Roughly two-thirds of American families own at least one dog. Add baby to the mix and often times the family dog drops quickly on the priority list, or is removed from the household altogether. Before your baby arrives, prepare your dog for the changes ahead and enjoy the rewards of raising your children alongside your furry companion. "We tend to underestimate how...stress and change can affect a dog's behavior," says SueZanne Thibodeau, a certified humane education specialist who teaches expectant parents how to help the family dog with the transition.
Manners are a Must!
Teach your dog appropriate behaviors including basic commands like: sit, down, stay, come, drop it, and leave it. "Make it fun. No prong collars, choke collars, or shock collars. Instead use treats and toys to help motivate the dog," says Kristyn Savage, a certified dog trainer. "Before the baby (arrives), sit in the chair that you will be nursing or feeding in and have the dog do the obedience in those areas." Keep treats near the changing table and nursing station to create an association between pleasant experiences and baby.
When Ali Foulk was expecting her son, Hans, she worried about her German Shepherd, Blondie's fearful behavior. Following Savage's advice, Foulk turned what could have been a dicey situation into a positive one. "My son is now two and loves our dog. Blondie is extraordinarily gentle with him. Hans can give her a sit or down command, give her treats, and throw balls. Playing together entertains both of them and fosters confidence and language development in my son," Foulk says.
Prepare for the Commotion!
Toys dropping on hard floors, swings moving, and baby crying may alarm a dog, especially one sensitive to sounds. Purchase a CD or download a soundtrack of a baby crying from iTunes or Google. Play the sounds at a low volume for your dog while offering treats. Over time increase the volume of the cries.
Establish those Boundaries!
Manage your dog's access to your baby and her accouterments, like the diaper can and toys, with baby gates and closed doors. Christina Thomas started preparing her two mixed-breed rescue dogs for the arrival of her baby, Makayla, long before her daughter's birth. She trained her dogs to go to a "safe" space, like their dog beds, when they want to be left alone. "They are not allowed to be protective of their space but they know it is a safe area that we will always make sure they can rest peacefully there," Thomas says. "The dogs now trust that they won't be hurt by our daughter and are very accepting of her."
Before coming home from the hospital, send your husband or a relative home with a blanket that smells like your baby. Introduce the new scent to your dog with treats and praise. Before you arrive home, have a friend or relative crate your dog or put her in a safe room. "You don't have to introduce your dog to your baby on the day you come home from the hospital," Thibodeau says. With hormones soaring, you may feel anxious or stressed when first coming home with your baby. Dogs can sense your stress which can raise their stress levels.
When you feel calm, have someone else control your dog on a leash, while you remain seated with your baby. Since a dog learns about the world through smell, allow her to sniff the diaper area and your baby's feet while covered with booties or socks. Avoid the baby's head, face, and fingers. Watch for subtle body language, including tongue flicking and looking or turning away; early signs that your dog feels uncomfortable and wants to disengage. Immediately consult with a certified dog trainer experienced in behavioral modification if your dog exhibits any aggressive behavior. Never leave your dog alone with your child. Even a well-trained dog could bite a child who is climbing on it or pulling on its tail or ears.
Additional resources include www.DogStarDaily.com, The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog by Dr. Patricia McConnell, and Living with Kids and Dogs...Without Losing Your Mind by Colleen Pelar.
Life presents few dull moments for Christa Melnyk Hines, a freelance writer, and her husband who are blessed with two freewheeling little boys and a pair of playful dogs.