As a dog owner bringing home a newborn from the hospital, there are a million “what ifs” circling around your head related to dogs and newborns. What if your dog doesn’t take to the baby? What if your dog takes too well to the baby and won’t let you near them? What if your dog accidentally sits on the baby? I don't mean to spike up your anxiety, but the questions are (or will be) endless. The good news is that with a little guidance and a proper introduction, your newborn and your dog can become fast friends.
We know that kids reap many benefits from growing up around dogs, and bringing home a newborn baby shouldn't change much around your household. That said, statistics also show that majority of dog bites occur with children, a number that made dogs the second most dangerous animal in the United States. For that reason, it's crucial to begin teaching your dog (and your kids) about getting along as early as possible. Here are a few things to keep in mind when introducing a newborn to a dog.
Start the Preparation Early
Make Your Dog Part of the Pregnancy
Your dog will undoubtedly notice changes taking place around the home as well as with you physically – you will both smell and look different throughout your pregnancy. The key to strong friendship between dogs and newborns is a head start. Be sure to include your dog in most of the pregnancy process, allow them to be close to you, to “investigate” your growing belly, as well as giving them attention as you normally would. Go for your daily walks – if you can’t do it, hire someone who can, feed them on time, play with them regularly, cuddle on the couch, and so on. Do all the things you did with them before you got pregnant.
Most importantly, avoid making your dog feel excluded or make significant changes to their routine. Both of these things can result in behavioral changes such as “acting out”. Your dog thrives on routine and a change can make them feel fearful or unsteady. Likewise, excluding your dogs will not only create more curiosity, but it will also breed feelings of jealousy and resentment that can cause a range of further, more complicated problematic behaviors during and after the pregnancy.
Reinforce Your Position as a
If your dog has become a little “too big for their boots” lately, now is the time to reinforce your status in the home. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a jerk, nor that you have to employ the outdated “alpha dog” principles. But it does mean that you have to re-establish control and authority, like a mother of both dogs and newborns would.
The best way to do this is to practice obedience as well as stop letting certain things slide. For example, if you have started letting your dog take food from your plate as you eat on the couch, stop this right away and use a more “dog-friendly” approach. Put that food in their bowl instead. This prevents future problem behaviors by reinforcing respect for you and reaffirming to your dog that they aren’t on an equal level with you or other humans in the home (even if they are in your heart); they can't have it their way.
Keep in mind too that dogs learn best from positive reinforcement. Never use punishment or negative reinforcement to dissuade your dog from behaviors – it creates a lack of trust in you which leads to a lack of confidence in your ability to lead. That type of training approach also increases dog's anxiety which may lead only to more issues later on.
As I mentioned above, practicing obedience is a great way to reinforce your position as someone who makes the final decision in this household. It is also important in establishing control over your dog’s behavior. With a well-trained dog, you have the confidence of knowing that no matter what is happening with your new baby, you can trust your Fido to obey a sit, stay, or leave it command.
For example, if your new baby starts to cry, your dog may be compelled to run to the nursery. If you are running for the nursery at the same time, you could easily trip and fall. More problems may arise with your dog panicking or attempting to play while you care for your newborn baby. Now, if you are confident in your dog’s obedience skills, you know that you can tell your pet to sit and stay while you go to the nursery and not have to worry about them breaking that command.
Obedience is also important in teaching acceptable and unacceptable behaviors that your dog may not yet know. For example, if you have always played rope tug games with your pets, they can get a little rough. Take this opportunity to teach them a “gentle play” command so that they know when they need to be cautious while playing around your child. This will help your dog to understand that they can still play their traditional games with you (notice, you’re not changing their routine or attention from you), but when playing around your baby, they must modify their behavior.
As you work on obedience training, do some work on establishing both personal and territorial boundaries between dogs and newborns. For example, above I've mentioned the teaching of a gentle play command – this is a great way to establish boundaries by creating verbal cues. You can create a range of commands to help your dogs understand what they may and may not do around your new baby.
Rather than simply telling your dog “no!” and causing confusion when they break boundaries, this technique redirects them and tells them what to do. It provides structure rather than confusion based around the fact that “once this was okay but now it’s not!”
Establishing boundaries may also mean using physical boundaries to keep your dog from entering certain areas of the home at certain times. For example, if you usually allow your dog into the nursery with you but don’t want them to go in there during nap-times, you can use a baby gate or a pet gate as a physical boundary. Again, this way you're avoiding the confusion caused by sometimes allowing a behavior and sometimes not allowing it; you are simply introducing a new situation. It’s no longer a case of “sometimes I can do this and sometimes I can’t, what gives?” It becomes a situation of “when the door is open I can go in, when the gate is up, I can’t go in.”
Don’t Make Assumptions
As a loving dog owner, you likely hate when people have made assumptions about your Fido in the past based on their breed, their age, their sex, or their activity level. Unfortunately, this is something that many pet parents then do with their own dogs and newborns. For example, you may feel wary of your dog being around your baby because your dog is a certain breed; or conversely, you may feel confident leaving your dog alone in a room with your baby because they are a certain breed.
Never make either of these assumptions.
