Last year, one of our nurses welcomed a baby boy named Liam into her family. When he was two weeks old, she brought him to our home for a visit. I came in from outdoors to find our older dog, Grendel, half-heartedly sniffing Baby Liam’s toes. Our younger dog, Zohan, however, was being held by my wife on a very short leash. I started to ask why, then looked at his body language. He was staring intently at Baby Liam, with his mouth closed, ears up, not moving so much as a muscle. Such body language in dogs is a huge red flag, and I made a mental note to call our trainer.
As the visit progressed, and Zohan relaxed, we began to reward him whenever he looked away from Liam. As he became calmer and more at ease, we were gradually able to move him closer. Soon, it was time to let him follow Grendel’s lead and approach little Liam for a sniff.
At the touch of Zohan’s nose, Liam stretched, squirmed, and spat his pacifier onto the floor. In less than a second, Zohan had snatched the pacifier, and bolted into another room. It was not, in fact Baby Liam who was the object of my dachshund’s obsession, but rather, the super awesome chew toy which Liam had finally offered to share.
If you’re expecting a baby, it’s important to do what my wife and I did not have the luxury of doing: preparing said dog for a known event, before the event is upon you. Last week, we talked about introducing the family dog to the sights, sounds, and smells of a new baby before the big day arrives. This week, we’ll go over how to properly introduce Rover to the newest member of your family.
While mother and child are in the hospital, bring home a blanket or article of clothing that carries the baby’s scent. Let Rover sniff it in a calm, respectful manner. If he becomes overly excited or attempts to play with the item, calmly remove it and try again later. Do not leave the item within the dog’s reach. He must learn that you control access to this scent, and that he is not allowed to chew it, play with it or carry it around.
Many dogs injure babies accidentally, so while this may seem legalistic, it’s important. Curiosity regarding the scent is fine, but restraint is imperative. Praise and reward your dog for polite behavior, and do not punish or shout at him if he disappoints. You don’t want to inadvertently teach him to associate the baby’s scent with anything negative, so stay calm and keep trying until you get the results you want.
On the day the baby is scheduled to come home, enlist the help of friends with whom the dog is familiar. Have them enter the house first so that if your dog is overly excited, he will expend his energy by jumping on someone other than the new baby. Once he is calm, have a friend attach a leash so that Rover can be controlled during the initial introduction. Like Zohan, Rover likely means the baby no harm, but an overly exuberant greeting can be injurious to a newborn.
Allow closer access only when the dog is calm, and close the distance between baby and dog gradually. Be sure to continually reward Rover’s calm behavior with treats and/or praise. When everyone is calm, allow Rover to sniff the baby’s feet. Make sure a parent is holding the baby for this initial introduction, as parents will be the ones to hold the baby the most. If you have more than one dog, allow each dog to greet the baby separately, rather than as a pack.
Monitor any dog carefully for signs of threatening or fearful behavior. As was the case with our own dog, it may be nothing, but it is always better to be safe as opposed to sorry. For a refresher course on potentially dangerous canine body language, click here.
While it seems counterintuitive, never punish or scold a dog for growling at the baby! A growl is a warning sign which tells you that your dog is feeling frightened or anxious. It is your cue to calmly separate the two parties and seek help from a certified professional dog trainer immediately. A dog who is punished for growling quickly learns that growling is bad, which leads to unpleasant consequences. This may cause a fearful dog to skip the growl and go straight for the bite the next time he is feeling uncomfortable. For a newborn, this can have disastrous consequences.
Be mindful of the fact that canine behaviors are not always what they appear to be. The Internet is awash with videos of the family dog covering the new baby with a blanket, sometimes yawning or stretching throughout the process. While lauded as examples of extreme cuteness, these dogs may or may not be expressing parental instincts.
Dogs may cover items they find offensive in an attempt to keep them at a distance. Some behaviorists warn that this can be a form of "food caching," a behavior in which food items (yes, you read that correctly) are buried to be eaten later. While other behaviorists may have differing views, I believe this is potentially dangerous behavior and always recommend redirecting it. Yawning or stretching outside the context of sleep is a sign of anxiety that further worries me when I see it displayed near young babies.
Regardless of your position on the issue, do not allow your dog to place anything on your baby. In addition to posing a risk of accidental suffocation, it may be a sign that your dog is not properly adjusting to the new addition. Call a trainer immediately and do not leave the two parties unattended.
As a general rule, babies should not be left on the floor with dogs. Do not leave them alone together, not even for a brief moment. Remember the rules you trained Rover to obey during the pregnancy, and enforce them consistently. Finally, keep baby items out of Rover’s reach. Some of the items most commonly ingested by dogs include diapers, baby toys, and as Zohan can attest, pacifiers! The last thing you need is an emergency trip to the vet while trying to settle in with a newborn.
While it may seem overwhelming at first, growing up with dogs can provide a child with lasting impressions of friendship and loyalty, and an appreciation of the human-animal bond. With a little preparation and forward planning, parents-to-be can help their children grow into the role of steward and guardian to man’s — and woman’s — best friend.
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