Introducing a Dog to a New Baby



You or your family is expecting a new baby; however, you already have a "child," the family dog. The dog has been a member of the household since puppyhood and is very attached to you. He often attempts to wedge himself between you and visitors when the visitors get too close. He seems "jealous" of visitors and you are worried how he will react to the baby. Will he be depressed? Not eat? Sulk? Get destructive and spiteful? Are you wondering if these concerns are legitimate? What can be done to prevent problems before and after the new baby arrives?

Social and Parental Behaviors of Dogs

The nature of canids - wolves and dogs - is that of the family group. It is normally two dominant adults and related individuals of various ages. Usually only the two dominant adults breed, yet all members of the pack help to care for the mother and pups, bring meat back to the mother and pups, and guard the pups. Subordinate females may "baby-sit" and even help nurse the puppies. Domestic dogs do not commonly bring food back to a mother and pups but may guard a bitch during pregnancy and while she is lactating, as well as guard or watch over the puppies.

Pet dogs relate to you and other family members as if they were members of the family. Ideally, your baby will be accepted by the dog as an offspring included in this family unit. In fact, dogs are more likely to protect an infant from strangers or visitors than they are to be "jealous."

Most problems that arise between a dog and child occur when the child reaches the crawling and walking stages, at about a year or so. Nonetheless, you should be aware that there is a potential for problems occurring and insure your baby is safe. The most serious potential problem is for your dog to fail to recognize the new baby as a human being that should be included in the family unit. Obviously, a baby will not be perceived as another dog. Also, since the baby does not look, smell, or sound like a "human being" to the dog if it is not familiar with infants, the dog may interpret the baby as prey.

Dogs' Reactions to a Baby

Most dogs are curious about babies, especially if the dog has had little or no exposure to infants or a long time has elapsed since it has seen a baby. If you have seen your dog react to other babies, either in your home, on the street, or in other people's homes, be aware of your dog's typical reactions and take whatever precautions necessary. Most dogs adapt quickly and easily to the presence of a new baby. However, since the consequences can be so serious, assume that your dog will react negatively and take every safety precaution possible, regardless how your dog has reacted in previous encounters with babies.

Babies can be accidentally hurt as a dog attempts to play with or investigate the infant. An extremely active dog, for example, can accidentally injure a baby while jumping up on the owner or cause an accident while running around. These types of problems can be avoided if your dog is obedience trained.

Dogs with a history of aggression toward people require special caution. An aggressive dog that reacts to visitors, mail carriers, and other dogs can injure a baby if the child happens to come between the dog and the object of its aggression. Dogs that become aggressive when approached while eating or in possession of a bone, toy, or other favorite item or that become aggressive if startled or when awakened require very close supervision in the presence of a baby.

The most potentially dangerous situations are predatory responses. Extra caution should be taken if your dog has a history of predatory behavior like chasing and/or killing small game, especially if it has been bred for this purpose. This tip has special importance if the dog has had little or no exposure to infants. It is also important for you to realize that exposure to and interaction with small children is not the same as exposure to and interaction with an infant. Just because your dog plays in a friendly, gentle manner with children, do not assume it will react the same way to a baby. Infants are very different from children. Children are usually, although not always, interpreted by dogs as people; infants may not be.

Please understand that a few infants are severely injured by dogs each year and, in fact, some are killed. The number of infants killed by dogs is very small, not more than 10 per year throughout the entire United States, and, in contrast, many thousands of infants in the U.S. are victims of automobile accidents, burns, drowning, choking, suffocation, and poisoning. Although the risk is small, there is cause for concern about a dog's reaction to your baby and precautions will help insure that your baby does not become a "statistic."

Monitoring Your Dog's Behavior

All interactions between your baby and dog should be monitored very carefully. This monitoring should continue until your dog is paying no attention to the infant or is completely friendly toward the baby. Never leave a baby or small child UNATTENDED with a dog for ANY REASON.

Help your dog learn that the baby belongs in your family by exposing the dog to the baby in a very gradual and controlled manner. The exposure should be positive so the dog does not associate unpleasant situations with the baby so the dog does not feel anxious or aggressive in the baby's presence.

Introducing Dogs to Babies

The following suggestions should help your dog to adjust to your new baby:

1. Getting Ready for the Arrival.

Preparations should begin months before the baby arrives. If your dog does not know how to sit, stay, lie down, or come when called, it should be taught to do so. If your dog already knows these commands but is unreliable, practice these obedience exercises with the dog until it is reliable. Even if you consider your dog "pretty good," that may not be good enough and could lead to your having a false sense of security. Imagine how your dog, if excited, will react when you bring the baby home. Can you depend on it to reliably sit and stay or down and stay and not rush toward the baby?

If you have had some experience training a dog, you might try obedience procedures at home. Otherwise, it would be best to take your dog to a good, humane training class. Your dog should associate the various obedience commands such as sit, stay, and come with pleasant experiences. Although your dog may need to be corrected occasionally, force methods should be avoided. After all, the goal is for the dog to like both the owner and the baby, not simply for it to obey because it is frightened or afraid of being punished.