Every dog is different, and their likes, dislikes, and tolerances are individual, and these characteristics can change with time as well as with your dog’s health. The perfect example of this is my own Labrador retriever who was terrified of children despite the breed being labeled as “family friendly”. What should you do? Do not assume that your dog will be one way or the other. Always supervise your baby. And never leave your dog alone with your baby even if you trust them wholeheartedly.
After You Bring Home a Newborn Baby
Introduce Your Baby’s Scent to Your Dog
A successful introduction between dogs and newborns starts with a familiar smell. Before you bring your baby home from the hospital, get something home that has your new baby’s smell on it. This will introduce your baby’s scent to your dog so it won’t be as foreign to them when you bring your newborn home. Plus, it will give your dog a chance to “snuffle” their nose into that blanket and get a really good smell of the “new thing” without the worry of your baby being jostled around.
Exercise Your Dog on the Day of Introduction
The day that you are scheduled to bring your new baby home, have your spouse, friend, family member, or dog walker take your dog out for plenty of exercise and playtime. This will allow them to run off any excess energy that may become a little too much for their first introduction to the new baby. The best way to introduce a dog to a newborn baby is when that dog is tired to get overly excited (but not overworked).
Have Baby at Home and Bring Your Dog into the House On-Leash
When it comes time for newborn to come home, have your spouse, friend, or family member take your dog out of the house on a leash. Walk around the block or the backyard out of view, and bring the new baby inside the house. Once the baby is settled inside, bring your dog back in and keep them on their leash. This will give them a chance to see that things are different, but not allow them to “barrel in” and investigate excitedly.
Let Your Dog Sniff the Baby From a Distance
During your first introduction between dogs and newborns, let your pooch sniff the baby from a distance while keeping the pet on a leash. As life settles down in your home, allow your dog to sniff your baby from a distance without getting too close and gradually shorten this distance. This allows for a slow introduction so that when your dog finally does get up close to your new baby, they will not be as curious about the “newness” of it all. They will already be accustomed to the baby’s new smell as well as to simply having a “new thing” around the house.
Don’t Neglect Your Dog
It is just as important now as it was before you had the baby to give your dog the attention they have always received and to maintain their routine as much as possible. Yes, the lives of new parents are hectic, and you may need to hire a dog walker to keep up with those daily walks for the first few months, but neglecting your dog now is asking for problems.
Not only has your dog’s home environment changed, but if your attention has entirely shifted from them to your new baby, you’re going to face attention seeking behavior from your pet. For example, your dog may start trying to climb onto your lap (even when you’re holding a baby) to seek out affection that you once offered freely but no longer have time for. Avoid this by involving your dog in your daily life and remembering to make time for those snuggles, movies on the couch, or even just a ride in the car while you get your baby off to sleep in their car seat.
Daily Life of Dogs and Newborns Together
Teach Your Baby to Respect Your Dog as They Grow Older
From the moment that your toddler starts moving, grasping, motioning, and talking, reinforce respectful behavior towards dogs. Teach them what is okay and what is not okay to do around your pet. For example, never let your child climb on your dog, pull their ears, grab their tail, lay on them like a bed, take things from them, etc. These are all behaviors that can lead to biting incidences because your child is not respecting your dog’s space or their presence as a living thing.
You've done a good job during the introduction between dogs and newborns, and taught your dog how to act around your baby; now you have to teach your baby how to act around your dog.
Never Leave Your Baby Alone with Your Dog
It’s already been said above, but it’s something worth repeating: NEVER leave your baby, toddler, or child alone with your dog. Most times, nothing will happen and it's completely safe, but that one time can completely change your child's, your dog's and your own life. Something as simple as your child tripping and landing on your dog can cause your dog to bite as a reaction to being startled (and a little kid is much more vulnerable to that and is more likely to be bitten due to their small size). With supervision, these types of incidents are much more avoidable.
Know When to Call a Professional
If, despite your best efforts, you are facing problem behavior with your dog since bringing home your newborn, don’t be afraid to call a professional for help. A behaviorist, as well as your dog’s vet, can both help to identify the root cause of your canine's behavioral problems and help in correcting them. The key is to know when you are in over your head. It's better to do this sooner rather than later. In fact, there's nothing wrong with asking for professionals help even during the introduction between dogs and newborns.
Don’t Give Up, But Know When Enough is Enough
Your dog is a member of your family just as much as your new baby is, but once in a blue moon, things just don’t gel the way we would like them to. If you have worked rigorously with your dog on their obedience and training, and you have consulted a professional trainer or behaviorist and are still facing dangerous behavior from your dog, know when it's time to get your priorities straight.
Many new parents give up before even trying to work with their dog on assimilating to life with a newborn baby; this is not what I'm talking about here. Give your dog a real chance to adjust to their new life with a baby in the home. Only when you have exhausted all possibilities should you contact a local rescue for assistance in rehoming your dog because of a failure to adjust; and hopefully that never happens.
Here are a few helpful articles on the subject of dogs and newborns, toddlers and kids that are slightly grown up:
- How to Teach Kids to Behave Around Dogs
- The Ultimate Guide for Raising Kids with Dogs
- 21 Helpful Resources for Dog Owners with Kids
- 35 Best Medium and Small Dogs for Kids
- Podcast #34 – How Kids and Dogs Help Each Other
- 10 Best Books for Dog Owners with Kids