Get Ready – Baby!
I get a lot of calls for help from families who have welcomed a new baby into their lives only to discover that their dogs are less than thrilled about the new addition. One of my goals is to find the best way to reach people who already have dogs and are planning a family.
Here are some things to think about and some training tips for you if you’re a dog-owning household planning to add children to the family.
1. Address any issues your dog already has as soon as possible.
Minor issues like pulling on leash, barking at the doorbell, barking at noises outside, inappropriate chewing, etc. will become very challenging when you have a newborn baby. Walking a baby and a dog together will be difficult with a pulling dog, and naps for baby will definitely be impacted by a regularly barking dog in the house.
More serious issues like resource guarding, inappropriate mouthing, reactivity to dogs or people, difficulty being touched and handled, separation distress, etc. can immediately become a much more serious problem when you factor in a newborn baby and/or small child. There are immediate considerations as well as future considerations when you envision a future with your child’s friends visiting your home and interacting with your dog too.
It’s important to understand that even though your dog may be very friendly and appropriately behaved with people, you can’t assume that will automatically extend to a new baby in your house without some preparation and pre-planning. It’s best to be proactive rather than find out after the fact that your dog isn’t thrilled with a new “small human” occupying his space.
There also seems to be a general perception that certain behaviours displayed by dogs are “protective” behaviours and that’s not a bad thing. While actual “protection” may or may not be what that dog is feeling (we can’t and won’t know our dog’s motivation for anything), this is not a role we need or should want our dogs to take on. Your family dog needs to fill the role of friendly family pet only.
If you do have serious issues with your dog or if you’re not sure, be proactive and hire a professional, force-free trainer (very important that they are force-free) to set up a plan to help you with your dog’s issues long before you welcome a new child into your home. You may or may not be able to solve every issue your dog has, but you will receive valuable professional advice on properly identifying any issues, and the appropriate training and management strategies to keep everyone safe.
2. Proactive Preparation.
Even if you have a perfectly friendly dog now, you want to work hard to preserve that and give lots of thought to preparing your dog for the new addition to your lives.
a. Socialize your dog to the sights and sounds of children.
Even if you did this when your dog was a puppy, take the time to go back over the appropriate socialization steps and watch carefully for your dog’s comfort level. If you see any discomfort, avoidance behaviour or reactivity, you will know that you need to put some work in re-doing some of that early socialization to increase your dog’s comfort and tolerance.
b. Get as much of your baby equipment and supplies as you can in advance.
The earlier you can get set up for your baby, the sooner your dog can get used to the sights, sounds and smells of it all. If furniture is going to be moved or changed, do that now. If you’re using a baby monitor, a crib mobile with sound or other baby items that make noise, get your dog used to those sounds now. Even the smell of various lotions and baby items can be something to desensitize your dog to in advance. If you can get your dog used to all these things early on, then your dog won’t be as likely to make any negative association to the new addition and the associated changes to his environment.
c. Where will your dog be when you are busy with your baby?
Think about where the most suitable spot for your dog would be to be included but safely apart when you are busy with your baby. Place training (detailed below) is ideal so that you can use a mat or bed as a “target” for your dog: “you stay there while we do this here for a few moments”. Depending on the space you have, you could have a bed for your dog in various parts of the house or just outside the general vicinity – like just inside or outside the door of baby’s room, or just outside the bathroom during bath time, or on the couch or behind a baby gate on his mat while baby is moving around on the floor, etc. Get your dog used to the areas that are his well in advance so it’s a practiced routine
d. Make any changes to your routine now if you can.
If you will be changing things like when you take your dog on walks, when dinner will be, what the morning routine will be, etc. practice this as much as you can now so it’s not such a big change for your dog – particularly if his own routine will change much.
e. Is your dog currently allowed anywhere that will be shared with your new baby?
If it’s your intention to change that when the baby arrives – no dogs on couches as an example – put those rules into place now and give your dog an alternative place to be so the loss of couch privileges isn’t associated with the baby. If you still intend to have them as shared surfaces, take the time to train your dog a positive “off” cue so you can verbally control your dog’s movement when you need to and when your arms are full. If the cue is trained and practiced in advance, your dog will simply respond automatically as opposed to feeling any confusion or resentment at being told to get off something he’s used to having free access to.
3. Walking your dog.
If you intend to have peaceful strolls with your dog and your new baby through the neighbourhood, practice those walks before baby arrives.
- Practice walking with your dog and the stroller now so both of you know what this will look like.
- Fix any issues that he has with his leash walking now:
- Will your dog be walking on the left, right or behind you?
- Can he switch sides as needed or walk behind or in front when directed?