Once your dog learns the basic sit/stay and down/stay commands, you should continue to work these commands at home. You should start requiring that your dog sit/stay or down/stay as you do things that resemble "baby activities" around it. For example, pick up a doll, cradle it, rock it, and walk back and forth. Periodically, reward the dog with tidbits, petting or praise for remaining in a sitting position while this is going on. The doll should also be wrapped in baby blankets and shown to the dog, which must learn to control itself and to refrain from moving. Because dogs respond with interest to strange sounds, it is a good idea to accustom your dog to the recorded sounds of a baby crying, babbling, or making other normal "baby" sounds. Ideally, if the opportunity is available, expose your dog - in a controlled manner to ensure the infants safety - to real babies of friends or neighbors. This procedure should be considered only if the dog is reliably trained and controllable. The dog should gradually be exposed to babies until it can remain relaxed in their presence. This may require several sessions.

If your baby is born in a hospital, your dog will remain at home. You can use this interval to familiarize your dog with the baby's smell by bringing home blankets or clothing the baby has worn. (On the subject of diapers: It would behoove you to keep soiled diapers in a tightly closed container. One of the functions of a mother dog is to lick up the urine and feces of puppies to keep the sleeping area clean. Quite frequently, female dogs will ingest the feces of a human baby and may go to great lengths to clean up after the child, including raiding diaper buckets! This is not an abnormal behavior but a normal aspect of canine maternal behavior.)

2. Bringing Your Baby Home

When mother and child come home from the hospital, it is best if mother greets the dog without the baby present. The baby should be held by another family member or, better still, put in another room while the mother and dog greet each other. This way, you can avoid reprimanding an excited dog that merely wants to greet the owner and that may jump at the baby in an attempt to get near the mother.

Owners should allow some time for the dog to get used to the smells and sounds of the baby, which to it are the presence of another creature in the house. Later, when the level of excitement in the household has decreased and the dog appears relaxed, the baby and dog can be introduced to each other.

One parent should attend to the baby and the other to the dog. The dog should be in a sit/stay or down/stay and on a leash. If there is any concern that the dog may leap at the baby, a halter or muzzle should be placed on the dog. (The dog should already be used to the muzzle prior to this introduction.) The dog should be allowed to see the baby from 10 to 15 feet away. Then either the dog or baby should be brought closer to the other, slowly, one foot at a time. If the dog remains calm and under control, it might be allowed to sniff the baby, again from a safe distance. If the dog is extremely excited, however, this progression should not be attempted. If the dog has a history of predatory or aggressive behaviors, it may take many introductions before dog and baby are close enough for the dog to investigate the baby closely.

Err on the side of caution when determining when your dog is ready to approach your baby close enough to actually sniff the baby. Over a period of days, however, your dog should be allowed to smell the baby up close. After several introductions, and when it is clear that the dog is not going to nip or lunge at the baby, you can allow your dog off the leash near your infant.

(This does not mean unsupervised visitation or that you should lay the child down for the dog to investigate it.) As a further precaution, the dog can continue to wear a comfortable muzzle when around the baby.

3. The First Several Days and Thereafter

Remember, your dog should not have unsupervised access to your baby - EVER. You will want to be especially careful when the baby is screaming, crying, or waving its arms and legs. These actions can elicit a predatory, investigatory, or play-leap reaction by the dog toward the infant. It is wiser to either put the dog in another room or put the dog in a down/stay several feet away from the baby.

Unfortunately, dogs frequently begin to "act up" after a new baby arrives. It is unclear whether these behaviors occur because of "jealousy" or simply because the dog is being deprived of its usual and expected amount of social attention and affection. You will want to start reducing the attention that you give your dog 2 or 3 months prior to the baby's arrival. This will help the dog accept that it is no longer the "focus" of your attention. When the baby comes home, you should ensure that your dog gets sufficient attention.

One tip that can be helpful is that whenever you begin to do something with you baby, you can put the dog in a sit/stay and periodically reward it with a tidbit. This procedure allows the dog to associate pleasant experiences with the baby and gives the dog extra attention when the baby is present.

If after the first several days you are still concerned that your dog might harm your baby, a screen door or gate could be fastened at the entrance to the child's room. This precaution allows you to hear the baby but eliminates your dog's access to the room.

Also, keep in mind when you take your infant to visit friends or relatives that the dogs encountered there may not be accustomed to an infant in their homes. Baby-sitters should be cautioned not to bring dogs with them to the home of an infant. Tragic incidents have occurred when adults mistakenly believed a dog was in the backyard or securely confined away from a baby.

Dogs may push open doors and actively investigate the strange sounds and odors of an infant.

Conclusion

As a new parent, although you should be aware of potential problems, you should not worry excessively about the potential problem of your dog injuring your infant. Most dogs adjust to new babies easily, quietly and without incident. If you are observant of your dog's behavior, and take precautions to introduce dog and baby to each other gradually while your dog is under control, you should be able to avoid accidents or troublesome incidents.   


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