Can You “Baby-Proof” Your Dog?

The dog training school where I teach has a exciting new partnership with Babies-R-Us: We’re about to start monthly seminars for expecting and new parents on finding your “new normal” with a baby plus a dog. I’m using today’s post to organize my thoughts and brainstorm a bit. I’ll lay out the best advice I’ve gathered from my research and toss out some insights from personal experience. I’m also inviting readers–other trainers, dog lovers, parents–to share their knowledge, success stories, and cautionary tales.

Jaime to 7104 245I’m a mom myself. In addition to my fabulous husband, my family includes two school-age humans (or as I call them, humans-in-training), one dog, one cat and two rabbits. That’s a lot of moving parts, but usually the machinery of our multi-species household runs with few glitches. Eleven years ago, when I brought home my first newborn baby, I had a different dog, and I wasn’t a trainer. Although I’d had dogs all my life, I was missing a lot of information that could have helped me make the transition to post-baby life a bit easier on my dog. Luckily for all of us, my dog Sachem was a pretty unflappable girl, and my husband’s and my intuition about how to keep Sachem from feeling exiled from life on Planet Baby was sufficiently on-target to avoid trouble. But if I had it to do over again, I’d take advantage of the multitude of great resources out there, especially from top-notch dog+kid gurus like Colleen Pelar (www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com), Jennifer Shryock (www.familypaws.com) and Joan Orr (www.doggonesafe.com). I’m looking forward to the chance to bring their insights, along with those of fellow trainers, and a few of my own, to parents just embarking on this wild ride. I want people to come away from these seminars feeling the advice was, above all else, reassuring and realistic.

I remember how it feels to be a new mom. You’re walking on air but scared to death. You’re exhilarated but exhausted. You want to do everything perfectly but sometimes you feel like you can’t do anything right. Meeting your baby’s limitless needs drains most of your physical and emotional energy; everybody else better take a number and get in line. You worry you’re breaking your dog’s heart. You hope your dog will learn to love your baby as much as you do, but fear if you turn your back for one second, your dog may gobble her up. You crave guidance about how to make this all work for you, your baby and your dog. BUT…it better be doable. It better not take a @#$%&! village. It should require only as much cognitive function as the average person can muster on 3 hours of sleep. What I want these expecting and new parents to hear from me is, “Don’t worry, you CAN do this!”, not “You’d better do this, and not do that, and any mistake you make is going to ruin everything forever.”

So with all that in mind, here’s some of the stuff I plan to share, based on my own experience, discussions with fellow trainers, and astute advice from dog experts I respect. And I’m eager to hear from readers: What recommendations have you given or received? What pearls of wisdom do you offer? What do know now that you wish you’d known then?

Preparing your dog before your baby arrives

Acclimate your dog to new routines

Ok, let’s face it. Life with a newborn is unpredictable, so envisioning our new schedules and habits in explicit detail isn’t very realistic, is it? But there are a couple obvious things that may change.

If you plan to make changes to where your dog can and can’t go, you can start getting him ready now. For example, if you’re going to crate him at night after the baby comes, teach him to love his crate and spend nights in the crate well in advance. If some rooms will be off limits, like the nursery, start gating them off now.

Walks, outdoor play, and other opportunities for exercise will decrease for a while. And that’s ok; you’re going to find ways to make that work. Start mixing in shorter walks, and experiment with low-exercise days, and see what this does to your dog’s energy level and behavior. If lack of exercise creates a monster, think about hiring a dog walker after the baby comes, or scheduling a neighborhood teenager to come over every afternoon to play with your dog in the yard.

Jaime to 7104 002Expose your dog to baby gear

Car seats, strollers, and other assorted baby paraphernalia will enter your dog’s life. Dogs have a hard-wired survival instinct to treat novelty with suspicion, so someone carrying a car seat may look threatening, and a stroller–especially in motion–may seem menacing. Introduce him to these unfamiliar objects well in advance of the baby’s arrival. Let your dog get acquainted by thorough sniffing, and give him treats when he’s near them to build a positive association.

Train the behaviors you’ll need most

Invest in training your dog now. You can get a lot of mileage out of just a few basic cues, like sit, drop it, leave it, and “go to your bed”.  Polite behaviors are always appreciated, and once the baby comes, you’ll be even more grateful that your dog understands and responds quickly to your instructions. If there are behavioral issues that concern you, like resource guarding, destructive chewing, or anxiety, get a professional trainer to help you address them.

Learn to “speak dog”

Dogs are always telling us how they feel through body language. But we may miss signs of stress if we don’t know what to look for. Here are some of the best resources I’ve come across to help you translate your dog’s yawns, lip licking, tail tucking, and other subtle signals.

http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/photos.html

http://www.doggonesafe.com/Speak_Dog

Orchestrating the first moments, hours and days after your baby arrives

There’s no perfect way to do this, so don’t sweat the small stuff. For the parents, the baby’s safety will be your foremost priority. For your dog, investigating this intriguing creature with his nose will be paramount.

Smells are telling

While your baby is still in the hospital, have someone bring home a blanket or something else with the baby’s scent, and give it to your dog to sniff. Letting him “meet” the baby indirectly will help him recognize the baby to some degree when the baby comes home for the first time.

