Dogs and Children
Preparing Your Dog for New Baby
When you bring a baby home, your dog will face an overwhelming number of novel sights, sounds and smells. She may find some of them upsetting, especially if she didn’t have opportunities to spend time with children as a puppy. You’ll drastically alter your daily routine, so your dog’s schedule will change, too. And out of necessity, she’ll get less of your time and attention. It may be a difficult time for her, especially if she’s been the “only child” for a while.
To make things go as smoothly as possible for everyone, it’s important to take some time to prepare your dog for the arrival of your new addition. In the months before the baby comes, you’ll focus on two things:
Teaching your dog the skills she’ll need to interact safely with her new family member
Helping your dog adjust to the many new experiences and changes ahead.
Teaching Your Dog Important New Skills
Having good verbal control of your dog can really help when it comes to juggling her needs and the baby’s care. The following are particularly important:
Sit and down
Sit, wait at doors, and settle. These skills can help your dog learn to control her impulses and they’ll prove useful in many situations. For example, you can teach your dog to lie down and stay whenever your sit in your nursing chair.
Leave it and drop it. These two behaviors can help you teach your dog to leave the baby’s things alone.
Greet people politely. A jumping dog can be annoying at best (and dangerous at worst) when you’re holding the baby.
Relax in a crate. If you crate train your dog, you’ll know that she’s safe when you can’t supervise her, and she’ll have a cozy place of her own to relax when things get hectic.
Come when called.
Hand targeting. If your dog is nervous or timid, teaching her to target your hand with her nose will give her something to do when she’s around the baby, which might make her feel more comfortable and confident. After your dog learns how to target your hand, you can even teach her to gently touch the baby with her nose!
Please go away. Teaching your dog to go away when you ask will enable you to control her movements and interactions with your baby. For example, you can use this cue to tell your dog to move away from the baby if he’s crawling toward her and she seems uncomfortable. Many dogs don’t realize that moving away is an option! If she learns that she can simply walk away from the baby when he makes her nervous, she’ll never feel trapped in a stressful situation - and she won’t be forced to express her anxiety by growling or snapping. Here’s how to teach your dog this invaluable skill:
Show her a treat, say “go away,” and toss the treat four or five feet away from you. Repeat this sequence many times.
The next step is to refrain from tossing the treat until your dog starts to move away. Say “go away,” and move your arm as though you’re tossing a treat. When your dog moves in the direction of your gesture, even if she only takes one step, say “yes!” then immediately toss a treat four or five feet away in the direction she started to move.
After more repetitions, try waiting until your dog takes several steps away before you say “yes!” and toss a treat.
Teach Your Child to Respect Your Dog
As your child develops, teach him to respect your dog’s body, safe zones and belongings. Always supervise interactions so that you can guide your child as he learns to communicate and play with your dog appropriately. Playing an active role in the development of a relationship between your child and your dog will benefit everyone.
Show your child what gentle, enjoyable petting looks like. Teach him to stroke and scratch your dog in her favorite spots. Explain that hitting, kicking, pinching, riding, teasing and intentionally scaring them is not okay.
Teach your child to play structured games with your dog - like fetch, tug-of-war, and hide-and-seek. Training games and clicker training are also a lot of fun for both kids and dogs!
Enroll your dog in obedience classes with an instructor who welcomes children so that your child can learn to be with his dog in a gentle, effective way. When your child gives your dog cues, be sure to back him up. For instance, if your child says “sit” and your dog complies, help your child praise her like crazy and hand him a treat to give to her! If he says “sit” and she hesitates, immediately repeat “sit.” If you do this consistently, your dog will learn that every time your child request a behavior, you will too - so she might as well respond to your child and earn a reward more quickly.
If your dog is a little nervous about your toddler - Some dogs are nervous about toddlers or even a bit afraid of them and go out o their way to avoid contact. If your dog seems a little worried about your child, use the tools described above to prevent tense situations and focus on teaching her to associate him with things she loves. When it’s time to feed your toddler breakfast or dinner, feed your dog her meal as well. When you take your toddler out in the stroller for walks, bring your dog along. When you’re playing with your toddler, don’t isolate your dog elsewhere in the house. Find ways for her to participate in games, too.
What NOT to do - Never force your dog to interact with your toddler. Let her approach him on her own. When she seems nervous, speak softly to her and praise her for bravely investigating.
If You Have an Older, Disabled, or Injured Dog
Dogs who are elderly, dogs who have chronic pain, and dogs with sensory deficits (such as deafness or blindness) may have trouble adjusting to life with a child because of the unpredictability and chaos that children inevitably bring. If you know you dog may not react well to your child for these reasons, take steps now to prevent problems from arising.
Make sure that your dog is thoroughly evaluated by her veterinarian annually so that you’re aware of any medical conditions that might impact her behavior with your child.
A dog who reacts by snapping when touched (either because of chronic pain or advanced age) may not be a good candidate for living safely with a young child. If you feel that you cannot successfully keep your dog separated from your child at all times or help control her pain with medication, ti may be wise to consider rehoming her with a friend, family member, or other adopter who has no children.
Like other animals, dogs may become aggressive when touched if they’re hurt, confused or frightened. Always keep this in mind - even if you have a close bond with your dog and she has never shown aggression to you or other adults. Do not make the mistake of thinking that because your dog is good-natured and loves you that she’ll refrain from snapping or biting your child.
If she’s elderly or frail, you may need to keep your dog in a safe area when the baby starts crawling around. Although it will take some extra effort on your part, it’s better to vigilantly separate your dog and your child than to put the two of them in a risky situation.
If Your Dog Responds Aggressively to Your Toddler
Dogs who show aggression toward a toddler in the home often do so because they have no been well socialized to children and find them foreign and frightening. Some dogs don’t fear toddlers, but they become aggressive when guarding their food, toys, or chew bones. Young children can’t understand that they should leave the dog’s things alone. They may also have difficulty recognizing a dog’s warning signs or find growling or barking amusing. A child’s failure to heed such warnings can have disastrous consequences. A small percentage of dogs seem to react to young children as though they’re squeaky toys, and this response can be extremely dangerous, too. All of these situations put children at great risk of receiving a bite.
What to do - Get help. If your dog shows aggressive behavior around your toddler (or if you think she might) keep her away from him and immediately contact an animal behavior expert. Make sure that the professional you hire is qualified to help you. It’s important that he or she has extensive experience successfully treating aggression in dogs.
Should You Correct Your Dog for Aggressive Behavior?
Obviously, it’s important that your dog learn to inhibit her aggressive behavior towards your child. However, the best way to deal with an aggressive dog is not to verbally or physically punish her. Punishment can backfire because it teaches your dog that bad things happen when your child is present, which is yet another reason to dislike him. If your child becomes a signal for punishment, your dog may fear or resent him even more. In particular, it’s important to avoid punishing your dog for growling, snapping, showing teeth, or otherwise giving aggressive warnings when she’s upset. If you are fortunate enough o have a dog who warns you before biting, never scold or otherwise punish her for this behavior. If you inhibit her warning system, it may disappear and you may lose your way of knowing if your dog is uncomfortable or aggressive. She may just end up suddenly biting! As long as your dog growls, you have the opportunity to remove your dog and your child from a bad situation.
The most effective and humane way to resolve aggression problems is to focus on changing your dog’s motivations for behaving aggressively. If your dog is aggressive toward your toddler, you can improve her behavior by teaching her to like being around him. Again, it’s crucial to seek professional guidance. A qualified behaviorist or trainer can come to your home, thoroughly evaluate your situation, and walk you through a systematic and safe behavior modification plan.