Trainers like Seattle's Dog's Day Out owner Danette Johnston regularly receive phone calls from families desperate to help their pups acclimate to a new child. On the top of the list: bites. Dangerous and scary for parents, a dog's bite can be devastating to a family. Here are Danette's tips to prevent dog issues with your new baby, broken down into five categories: general safety, healthcare, desensitization, exercise and training.
- Dogs "speak" body language, they do not speak a verbal language. Dogs are far more sensitive to movement than humans, and babies and children can move unpredictably, often making them hard for dogs to read.
- Dogs don't bite "out of nowhere." There are always signs prior, and it most commonly occurs when a dog is sleeping, eating or cornered. Remember: any dog pushed or cornered can lash out.
- Never leave a baby and a dog unattended together. Make sure you've given your dog his own space that is out of baby's reach, such as a crate. Helpful tip: make sure your dog can exit away from the baby and is not trapped in a corner.
- Watch your dog's body language, especially signs of stress:
There are some zoonotic (transferable between dogs and humans) diseases, but relatively few are extremely dangerous. In fact, studies show huge health and behavioral benefits for children living in a home with pets, including fewer instances of allergies and greater mental health benefits. Here are some best practices to keep in mind for a healthy home:
- De-worm your dog on a regular basis if you are worried about worms (especially if your dog is eats feces on walks).
- Keep your baby away from the dog's droppings. If your dog poops in the yard, pick it up immediately.
- Don't let your dog (or baby!) drink standing water.
- General health: keep your dog free of fleas and mites. Feed your dog high quality food, and keep him bathed and brushed.
- Keep your dog's nails trimmed and filed. Long nails can easily scratch a baby.
For behavioral preparation, your dog will need classical conditioning and desensitization, preferably before the baby is even born. Condition the dog to various baby-related stimuli by pairing delicious high value treats with a "scary" or unfamiliar stimulus (something that makes your dog nervous or uncomfortable). There are a few exercises you can do with your dog to get him used to the "scary" stimulus of a baby:
- Handling exercises can help get your dog used to being handled by a baby or small child. You would do this by touching different parts of your dog's body (touch ears, feet, tails, grab collar etc.) while at the SAME time feeding him delicious treats. Go slowly. The goal is to get your dog comfortable and relaxed while you are doing this; if he acts uncomfortable, back off and wait until he is comfortable and relaxed again.
- Desensitize your dog to baby sounds. Buy, download, or play videos with recorded baby sounds and gradually expose your dog to them.
- Desensitize your dog to baby equipment and toys that move or make startling noises, like swings or strollers. Pair the noise/swing/toys with delicious treats. For example, turn on the musical swing and simultaneously give your dog treats then turn swing off and stop the treats. Repeat.
- Desensitize your dog to babies and children by associating all children with treats! If you have friends with kids and your dog is now comfortable with a stroller (and comfortable around children), have the child toss treats to your dog from their stroller or high chair.
When a baby is born, everyone's schedule changes and dogs are creatures of habit. While your dog is thrilled to see you home all the time, he also is probably missing out on his daily walk or trip to the park. Exercise, both physical and mental, is extremely important to the health of your dog.
- The standard recommendation for a young, active dog is 30-60 minutes of exercise twice a day. Trainers recommend one leashed walk and one free play (dog park, fetch etc.). Some dogs need more, some may need less.
- Increase mental stimulation with puzzles, food-stuffable toys, and scavenger hunts. Researchers and vets are just beginning to discover the importance of mental enrichment for dogs. Creative feeding (through toys, finding food in boxes, in the back yard etc.) is a simple way to provide this much-needed enrichment.
- Friends love to offer to help new parents! And since you can only fit so many lasagnas in your freezer, take people up on their offers to help: Have them walk your dog, take him to the park or toss a ball in the backyard.
- If your dog doesn't walk well on the leash before the baby arrives, work on teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash immediately. If you need to, add a dog training class to your list of pre-baby classes you're taking.
There are some very simple and specific cues that will be extremely helpful and make your life easier once the baby is here:
- Stationary cues such as sit, down, stay and wait are especially important when off-leash, getting ready & out of the door. These are simple skills that, when mastered, you can be reassured and trust that your dog will behave.
- Wait can be a lifesaver when your hands are full and your dog is not on leash. Wait is simply not allowing your dog to move forward; it is different than stay in that we don't care whether the dog is standing, sitting, lying down, etc ... , we just do not want him to proceed forward. The hand signal for wait is a flat hand (stop sign) in front of your dog's face. As with sit and down your dog should wait until you release him with the release command okay. Practice wait going in and out of all doorways, his crate, and especially the car.
- Teach your dog not to jump up and work on other attention seeking behaviors. Pre-baby is the time to teach alternate behaviors (for example: sit for greeting instead of jumping up).
- Teach your dog to "go to your rug/bed/kennel." Also, be sure to give your dog a safe space (a crate is great) that is off limits to the baby! Teach your dog to "leave it" (item not yet in his mouth), and drop (to release something already in his mouth) Enroll in a good basic obedience class while you still have the time!