties and behavioural problems.
As a few words of reassurance, I do believe in having dogs present and involved in family life, but that you are also able to say to your dog to periodically give you space and stay at a distance for a reasonable period of time and you feel in control with safe boundaries in place in and out of the home.
1. Preparing Your Dog for the Arrival of Your Baby
Preparations should begin months before the baby arrives. If your dog does not know how to sit, stay, lie down, or come when called, it should be taught to do so. If your dog already knows these commands but is unreliable, practice these obedience exercises with the dog until it is reliable. Even if you consider your dog "pretty good," that may not be good enough and could lead to you having a false sense of security. Imagine how your dog, if excited, will react when you bring the baby home. Can you depend on it to reliably sit and stay or down and stay and not rush toward the baby?
If you have had some experience in training a dog, you might try obedience training at home. Otherwise, it would be best to take your dog to a recommended training class. Your dog should associate the various obedience commands such as sit, stay, and come with pleasant experiences. Although your dog may need to be corrected occasionally, force methods should be avoided. After all, the goal is for the dog to like both the owner and the baby, not simply for it to obey because it is frightened or afraid of being punished.
Once your dog learns the basic sit-stay and down-stay commands, you should continue to work these commands at home. You should start requiring that your dog sit-stay or down-stay as you do things that resemble "baby activities" around it. For example, pick up a doll, cradle it, rock it, and walk back and forth. Periodically, reward the dog with titbits, petting or praise for remaining in a sitting position while this is going on. The doll should also be wrapped in baby blankets and shown to the dog, which must learn to control itself and to refrain from moving.
If you can harness these basic training principles by also creating a send to bed command then this can be applied in any room that has a dog bed. Simply issue the command ‘On your bed’ as you point to it. If needed, walk your dog onto the bed and then issue the Sit and Stay commands and reward your dog for being there. You can then release the dog with a bright ‘Okay’ as you walk away, or another more challenging step which will be of a great help to you is to introduce the Stay command for increasing lengths of time. Once on the bed, remain with your dog for 30 seconds as you repeat the Stay command a few times in a low, clear tone that is clearly a command for your dog. After the 30 seconds is up you can release your dog and reward him or her. These periods can be gradually built up and you can also begin to move away from the dog as he remains in the bed. Working for anything up to 10-minute periods can be realistic for most dogs and owners, though it may take a little effort and practice.
As you can probably tell, the basic commands of Sit, Down, and Stay in a location of your choosing are key to give you a sensible degree of calm-control in the home as you manage a dog and baby together. The send to bed as described above is a huge benefit as you go about your daily activities with a baby in the home. It’s still quite common for mums to be home alone with the baby and dog as dad is out at work, so managing a dog and a baby in the home alone is perfectly doable, but these basic control methods will make life a lot easier for you.
Because dogs respond with interest to strange sounds, it is a good idea to accustom your dog to the recorded sounds of a baby crying, babbling, or making other normal "baby" sounds. Ideally, if the opportunity is available, expose your dog - in a controlled manner to ensure the infant's safety - to real babies of friends or neighbours. This procedure should be considered only if the dog is reliably trained and controllable. The dog should gradually be exposed to babies until it can remain relaxed in their presence. This may require several sessions. The desensitisation CD that I have been recommending for this approach can be found here on Amazon.
If your baby is born in a hospital, your dog will remain at home. You can use this period to familiarise your dog with the baby's smell by bringing home blankets or clothing the baby has worn. (On the subject of nappies: It would be advisable for you to keep soiled nappies in a tightly closed container to prevent unwanted scavenging.
2. Bringing Your New Baby Home
When mother and child come home from the hospital, it is best if the mother greets the dog without the baby present. Another family member should hold the baby or, better still, put in another room while the mother and dog greet each other. This way, you can avoid reprimanding an excited dog that merely wants to greet the owner and that may jump at the baby in an attempt to get near the mother.
Owners should allow some time for the dog to get used to the smells and sounds of the baby, which to it are the presence of another creature in the house. Later, when the level of excitement in the household has decreased and the dog appears relaxed, the baby and dog can be introduced to each other.
One parent should attend to the baby and the other to the dog. The dog should be in a sit-stay or down-stay and on a lead. If there is any concern that the dog may leap at the baby, a head harness or muzzle should be placed on the dog. (The dog should already be used to the muzzle or harness prior to this introduction.) The dog should be allowed to see, hear and smell the baby from 10 to 15 feet away. Then either the dog or baby should be brought closer to the other, slowly, one foot at a time. If the dog remains calm and under control, it might be allowed to sniff the baby, again from a safe distance. If the dog is extremely excited, however, this progression should not be attempted. If the dog has a history of predatory or aggressive behaviours, it may take many introductions before the dog and baby are close enough for the dog to investigate the baby closely.
Err on the side of caution when determining when your dog is ready to approach your baby close enough to actually sniff the baby. Discourage licking the baby for health reasons and this can become excessive in some dogs. Start with a sniff to the feet and then generally expose more of the baby to the dog in further meetings. Over a period of days, however, your dog should be allowed to smell the baby up close. After several introductions, and when it is clear that the dog is not going to nip or lunge at the baby, you can allow your dog to be loose near your infant, but I encourage to drag a short lead for control if it were needed (this does not mean unsupervised visitation or that you should lay the child down for the dog to investigate it). As a further precaution and if you feel it’s necessary, the dog can wear a comfortable muzzle when around the baby. I also like the method of allowing the dog to drag a lead about in the home. This allows a quick intervention and redirection if needed and is a balanced approach for most dogs. Leads and muzzles should only be used with direct supervision and removed when the dog is put away when leaving the home and at night.
