Dog to Baby Introduction – Part One

A growing family is an exciting time, full of new experiences, lifestyle adjustments, unique, challenges and above all else, immense rewards.  During the busy, and sometime chaotic, preparations, the needs of our furry family members can be overlooked.  Sometimes these needs become painfully apparent, usually at a very inconvenient time, down the road.  There is no, one, magical technique to ensure harmony when introducing your furry child to your newborn. Rather, a series of small steps, taken over an extended period of time, that hold the key to cultivating a healthy and positive relationship.

So, what is it about babies that can throw some of our dogs for a loop?  First of all, it is important to understand that even the brightest dog, is believed to have the emotional range and reasoning capabilities similar to that of a 3 to 5-year-old child.  Add a language barrier and limited life experiences into that equation and you begin to understand why it may not be possible for our faithful sidekicks to take the shift of family dynamics in stride.  Babies definitely bring their own special little brand of excitement into a home.  Most experts can agree that for dogs, particularly ones with little to no previous exposure to small children, this brand of excitement can be very overstimulating.  The sights, smells and movements of not only the child, but the toys and supplies, the frequent visitors, in addition to the random and unpredictable touch sensations (both pleasant and uncomfortable) often flood our dog’s senses, leaving them to feel stressed and sometimes fearful.  The unavoidable schedule change, usually a decrease in activity, and limited attention, may understandably generate feelings of unease and displacement, giving way to what we perceive as jealous behaviours.

Yes, an old dog can learn new tricks!!!  It doesn’t matter the age of your dog.  If you take the time to prepare them for the approaching changes, you can set them up for success and help them to not only adjust, but thrive in their new family environment.

Building the Foundation

Just as in every balanced and loving relationship, a strong foundation of trust and understanding needs to be laid before we can ask our dog to face potentially difficult tasks.  This starts with developing a clear line of communication between yourself and your dog through focusing on three main goals:

  1. Learning how to accurately read your dog’s body language and facial expressions. Often, we believe ourselves to be experts in this area however, more than 60% of dog owners regularly fail to recognize, or misinterpret, their dog’s subtle stress signals.
  2. Understand how your dog perceives and interprets your posture, tone of voice and movements when you are giving command cues. This will avoid sending unintended and confusing messages.  Making small adjustments to your hand gestures and using a calm tone of voice can make all the difference between your dog feeling relaxed and cooperative, or, stressed and resistant.
  3. Clarify verbal cues by revisiting basic obedience training through a positive and balanced training approach. This will help ensure that your dog truly understands what it is you are asking them to do, build trust, and develop a common language for you to better communicate with one another.

Step One: Tools for Success

If you plan to introduce new household rules, such as not jumping up or staying off the furniture, it is best to implement them well before your child arrives, to avoid your dog associating these changes with the arrival of the baby.  Training your dog to stay off the furniture and refrain from jumping up on you is an excellent way to prevent accidental injuries.  Often, simply providing your dog with a substitute location, such as a dog bed, close to where they typically rest, and rewarding them for using it, can remedy this situation without causing feelings of displacement.  Likewise, ignoring your dog until they have all four paws on the floor, and only petting your dog when they appear calm, will greatly aid in encouraging calm greeting behaviours.

As with any training project, the more time you dedicate to your efforts and the longer you practice, the better prepared you and your dog will be for the big event.  Ideally, most dogs will begin this process with the basic understanding of common commands such as; come, sit, down, stay, leave it, drop it and off. However, they may require some work on improving response time and reliability.  If your dog has very little obedience background, it is recommended that you begin basic training while you are still in the process of family planning, or, within first few months of pregnancy, to maximize practice time.

These basic commands will become the corner stone of your common language and provide the groundwork for more advanced training, geared to assist your dog during the adjustment period.  Once your dog has mastered responding to basic commands in a variety of real life scenarios, with distractions present, it is time to move on to a few advanced commands.

Advanced commands such as, backup, touch (hand targeting), mat and stay, polite door greetings and loose leash manners are extremely helpful throughout the adjustment period and well into the future as your baby matures.

  • The touch command, or hand targeting, is an excellent tool to encourage shy or nervous dogs to investigate novel objects that may provoke a fear response for some dogs. Such items include; strollers, jolly jumpers, mobiles, etc.  Turning a strange and concerning object into a safe and benign fixture of the home will greatly reduce your dog’s daily stress levels, thus improving their ability to focus and relax.
  • The backup command is essential for not only reducing trip hazards, but providing you with personal space while you care for your newborn. This command is also helpful in providing immediate space, should your dog appear uncomfortable with the child.
  • Unfortunately, it is not always convenient to have your dog with you when you are attending to the baby. Introducing boundaries such as, access to the baby’s room is only allowed when invited, can be very helpful.   Controlling the threshold of the baby’s room allows flexibility to include your dog when possible but enjoy privacy when needed.
  • Mat and stay, or bed and stay commands are extremely helpful in controlling your dog’s movements and interactions with your child. It also provides them with a safe place that allows them to feel included in the family activities.  Providing your dog with random and frequent attention and food rewards for laying quietly on a dog bed while you perform activities such as; nursing, changing diapers, playing and bathing, is a great way to build a positive association with being happy and calm while near the baby.
  • Teaching polite door greeting behaviours mitigates two large areas of concern for most families; one, prepares your dog for the increase volume of visitors to the home, and two, reduces the chances of accidental injury due to jumping up behaviours. Polite door greetings are the corner stone for a safe and stress reduced introduction to the baby.
  • Loose leash manners can be one of the trickiest behaviours to train, requiring patience, regular practice and consistency in technique. Although this can be difficult, putting in the effort early on will; increase your enjoyment during walks, make the introduction to walking with a stroller much easier and, ultimately, result in your dog receiving more exercise opportunities.
  • Baby items and toys can be very tempting for most dogs, after all, they look very much like the toys we give them! Teaching a strong LEAVE IT cue, using the baby’s toys as the practice items, will help your dog to decipher the difference between his stuffy and the baby’s special teddy. Begin with an item that looks the least like anything currently in your dog’s toy box.  As your dog learns the command, slowly begin to add additional toys that look similar to your dog’s.  To make it a positive experience, always reward your dog with something better than what he gave up.

Written by: Julie Speyer, CDBC, CPDT-KA