- Can he easily pass by other people / dogs he meets on a narrow sidewalk while you manage him and your stroller?
- Does he lunge at squirrels or crows or other fast-moving things occasionally?
- Even if your dog has perfect leash walking skills, purchase / borrow a stroller well before you need one so you can desensitize your dog to the noises it makes and to walking with you and the stroller because it’s just going to feel different to your dog.
- Consider doing some training to teach your dog cues to move from one side to the other so it’s easy for him to do and becomes a practiced behaviour in advance of needing to use it.
- Most of us walk our dogs on one side more than the other. Take the time to teach your dog to walk easily on both sides of you. This is likely to become necessary once you factor in strollers and more than one child if that is your future plan.
- If you need a different piece of equipment for your dog to ensure safety for all (a new harness, head halter, muzzle, longer/shorter leash, etc.) get your dog used to that now so that the new equipment is not associated with the newcomer in your home but rather becomes part of the usual daily routine.
Even if your intention is to only walk your dog and child together when there are 2 of you present (one to manage the dog and one to manage the baby), you should still practice all of that before it becomes reality.
I’ve met many previously friendly dogs who suddenly become reactive when the whole family unit is out for walks. It may be a new sense of “protection” or “resource guarding” or a sudden onset of anxiety with these new circumstances – we don’t and won’t know the answer to that. However, if you practice now you have a chance to easily and calmly make new and pleasant associations for your dog and to create a familiar routine before you need to factor in your newborn baby. You can make this new routine comfortable for your dog proactively so that any emotions that may still arise can be quickly soothed and things can transition more smoothly to the new addition being added to the routine.
4. A safe, child-free zone for your dog.
Put some thought into creating a safe space for your dog to retreat to when he feels he needs a break from a busier household. This should be set up and introduced positively to your dog well in advance of the arrival of your baby. It should be a space well out of the general traffic of your home, be very inviting for your dog and a space that can also be shut off if necessary, with a baby gate or door.
It could be a corner or room that can be closed off by a baby gate or door; or it could be a crate or pen that your dog is comfortable and happy being enclosed in.
Help your dog get used to this space, encourage him to spend time in there with the creative use of treat dispensing toys. Also work on getting him comfortable being enclosed in there in case that becomes necessary at times – particularly when your child begins moving about on the ground and in the future when your child has friends over.
You must make a promise to your dog that no child will invade his safe space – it is truly his own to use when he needs it, and you will keep that safe and secure just for him.
Helpful Training Tip:
Train your dog to go to and stay on a particular bed or mat.
“Place” training is such a useful behaviour in so many ways! I think it’s important that dogs aren’t necessarily included in all aspects of baby life such as when baby is sleeping, eating, being changed or cuddled. They can be present but, on their mat, as opposed to right in the thick of the action. We don’t want to exclude them – in fact we very much want to include them – but we do need to keep baby safe and also be able to attend to him or her as necessary and be assured that the dog knows what his role is and where his place is during these times.
Having a bed or more than one bed in various areas of your home for your dog can be very useful. Training him to go there when asked and stay until released is even more useful! Once again, you need to ensure that when you cue your dog to his bed, no child will disturb him during that time. I would also follow up by teaching your children not to disturb a dog on his bed at any time whether he’s there by request or choice – it’ a simple safety and comfort rule for your dog.
Keep in mind that even if you’ve already taught your dog this skill, he may need a refresher once you factor in the noises of baby crying or fussing as a new distraction.
Here is great video from trainer Emily Larlham from her YouTube channel “Dog Training by Kikopup” on the steps for teaching your dog to go to his bed/place. https://youtu.be/U2c5EkytNU0
Here is another great video from Emily. This video goes over conditioning a dog to a new space like a crate or pen – you could easily use this for conditioning the bed and then the new space whether it’s a crate or a room for his new safe space. https://youtu.be/P8yc5Y9HGY4
A final word of advice.
My final piece of advice to you is to make sure to safely incorporate your dog into the time that baby is awake, and you are focussed on your baby more than your dog. This may be with your dog on his bed or in his safe space, or he may be out for a walk with you all, or he may be simply lounging on the other end of the couch while you cuddle baby in preparation for a nap.
Don’t lavish extra attention on your dog when the baby is sleeping or at daycare, or somewhere else in order to “make it up to your dog” for the times you are busy with baby and not him. I realize you may think this is necessary in order to make sure your dog doesn’t resent all the attention the baby receives but I think it can backfire.
I think your dog can begin to think that all the good stuff happens when baby is absent, and he can easily begin to resent the baby being present. Just try and shift this perception around – even better things happen when the baby is with us and you are too!
Good luck with your training and helping your dog welcome your new addition – keep it positive and proactive!