Introducing your dog to your baby: There’s a class for that
The terms “dog mom” and “dog dad” have gained popularity recently, thanks to social media and a bombardment of products aimed at doting owners. But what happens when pooch parents find out they’re becoming people parents?
For many couples and their canine companions, bringing baby home is no biggie.
Other couples are faced with stressful situations — and, at worst, tough decisions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are among those at highest risk for dog bites, and they’re more likely than adults to receive medical attention for bites.
“I’m worried her aggression is going to get worse, not better,” said Amy Braun, of her 7-year-old chow mix, Milka. Braun, who is expecting a baby in April, lives in Chicago’s Gold Coast with her husband, Todd, and Milka. “People get rid of their dogs, and that’s not me. That’s not an option.”
Lucky for moms-to-be like Braun, today’s dog-obsessed society has more than a few resources to help the transition go smoothly. In big cities and small towns, dog-training businesses offer classes and individual training aimed at owners whose pets need baby-friendly socialization.
Bowser & The Baby is a two-hour crash course for expectant parents — or those with newborns — offered by Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago.
“I don’t have to sell you on the fact that things are going to change for your dog — you already know that,” instructor Nicole Stewart told a recent class.
Stewart is a certified professional dog trainer and director of training at Chicago-based Animal Sense. She says the biggest mistake couples make is not starting new habits during the pregnancy while there is still time to adjust.
“The key is to make things as similar to what it’s going to be after the baby is born,” she said.
This includes building the crib, introducing new toys, putting up gates and tweaking daily schedules.
For dogs that are timid around unfamiliar sights and sounds, Stewart uses a standard technique called positive reinforcement training. Or in her words, “hot dog therapy.” In essence, the dog gets a treat at the same time a “scary” baby-related event or item is introduced.
For small dogs, maybe that’s a giant baby bouncer. For dogs skittish around loud noises, maybe it’s a baby cry, in which case you can train using a recording or YouTube video.
The idea is to ease the dog into the new stimuli slowly, and with treat it hand, in the weeks and months prior to coming home from the hospital.
“There’s two types of people,” said Robin Edwards, co-founder of Home Dog Training of South Florida. “Some (parents) that are maybe five to six months into (parenthood), and they realize, ‘Wow, my dog is acting weird or barking a lot — what are we going to do?’”
The second type?
“I’m having a baby tomorrow; what am I going to do with my dog?”
The third type of dog owner is a rare breed: the ultra-prepared (or ultra-worried, depending on how you look at it). For those extreme cases, Stewart says, don’t laugh at the idea of a fake baby.
“When we found out we were pregnant, we knew we were worried about Paco immediately,” said Andrea Alvarez, who lives with her husband, Tony Pacini, and their son, Luke, in Geneva, Ill.
The couple did what a lot of newbies do: They Googled, and at six months pregnant, they welcomed home a fake baby.
They carried it around, rocked it, put it to bed — even called it baby Luke — in hopes their Chihuahua mix would get used to having an infant around.
Alvarez said Paco wasn’t fooled for long — although Stewart does have successful client stories — but he was well-behaved when real baby Luke arrived in early 2015.
“When we came over with the real baby, he was curious,” Alvarez said. “It took a couple months for him to get used to everything.”
The first few months are critical, said Joan Harris, director of training and canine behavior at PAWS Chicago.
“Parents and adults have to really be on spot with that relationship,” Harris said. “Especially people who had dogs as children. They don’t realize how much their own parents supervised things.”
Dogs that are aggressively protective of people, food or toys are referred to as “resource guarders” and require extra caution and work. Stewart said a professional trainer may be needed.
Even more laid-back dogs have their limits.
“Children are not equipped to read dogs’ body language, so they don’t adjust like an adult would,” said Harris.
Part of Braun’s motivation for attending Bowser & The Baby was her uncertainty about how Milka will handle being around infants and toddlers.
“If I’m holding an infant, she won’t leave my side, and she wants to sniff the baby like crazy,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable enough to leave the baby on the floor with the dog, because I just don’t know what she’s going to do.”
This is where “Go to place!” comes in handy, a command all trainers seem to rally behind. Different dog owners may have different words, but the goal is to create a safe place for Fido where he’s happy and comfortable — like a dog bed in the corner of the living room — so that when mom and dad need to focus on baby, the dog can be put somewhere he feels safe and content — and out of the way.
“Baby has a place, you have a place, the dog should have a place,” Stewart said.
Alone time for mom, dad and dog is also important, said Harris. After all, they were used to being the only child.
“They do become part of your family,” Braun said about Milka. “She’s my baby too.”
Edwards, whose son is grown up and out of the house, remembers what it was like to welcome a baby with a pup at home.
“All of the sudden, you’re bringing the most precious thing you could possibly have in your life into your home, and you realize if the dog is going to bite or growl or something like that … that’s a huge thing,” she said.
Stewart said a common misconception is that dog bites happen without warning. That warning will come in the form of body language: The dog may tuck its tail between its legs, put its ears back, excessively yawn or lick its nose, or turn its head away from the action.
Dogs that do show signs of stress need more work at home and, in some cases, professional help. For those pups, nonprofit shelters across the country often host group classes for basic training commands, and it’s not hard to find private businesses that offer baby- or kid-specific training.
As for online resources, owners can find everything from video tutorials to webinars — even a hotline. National organizations, like the ASPCA and Humane Society, have sections of their website dedicated to the topic.
The key is to accept that things will be different and not to buy into what industry pros call “the Lassie myth” — the idea that your dog and baby are going to follow each other around and be the best of friends.
That said, Paco and Luke have managed to form a beautiful bond.
As Alvarez put it, “When Luke comes home from day care, he goes right to the dog.”
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