Dogs and Babies

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This article was written by an old friend of mine Toddy Hope Peters and is very useful to help your dog adjust when a new baby is due


Dogs and Babies can coexist peacefully – my own experiences and methods.


I have successfully introduced three babies to two different dogs in my life and would like to share how it was done to ensure harmony between baby and dog.


In both dogs’ cases, they were around before the babies.  My first dog had been with us a year when my first nephew came to stay.  He was four when my second nephew was born.  My present dog was two and a half when my daughter was born.  Both   dogs were rescue dogs, and were about four months old when we brought them home.  Shimoda, my first dog, was a collie cross from Battersea, and Storm is a border collie from the local RSPCA.  He has a lot of “collie quirks” and some psychological or neurological damage which exhibits as extreme stress reactions such as stereotypical fly chasing behaviour. 


From very early on, we made sure the dogs were used to a lot of handling, rougher handling as well as usual stroking.  As puppies they were used to their skin being gently stretched, and their whole bodies being brushed and combed and handled.  They would be rewarded as we played with their paws and ears and looked at their teeth.  All of this is sensible practice anyway, to make sure a dog will accept a thorough examination by a vet without need for sedation, but also makes sure the dog will be used to being grabbed and pulled, so he won’t show resentment.  This is not to say I would allow my children to grab any animal, but it is better to be sure that the dog is used to it in case it does happen.  It is possible that other parents won’t have taught their children not to grab at dogs, and your children will have all sorts of playmates over time!


I had an unusual method of feeding my dogs early on (I have another unusual method now, but that’s a different article entirely.)  I would put the weighed food in a plastic bag (I use a dry food so this is easier) and sit on the floor with the dog and the food bowl in front of me.  I would then put a handful of the kibble into the food bowl and let the dog eat it.  When he has finished this, I put another handful in.  While he is eating this, I take another handful from the bag and put it in the bowl as he is eating.  I continue this until all the food is gone.  I might also occasionally open my hand with the food in it and let him eat it directly from my hand.  This is to teach him that my hand in his food bowl is a good thing, and means he is getting more food, not that I am threatening him or taking any food away.  This is very useful now as my daughter is crawling and loves to crawl up to Storm as he is having his food, and he just wags and lets her play with his food or he sometimes walks away.  I do usually get there and remove her, but it is good to know he is not possessive over food.  


I have learned a similar exercise from a very innovative dog-trainer friend which ensures I can take toys or bones (or anything edible) away from my dog without him feeling possessive, which could lead to a confrontation and possibly even a bite.  This involves offering a chew or bone to the dog without letting go of it myself.  I sit and hold it out to him, averting my head and eyes so as not to challenge him.  Eventually he tries to take it, but I don’t let go.  Now he has to decide whether to leave it or to chew what he can.  Most dogs will be tempted and lick the bone.  Holding it on the floor, but without letting go, I then let him chew the bone at the end I am not holding.  If he gets too near my hand I make a growling “aaah” noise and he stops.  Periodically I take it up and then offer it back to him, and then after a while I remove it and give him a smaller treat (like a biscuit) to finish instead.  This way he learns he is not being deprived, and that he gets a treat for letting go.  It also teaches him that these things are mine and I share them with him.  It also reinforces the fact that my hand on food is a good thing, as he is allowed it as long as my hand is on it.  This reinforces what I taught him about possessiveness of food.


In specific preparation for the baby, we did many things to get the dogs used to the changes. If you are inclined that way, the Bach remedy “Walnut” is used to help deal with change, and it may help, it certainly can’t harm.  I bought a baby doll and went about with it in a sling and let Storm see me changing nappies and “feeding” it and holding it in my arms.  He was allowed to sniff and lick it and was pushed down if he tried to jump up.  We had stopped him from jumping up most of the time, but he found the doll very interesting, so wanted to see it, but this meant we stopped it before there was any chance of a real baby being hurt.  We also crawled around on the floor and held his toys in our mouths, and barged into him as he ate or slept.  We tested his reactions and got him used to very weird behaviour.  


