Having a baby changes everything, for everyone – including the family dog.
As children come into our lives there are myriad changes in how we spend our time, how much time we have, how our homes are organized – just for starters! This piece is intended as a broad overview of things to consider before your baby is due and right after your baby arrives. While your dog may have spent time with babies, there are big differences in bringing a newborn home and then having a child in your home 24/7 – for all of you.
Preparing the dog before the baby’s arrival helps to increase safety and helps reduce our stress overall. Even the most easygoing dogs and their owners benefit from pre-baby preparation.
Ideally, you should start preparing your dog for baby when you find out you are pregnant – the sooner you begin, the better. Consider the following:
1. Your dog’s basic manners: Do these need to be improved?
- Even the most obedient dogs could use a brush up to ensure they respond to cues like Sit; Down; Wait; Go to your place; Leave it; Off (get off of the furniture when asked).
- Can you cue your dog to Sit if you’re sitting on the sofa?
- How about if you’re holding something in your arms (a pillow? a sleeping baby?)
- How far away from your dog can you be to have the dog respond to you?
2. Your dog’s daily life: Try mixing up your pet’s routine, as it will likely be a challenge to follow the dog’s regular schedule once the baby comes. And, while it may be harder for you than your dog, giving him a bit less attention in the months leading up to your new addition’s arrival can help prepare him for the inevitable drop in attention later.
3. Separation: Can the dog be comfortably away from you or separated from you behind a gate or in a crate? Has your dog spent a very long time sitting right next to or on top of you? Teach the dog to relax behind a gate, in another room, on a mat at your feet or further away from you. One reason for this: If you’re walking to try to soothe a fussy baby, an anxious dog underfoot may contribute to your anxiety in addition to providing a potential tripping hazard.
4. Stressors: What worries your dog?
- How do you know when your dog is stressed? What does s/he look like? What does your dog do?
- Is your dog sensitive to loud noises? Fast movements? Changes in the environment?
- Just a little education and knowledge of dog body language goes a very long way. Take time to learn or identify how your dog expresses discomfort and annoyance before you have a baby moving toward a worried dog.
If you have a dog who exhibits fear or aggression toward people, particularly toward children before your baby arrives, it is critical to contact a qualified trainer who can help evaluate the situation and develop a training plan designed to keep everyone safe, while working to minimize the dog’s anxiety.
5. How does your dog get your attention? Barking? Pawing? Stealing items and running off with them? Do these behaviors increase if you ignore them? Think about what may happen if you’re trying to get the baby to sleep or trying to feed the baby. A common complaint from new parents about their dogs after they’ve brought the baby home is that the dog is inappropriately seeking attention. How do you redirect your dog to do something else (rather than barking, pawing, etc)? Can you do this now?
6. Changes in the household rules once the baby arrives:
- Will the dog be permitted in the nursery? If so – what would you like them to do when they are in there with you? Dogs should NOT have access to a nursery when you are not there with them: will you need to install a gate or door latch to make sure a closed door remains closed?
- If the dog has been sharing your bed or bedroom, will this need to change as you anticipate being up during the night with a newborn? If you need to change the dog’s sleeping arrangements, where will you move the dog?
- If sitting on the floor with your dog signals an opportunity for roughhousing or more active play – consider if this will be safe when you’re on the floor for “tummy time” with the baby. What would you like your dog to do, where would you like them to be?
- Please don’t assume that your dog will adjust once baby comes home or assume that you’ll work on things once the baby comes home – Polish up manners now. Start to make any needed changes as soon as you can. Practice. Be patient. Contact a qualified trainer if you need support in addressing the items above.
Whether your dog is going to stay by your side* or they will be cared for by someone else, you’ll need a plan for your dog when you go into labor. Consider the following and come up with a plan several weeks before your due date:
- How will I handle my dog if I go into labor at home? Can the dog go comfortably to a crate with a frozen Kong or other treat? Can the dog be safely contained in a different room?\
- Who can I depend on to care for my dog for 3-5 days? Does the dog know this person and are they comfortable with them?
- If someone is coming to stay with my dog at my home, do I have a plan for how I contact them, have I remembered to give that person a key to the house? If I have an alarm system, have I remembered to give that person the code?
- If my dog needs to stay somewhere other than my home, where will he or she go? How will the dog get there?
- How might my dog handle being away from me? Will s/he need special treats, longer walks, extra attention from someone she trusts? – if your dog is spending time away from your home, pack a “go bag’ for the dog in addition to your own bag to go to the hospital/labor and delivery center.
*Note: home birth situations involve all of the questions above and more
Bringing Baby Home: Safe homecoming guidelines
- Homecomings with baby should be calm, quiet, and controlled.
- There is no need for a formal introduction or physical contact between dog and baby. When Mom and baby come home for the first time, the dog may be most excited to see Mom and may be curious about the baby (or not). Bringing home the baby is very exciting for us, but it doesn’t have to be an exciting event for the dog. In the event that the dog is anxious, or parents are concerned – meetings can wait – for a few days or even a few weeks.
- Mom should greet the dog first without without the baby.