3. Your Dog and Baby. The First Days
Remember, your dog should not have unsupervised access to your baby - EVER. You will want to be especially careful when the baby is screaming, crying, or waving its arms and legs. These actions can elicit a predatory, investigating, or play-leap reaction by the dog toward the infant. It is wiser to either put the dog in another room or use the send to bed exercise as described in section 1.
Some dogs can begin to "act up" after a new baby arrives. It is unclear whether these behaviours occur because of "jealousy" or simply because the dog is being deprived of its usual and expected amount of social attention and affection. You will want to start reducing the attention that you give your dog 2 or 3 months prior to the baby's arrival. This will help the dog accept that it is no longer the "focus" of your attention. When the baby comes home, you should ensure that your dog gets sufficient attention and to make minimal changes to the dog’s routine otherwise. You might like to consider the services of a dog walker or to use friends and family in the first few weeks if you know that your ability to walk him as you did previously might be affected for a time, or at least until you find your feet.
One tip that can be helpful is that whenever you begin to do something with your baby, you can put the dog in a sit-stay and periodically reward it with a tidbit. This procedure allows the dog to associate pleasant experiences with the baby and gives the dog extra attention when the baby is present. Aim to include the dog in your activities with the baby…not exclude it, which may create resentment or jealousies.
If after the first several days you are still concerned that your dog might harm your baby, a screen door or gate could be fastened at the entrance to the child's room. This precaution allows you to hear the baby but eliminates your dog's access to the room. A popular and well-made dog or baby gate can be found here at Amazon.
Also, keep in mind when you take your infant to visit friends or relatives that the dogs encountered there may not be accustomed to an infant in their homes. Babysitters should be cautioned not to bring dogs with them to the home of an infant. Tragic incidents have occurred when adults mistakenly believed a dog was in the garden or securely confined away from a baby. Dogs may push open doors and actively investigate the strange sounds and odours of an infant.
4. Monitoring Your Dog's Behaviour With the Baby
As a new parent, although you should be aware of potential problems, you should not worry unduly about the potential problem of your dog injuring your infant. Most dogs adjust to new babies easily, quietly and without incident. If you are observant of your dog's behaviour and take precautions to introduce dog and baby to each other gradually while your dog is under control, you should be able to avoid accidents or problem incidents.
The main areas that often come up during dog behaviour visits that include babies, here are a short list of do’s and don’ts that can be seen as ‘best practice’:
Your dog should be under the ‘Send to bed’ command (you can have various beds dotted about the home) when you’re doing any of the following -
- Feeding the baby
- Changing the nappy
- Washing the baby
- Preparing food for yourself or the baby
Don’t allow your dog to hoover up food from the floor, or to be under the table when you’re feeding the baby. This can start to blur there lines between the dog’s feeding time and you and your babies feeding time as well as the locations set aside for those activities. This could, in theory, lead to a dog that then starts to snatch food from a babies hand or straight off the high chair table! Clean all of the food away and then allow the dog access to that general area after you’re done.
Appropriate sleeping spaces
If your dog sleeps in your bedroom at night, strongly consider making the transition to another room such as the kitchen or utility room before the arrival of your baby. Feeding and changing in the middle of the night is best done without your dog in the midst of it all.
Appropriate rest spaces
I encourage you to provide adequate dog bedding on the floor about the home so that the dog is not all over the sofa should you be feeding the baby in the early stages.
Your dog’s health
Ensure that your dog has a clean bill of health before the baby arrives. Consider a vet check so that you have peace of mind once the baby comes home.
A place to get away
Provide your dog with a space or location that it can consider it to be quiet and calm. A crate may fulfil this function if he’s already used to one. An entire room can be another option to consider. The dog can then have access to its own toys.
Dog and baby toys
Keep dog and baby toys separate. Plastic boxes with lids can help keep things tidy and your dog will soon come to understand which toys and box are his and which belongs to the baby. You’ll need to supervise your dog as always, but this simple measure can really help if your tidy-minded.
Your dog should be able to cope with being behind a closed door without becoming fretful or anxious for short periods of time - I’m thinking 10-20 minutes at a time. Practice this in advance of the arrival of the baby if you know it cannot cope so easily. As always, start at short periods and then build them up as he improves.
Do keep up levels of exercise as much as possible and this was touched on in more detail in the opening page.
It can be easy to overlook a dog’s need to stay mentally active and this can be relatively easy to address. Single dogs that are food driven are relatively easy by ensuring that they work for their daily food allowance out of a device known as a Kong Wobbler if feeding dried food, or the Kong classic for those on wet foods such as Forthglade or NatureDiet. There are also a number of very clever food mats that you can sprinkle dried food into that will take your dog a good while to forage for. Failing that, a clean lawn with your dog’s meal sprinkled across it will also do the trick.
Here are my preferred items that I mention above available on Amazon:
Kong Wobbler on Amazon
Kong Classic stuffing toy on Amazon
Ruffle mat on Amazon
5. Dogs and Babies. Conclusion
It’s important to monitor all interactions between your baby and dog. This monitoring should continue until your dog is paying no attention to the infant or is completely friendly toward the baby. Never leave a baby or small child unattended with a dog at any time.
Help your dog learn that the baby belongs in your family by exposing the dog to the baby in a very gradual and controlled, safe manner. The exposure should be positive so the dog does not associate unpleasant situations with the baby, and so the dog does not feel anxious or aggressive in the baby's presence.