Another thing that was very important was something we always did anyway, but is more important if a baby is expected, and that is to teach the dog to spend a large part of the day being ignored.  This may sound harsh, but in accordance with the social structure of a pack of dogs, the more important dogs largely ignore the lesser dogs.  Being ignored calms many an over-excitable dog and it also makes them used to the fact that once the baby arrives they will not have all your attention.  If they are used to this from well before, they will never associate being ignored with the arrival of the baby.  Many trainers advocate using some signal to show the dog that during this time he will be ignored.  You could teach him that when the doll is out he is ignored, or you could use a more neutral sign like a tea towel hung over a door handle, or a ping-pong bat on the coffee table, but I simply ignored my dog a lot of the time, then called him over for a quick love and then sent him away again.  A very important point at which he should be ignored is for ten minutes before you go out and for five or ten minutes after you come home.  I also tried never to give in to his attention seeking when he demanded it, and push him away so that he would learn that he only gets attention on my terms, but I do find it difficult to stick to all the time, after all, he is my beloved pooch!


After my daughter was born, while I was in hospital, I sent home a dirty nappy and worn baby-grows and vests.  Not for them to be washed, but for them to be sniffed (the nappy) and left lying around (the clothes) so the dog could get used to the new smell.  This way, it would not be so new and alien by the time baby came home.  


On coming home, I followed the advice of dog trainers from the training school I also train at.  I had seen the same advice given in both the well known dog magazines, and I was very confident about it as I knew a family who had done exactly this with a dog with very similar temperament to Storm.  The accepted and very successful method of bringing the baby home is to make sure someone else brings the baby into the house.  This is the one time in his life when you do not ignore the dog when you come home.  You make a big fuss of him and show him how pleased you are to see him and get all his exuberance and endorphins going.  Give him a treat and a good cuddle.  By this time, the baby is in the house, and he has barely noticed the tiny stranger.  He will only have fantastic happy feelings to the new smell in the house as it came in as he was being given such a great time.  If he starts getting wound up, then it would be appropriate to give him a few minutes of being ignored to calm down.  When he has calmed down, sit down, and let someone put the baby in your arms.  They should give you a handful of treats for the dog too.  Gently unwrap the baby’s feet and let the dog have a good sniff and lick of them.  Once he has done this, give him a treat and a gentle stroke and let him have a couple of treats off the floor near the baby too.  I also keep a stash of treats next to the chair I sit in to feed my daughter, so I can give Storm the odd treat while paying attention to the baby, so he can see that he can be rewarded even when my attention is on her.  


Another word of advice is not to get too hung up on germs and so on.  If you react with horror if your dog licks your baby, the dog will pick up on your fear and it will unnerve him.  This is dangerous.  My baby has been licked by many breeds of dog, from collie to German shepherd; elkhound to Rottweiler.  Only the other day a lovely Great Dane washed my daughter’s face with one lick!  My daughter giggled delightedly.  She has been known to chew on Kong toys and puts her head in Storm’s empty dog bowl.  I’ve even been told she’s eaten a stray piece of kibble – and this was when she was refusing lovingly prepared purees!!  (Good thing I buy organic high quality kibble!)  She is rarely ill, has never had a stomach upset, doesn’t vomit and is generally a happy sunny friendly child.  I don’t think she will grow up with allergies like both her father and I do!


I would add that it is worth getting advice from a trainer local to you if you are expecting a baby, and already have a dog.  Your dog can be assessed for any major problem areas, and you can be given tailor-made advice.  Talk to other dog owners, especially of dogs you feel are well behaved, as chances are they’ve had kids around their dogs, so can give advice too.  The most important thing to remember is get prepared; you’ll have a few months to get your dog used to the changes, so use them to your best advantage. 


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