Bringing Home Baby to a Dog’s World
The scenario is far too common. The happy, expecting couple stroll into the clinic with their four-legged child for her Annual Wellness Exam. The first born of the family is healthy and has a great check-up so I turn my attention to the parents who are expecting their first two-legged child. “Have you starting thinking about how you will introduce your new baby?” All of the sudden, the happy couple becomes the bewildered couple and stares at me with the “deer in the headlights” look. I know it’s time to have “the talk”. Bringing home baby to a pet who has ‘ruled the roost’ for years can be done. We have a few guidelines for you.Many soon-to-be parents don’t realize that without proper precautions and planning, their new bundle of joy will be their pet’s worst nightmare and is even at risk to be harmed by their pet.
It is important that every pet owner who is expecting a child follow a few easy steps to ensure the new addition to the family is a happy addition.
1) Allow your pet to becomes used to “baby stuff” before the big day comes. While babies themselves are terrifying enough for pets, all their stuff can be even worse. Strollers, cribs, toys, high chairs, and car seats are all brand new items for your pet to adjust to. Stock the nursery early and allow your pets time to get used to all the new stuff before their is a screaming child who is taking all your time and energy sitting in them. Even going on walks with the empty stroller or having bonding time in the baby-less nursery can put your pets at ease. If your pet is anxious or scared around new noises, play recordings of baby noises in the months leading up to the delivery. Start at low levels that your pet doesn’t react to and slowly work up to “real life” levels. Do positive things with your pets such as eating, giving treats, brushing, and playing during these noise desensitization sessions to allow your pet to become comfortable with the change.
2)Teach a calm, controlled behavior. Many dogs get excited around new people and like to jump up on them to greet them. Teach your dog to “sit” or “lay” and make them do it before they receive anything (food, treats, toys, affection, etc.). Think of it as teaching your dog to say “please” before they get something they want. Pets with good manners are less likely to injure children or be scolded by adults who are holding children. Remember, we want having a baby to be a happy experience for the pets and constantly getting scolded because the baby is around will lead to further fear and anxiety for your pet.
3) Be VERY intentional about the actual “homecoming”. Most new parents think about a lot of things before bringing the new baby home: perfect outfit, car seat properly installed, nursery ready, etc. How to greet the pets when they walk in the door is usually not on their radar. Remember,you have been gone from the pets for 2-4 days and the pets are going to be excited to see you when you finally get home. Think about how they will feel when that excitement is tempered by a new “pet” that is taking all their attention. The first interaction between pets and parents after the baby is born should be WITHOUT the baby. This may mean that each parent enters separately or that a neighbor or family member helps with the initial meeting. Once the excitement of the parents being home wears off, the bringing home baby can begin.
There should always be two adults present at the introduction- one to supervise the baby and one to supervise the pet(s). Make sure dogs are on leashes for easy restraint, if needed. The pets should be allowed to be around the baby but don’t force an introduction. If the dog seems anxious or fearful, the adult supervising the dog should calmly, without making a big deal, pick up the leash and walk the dog away from the baby. Again, remember to make the baby a positive experience and avoid scolding the pet because of the baby. It is important to note that a small percentage of dogs will see a baby as a prey-like object. These dogs will be intensely focused on the baby much like they would be if they see a squirrel or a bird in the yard. If you see this type of behavior the dog should be keep strictly separated from the baby. A reintroduction may be tried once the baby is older and more “human-like” but until then the dog cannot have access to the baby. If you see this behavior please contact your veterinarian and seek the advice of a certified behaviorist immediately.
4) Create barriers. A child should NEVER be left alone with a dog, no matter how well behaved a dog is. Dogs are animals and animals have instincts. You do not want your dog’s natural instincts to lead to a serious accident with your baby. At home, you can accomplish this by using baby gates and other barriers to allow for “pet free” zones where the baby can play by himself without parents or pets. In the car this means everyone needs a car seat. Pets should be in carriers or restrained by harnesses and kids should be in their infant carriers or carseats. This is safest for the kids and the pets! Remember to reward your pet for being quiet and well behaved when behind a barrier or in a crate to positively reinforce the desired behavior. It is also a good idea to think ahead to when the baby will be mobile and start feeding pets behind barriers so children don’t disturb the pets while they are eating as food aggression is a common reason for dog bites in children.
5) Spend some time alone with your pets after bringing home baby. Pets often get -metaphorically- tossed aside and forgotten once the new baby comes home. This leads to fear, anxiety, and even aggression towards the baby. Take some intentional baby-free time with your pets to help them see you still care about them and be equally intentional when the baby is around. You don’t want to ignore your pets every time the baby is in the room. Reward your pet when the baby is around and make the baby a positive experience.
Having a baby rocks everyone’s world, pets and parents alike. But just as we form lasting bonds with our children, our children and pets can also form lasting bonds as long as you get started on the right foot (or paw).
by Drew McWatters, DVM who has two children, two cats, and a dog at home