Up close and personal

When you bring your baby home, dad can carry the baby and mom can spend some time greeting the dog, giving him another chance to smell the baby’s scent and get familiar with it. Then you can have a brief, carefully supervised encounter where your dog gets a few sniffs of the baby herself, and then gets a stuffed Kong or bully stick to divert his attention and keep him happily occupied. You can have multiple brief sniffing sessions followed by yummy snacks over the next couple days. Check out this free webinar from Jennifer Shryock for a step-by-step how-to: http://familypaws.com/2012/introducing-dog-to-baby-welcome-home-webinar/

Surviving those first chaotic months and meeting everyone’s needs

Jaime to 7104 245Build positive associations

Avoid saving most of your affection and play time for baby’s nap time; otherwise your dog may conclude that life is better when your baby is out of the picture. You want your dog to learn that good things happen when your baby is present. Use plenty of stuffed Kongs, chewies, and food-dispensing toys to keep your dog happy and busy around your baby. This way you can safely include him in family activities so he doesn’t feel neglected.

Accept favors

Your friends and family keep saying, “If I can do anything to help, let me know!” They mean it, so take them up on their offers. Enlist their help in exercising your dog so he can be as calm and well-behaved as possible at home around the baby. Have them stuff Kongs. Ask them to make a run to the pet store for you. Have them play on the floor with the dog while you’re feeding the baby on the couch.

May 2006 062Go places together

Go on walks, take hikes, and visit parks as a family. It’s good for EVERYONE to get out of the house and get a change of scene!

Use those cues

If your dog knows  sit, leave it, down, and go to bed, you’ll be able to give your dog clear instructions about what you want him to do (or stop doing) around the baby, and he’ll be able to understand, comply, and get rewarded. When your dog knows what’s expected of him, he can avoid the unpleasant repercussions of doing the “wrong” thing, like being scolded or sent away. This way he can be trusted around the baby and still be included in family activities.

About Karen Baragona

I'm a dog trainer (CPDT-KA) with a soft spot for shelter and rescue dogs who are a little rough around the edges. My own rescue dog Huckleberry, an exuberant hound mix, gave me a run for my money with her reactivity, resource guarding, squirrel chasing, fear of car rides, and unapologetic boisterousness. But she made me a better, more empathetic trainer. As a group class training instructor, private in-home trainer, and animal shelter behavior counselor, I've worked with hundreds of dogs and their people to help them understand and learn from each other. I have a special interest in interactions between dogs and kids, and dogs and other household pets. I also have a master's degree in environmental science and in a past life worked in international wildlife conservation for 15 years.

8 comments

  1. I am so excited to hear about the Babies R Us partnership. I cannot think of a class that would be so worthwhile as this one! Maybe this will spark a flame for other dog trainers in the business to do similar partnerships. I love that dog body language will be taught in this class!

  2. Many great tips here. Love and appreciate the reference to Family Paws Parent Education. I know that “baby-proofing” is a catchy phrase but it is one that I think we should be careful about. What does this imply? Is this really what we want our families to expect? Does this set families up for success? Let’s focus more on modeling and active full adult supervision from the start as we help the next generation learn how to live with our 4 legged family members one stage at a time.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer–and it’s an honor to hear from you. I’m pursuing becoming a Dogs & Storks and Dogs & Toddlers presenter and really want to do this right. Yes, baby-proofing is catchy, even glib. I thought of it and rejected it long ago because of course nothing is truly “baby-proof”, AND I felt it did an injustice to the dogs because we always want to keep their well-being in mind–not just make sure it’s safe for them to be near a baby. But then I decided I was overthinking it, and it did sound catchy, a kind of familiar short-hand for at least part of what we’re talking about. But I see it does rankle, so I’m going to avoid it in the future, and I appreciate your calling me on this! I’m looking forward to using some of your materials in our classes, and I’m excited at the prospect of becoming a presenter for your organization.

      1. Karen,
        This subject is definitely can be a challenging one. It is tempting to lighten it up and use catchy phrases (believe me) but we always have to be mindful of the potential expectations we may set with our audience. There are some things we can soften while others less so. It is great that we had a chance to discuss this wording here. I see it often and it always makes me cringe. I appreciate your openness and reconsideration. We all are growing and learning and that is a great thing!

  3. As a presenter with both Family Paws Parent Education (FPPE) and Doggone Safe, I appreciate you referencing the aspects of both organizations. In my experience, if parents simply have general information about baby preparation and dog bite prevention, they might not take the baby preparation seriously. There is no replacement for training the dog to prepare for the baby and after the baby’s birth and arrival in the home. Without practice for several weeks or months, especially with a dog that is fearful or reactive or uncomfortable around babies, children, and/or adults, there is no way that the dog would be adequately prepared for the baby to enter the home. When the baby starts to move/crawl, that is another aspect of baby stages that needs to be prepared in advance, as does walking babies/toddlers. I would encourage new parents to partner with a dog trainer who is a member of FPPE and Doggone Safe to gain the most benefit from their baby and toddler preparation with their dog.

    1. Elizabeth, thanks so much for your recommendations. I’m a big fan of both organizations and am pursuing becoming a presenter for both Be a Tree and Dogs & Storks. My own dog (not the one in the pictures) bit my daughter when she was 4, and (I’m embarrassed to say) it was only then that I really started devoting myself to learning about dog behavior & training and bite prevention. Now as a trainer, I see and hear about dog-kid interactions all the time that make my blood run cold. Parents clearly need more information than they’re getting–and more than they realize they need!–about keeping the peace between kids and dogs. This blog post is indeed very general! Do you find it challenging to give parents sufficiently comprehensive preparation without overwhelming them and putting them off? I see so many families who just want it all to be easy, and assume it will be.

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