- The baby, in a carrier, should be up on a table top or counter, away from the dog or held by another adult – not placed on the floor or on furniture where the dog may be able to access the baby. If the dog is curious about the baby, parents may want to let them “meet” in a very limited and controlled manner by allowing the dog to sniff the baby’s feet – but only under direct adult supervision (with an adult holding the baby in the adult’s lap) If there are concerns about the dog jumping up, consider putting the dog on a leash or having the dog drag a leash which can be picked up or stepped on if the dog is overenthusiastic. Again, sniffing the baby’s feet is a responsible safety precaution. All dogs have teeth – we want to keep those teeth away from baby’s face and head. If your dog is choosing not to interact with your baby, the dog is very likely anxious and worried. Forcing interaction won’t build trust and may result in unwanted interaction (growling, snapping, lunging from the dog). There’s no need to rush any introductions. Be aware of typical baby behaviors and elements (crying, high-pitched noises, babbling, new smells!) and note how your dog may be responding to you and your baby in the early days and weeks.
- Please note that newborns, awake or asleep, may be at risk for serious bites from dogs where the dog’s behavior resembles predation.
- Warning signs, if any, include the following behavior in dogs:
Hyper-alertness (the dog has an intense focus on the infant)
“Muzzle punching” or “poking” at the infant with a closed mouth
Whining, high-pitched barking
Circling and/or jumping up. (Source: Ilana Reisner, DVM – see linked article at the end of this post)
Should you note ANY of these, do not allow your dog access to your baby – immediately seek help from a qualified trainer and contact your veterinarian.
A lack of supervision, absent supervision, or reactive supervision are the most common mistakes families make. But what does supervision mean?
Learning to read dog body language is a critical part of supervision. We can’t “supervise” what we can’t identify or see. We also have to be “present”. We live in a world full of distractions with electronic gadgets and media; if we’re engrossed in reading, focused on a TVshow or looking at our phones, it’s easy to lose track of things. Parenting tiny humans is also exhausting. Lack of sleep can negatively impact our ability to provide proper supervision.
When dogs and babies, dogs and kids are together – they need our full, awake attention. Things to be aware of:
- If we put the baby down for a nap: where is the dog?
- Is the baby’s sleep environment accessible to the dog?
- If we need to take a shower, go to use the bathroom ourselves, or we’ve walked out to the kitchen for something to drink: where is the baby and where is the dog?
Employing a management strategy such as separating the dog behind a baby gate or in a crate becomes very important. This becomes even more important as your baby is more mobile and can move toward your dog and into the dog’s personal space. If you have to leave the room, even just to go to the bathroom, separate dog and baby with a physical barrier. You should also be sure to stress to babysitters and other caregivers that they must have the same diligence about not leaving baby and dog alone together. Ever.
Your dog should NEVER have access to your baby without full, awake, adult supervision.
This chart from Family Paws Parent Education identifies five types of supervision. Use Proactive and Active Supervision with kids and dogs – planning and preparing, full awake adult supervision for safety.
What can others do to help?
- Walk the dog
- Stuff food dispensing toys for the dog and freeze these
- Play games with the dog
- Feed the dog
- Hold baby while you interact with the dog
- Help with household chores: do a load of laundry; load/unload the dishwasher
- Prepare a meal or two – perhaps to freeze for hectic evenings
- Run errands
- Stay at your home with a napping baby while you take a walk with the dog
Many people spend time focusing on baby’s arrival, but the most stressful time for many families is typically during the time when your baby is 3- 6 months old and can begin to reach into the dog’s space. Dogs who seem comfortable with a newborn, can quickly become concerned as baby becomes more mobile – and this often means before the baby is crawling or walking.
“Babies grow and dogs age, and we have to adjust with every stage.”
~ Family Paws Parent Education
The baby’s new mobility may make the dog nervous as baby moves and interacts with the dog in new ways. The uncoordinated movements of a new walker are often worrisome for the most patient of dogs.
Keep in mind that if you have an issue in your home, meaning that you are concerned for your child’s safety, we strongly suggest that you contact a qualified trainer who uses dog-friendly, positive reinforcement approaches. A qualified trainer can help evaluate the situation and develop a training plan designed to keep everyone safe. Please research any professional who enters your home.
There are big differences between having a pet and parenting with a pet. There can be challenges in the process. Be patient with yourself and your dog.
Your relationship with your dog will change after baby arrives. There will likely be missteps and bumps in the road. The good news is that there are many resources available today that look at preparing and helping the family dog to successfully live with kids. Several of these are shared below.
Family Paws Parent Education – Dogs & Storks® and Dogs & Toddlers programs
Dog and Baby Support Hotline 1-877-247-3407
Dogs and Babies Learning to Live Happily Ever After – Madeline Gabriel blogs
I Speak Dog – a site teaching why dogs do what they do and how to read dog’s body language to understand their emotional states
**Preventing Dog Bites in Children: Motivations & Myths – llana R. Reisner, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVB
Living with Kids & Dogs – by Colleen Pelar – online and print resources, including the book Living with Kids and Dogs without Losing Your Mind – A Parent’s Guide to Controlling the Chaos
Good Dog in a Box – – helping families improve their lives with and for their dogs – online resources and products – many free to download
Doggone Crazy – A non-profit organization dedicated to dog bite prevention
About the author
Cathy Reisfield is a parent, grandparent, former clinician, and a nearly 20-year veteran in the field of dog training. She is the founder, head trainer and parent educator at Dependable Dogs® and the non-profit Kids & Dogs:Safer Together. She is also a licensed educator for the Family Paws programs, a member of the Safe Kids Huron Valley coalition, the Washtenaw Council for Children Safe Sleep Task Force,
and works with a variety community agencies to educate families and promote injury prevention. Cathy shares her home with her husband of 30+ years and 2 silly Labrador Retrievers.
Reprinted with permission from Cathy Reisfeld