Preparing Your Dog for Your Baby – Myths and Realities
About the Author
John Wade, author of the book “How to Prepare Your Dog for Your Baby” has over twenty years experience assessing literally thousands of dogs with huge ranges in behavior, from unruly family dogs, to the highly anxious, to the dangerously aggressive. His expertise has been used by the courts, Children’s Aid, humane societies, municipal animal controls, and corporations. He gives lectures across North America to veterinarians, veterinarian students, and dog trainers about various aspects of dog behavior. He has a nationally syndicated pet behavior column, and is the author of several books.
Over the years I’ve worked with countless dog-owning young couples with feelings so strong for their dogs that they could not imagine those feelings could be any stronger for a child. However, when they became pregnant they found released from within an even greater capacity for love. An accompanying byproduct of this heightened state is a fierce, innate, hard wired need to provide the safest of environments for their child. From that moment and for many years to come they know that all decisions will revolve around the impact they will have on their child. That first pregnancy launches a furied time of preparation part of which is includes an evaluation of their current environment from its baby-friendly perspective. What was once just a means to access the basement they realize is now a path of potential danger that must be addressed. What was once just a cupboard to store cleaning supplies is now a reservoir of peril.
What was once ‘their dog’ is about to become the ‘family dog’ and regardless of their devotion, consideration is given to potential for conflict however minor. Based on past experience some dog owners will be aware of the possibility of jealousy or anxiety however many will not be aware of the potential for either that the addition of a baby can uniquely elicit. Others have little worry about conflict based on malice or fear but much to worry about regarding unruliness. Behavior that could once be worked around; they realize will by necessity need to be addressed.
Outside of injury due to unruliness, statistics confirm that an objective eye is warranted and that each dog should be assessed for its baby-friendly status. According to many high profile sources one out of two children is bitten by a dog before reaching the age of twelveand dog bites are greater health problem for children in the US, than measles, mumps, and whooping cough combined.For most dog owners though the risk their dog brings is due more to sheer unruliness than meanness of spirit. However either way intervention before the dramatic change in lifestyle that accompanies the birth of a child is becoming more common amongst dog owning expectant couples.
My initial interest in infant safety around dogs stems from the prenatal class I took in preparation for the birth of my first son. The nurse teaching the class was asked what precautions should be taken when the expectant parent was also a dog owner. The recommendation offered by the nurse that expectant moms and dads could help prevent future jealousy or anxiety by introducing a baby doll into the house hold, and simulate day to day interaction with an infant. This would entail cuddling, carrying, bathing, dressing, etc. I have read this as well on countless websites and in articles like this one and books.
On paper, it might make sense. However, children’s toys, including baby dolls, are made from the same material as is found in many dog toys. After over 20 years working with thousands of dog I can say with confidence that the keen senses of a dog are not going to be fooled into connecting a baby doll with a true baby and thereby acclimatizing it. However some have been known to make a grab for the baby doll as if it were another plastic toy gift from their owners creating unnecessary worry for the parents to be.
Another well-meaning myth is that bringing home an infant’s hospital blanket will introduce the dog to its scent and somehow make it easier for the dog to accept the baby when it arrives. Where this advice originally came from remains a mystery but it certainly did not come from a professional. Any behaviorist, psychiatrist or psychologist knows that if desensitization is to have a desired outcome it is a slow incremental process. The idea that a sniff of a blanket might temper the sensory impact that an infant will have upon its actual arrival is as like expecting a glance of the ultrasound image to prepare an expectant mother for her labor experience let alone all to follow. Fortunately, there are much better options to turn to that will help a dog make the transition from being an “only child.”
Reality – Some Dogs You Can Change, Some You Can’t
Cohabitation between humans and dogs has existed for thousands of years. However, for better and worse, over the last century the nature of the relationship has changed significantly. Dogs are no longer just a means to an end for securing food, herding and protecting livestock, and protecting home and hearth. For many of us, they have become family members. The upside is that a dog is one of the few things that you can pour a little love into once in a while and harvest back an endless stream of unconditional love. The down side is that as well-meaning as we might be, many of the signals we now send our dogs confuse them as to who should be the teacher and who should be the student and without this stability they often unnecessarily develop behaviors that range from the annoyance of unruly behavior to becoming actual safety liabilities.
Expectant dog owning parents should keep in mind that over the last few decades many of the breeding protocols that lead to a physically and mentally balanced dog have become the exception rather than the rule. Also, training methodologies have changed such that many dog trainers now erroneously believe and so advise their clients that even the slightest discipline will make a dog’s behavior worse and so they recommend all-positive, all the time training. This in spite of the irrefutable evidence provided by every parenting dog, wolf, ape or human that the skills to survive and thrive in the real world come through both positive and negative.
The end result of these poor breeding and training practices is that many expectant parents find themselves with a dog with characteristics that can impact the equilibrium of the household from a child’s safety. Some of these situations can be resolved by switching to a more realistic training model while others where the dog’s temperament has been more seriously impacted by breeding and training conventions can create anxiety and concern in the expectant parent.
Armed with fact rather then myth expectant parents can assess where and why their dog might need their assistance and how either through their own efforts or along with a professional’s develop a strategy that balances their dog’s needs with their baby’s safety.
I have found in the countless assessments I have done for expectant parents that every household can benefit by learning more on how their dog sees the world and makes connections that lead to joy and anxiety. Sometimes it is as simple as learning how to teach baby friendly obedience such as “Stay on Your Mat” or a proper heel and recall so that opportunities to properly exercise their dog and thereby relive its stress can be taken advantage of more often once the baby has arrived. In other situations we discovered that due to circumstances beyond the control of its owners, typically the result of breeding or early socialization, the dog had some yellow or red flag characteristics. In some situations these were addressable, in others they were not.
Unfortunately other then the traditional mythical advice outlined above there is in prenatal education very little practical advice for dog owning expectant parents. The contents of the book, “How to Prepare Your Dog for Your Baby” is a culmination many years of experience working with families and dogs and provides strategies to objectively assess and address real life practicalities that come with babies and dogs living together.
Forewarned is forearmed and consideration as to how a dog and a baby might affect each other should become as an important part of prenatal preparation experience as learning the safest of car seats, cribs, strollers and any other factor that might impact an infant’s well being.
– John Wade