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Children & Dogs

Question

We are having a new baby in a few months. Our dog, Missy, a Cairn Terrier mix, has, in fact, been our “only-child” for the last 4 years. Is there anything special that we need to do in order to get our dog ready for the baby?

-Frank from Beverly

Response

You are smart to be thinking ahead and preparing yourselves and Missy. I think you correctly called Missy an only-child. And, as in any family in which a new baby is introduced, the parents must be especially sensitive to the added attention needs and concerns of the first child. You do need to prepare Missy for the new baby. Desensitizing your canine child to the sights, sounds, smells, and activities surrounding a new arrival and becoming aware of how to meet some of your changing needs are crucial to successfully integrating your new baby into the household.

First of all, be sure that Missy responds well to basic commands: come here, sit, stay, off, down, leave it. Work on these faithfully several minutes here and there throughout each day, even after the baby arrives. If done properly and positively, this obedience training can be a very productive way for Missy to get the added attention she will need. Next, in order to prepare a desensitization program, ask yourself and answer these questions: What will Missy see? She will see you with a baby in your arms. She will see you feeding the baby, changing the baby’s diapers, bathing the little one, hugging and kissing the cutie. She will see the new one in a crib, in a baby seat, in a stroller. What will Missy smell? She will smell regurgitated milk, urine and bowel movements, and baby food. What will Missy hear? Crying, cooing, rattles… Got the picture? Knowing the changes Missy will be sensing, let’s put together the props you will need to accustom Missy to a new baby in the house. Let’s tackle the smell first. That’s easy. Take some receiving blankets to friends who have a new baby at home. Ask them to use them; then take them home unwashed. Now for the sounds and sights. Borrow a baby doll; one that makes noise is best. If you can’t find a baby doll, a rolled up bath towel will do. In addition, ask your friends to record their baby’s sounds: the cooing, coughing and, most important, the crying. Now you are equipped to begin Missy’s desensitization program. Using the props you have gathered, get into your future routine as soon as possible in advance of the baby’s arrival. Wrap the doll in one of the receiving blankets. Let Missy see, smell, and hear you and your “baby” engaged in the normal daily activities of the type we outlined above and any others you can imagine. As for sound desensitization, play the taped baby sounds, finding the threshold at which Missy becomes agitated or shows concern.  Distract her with play or a few tiny treats as reward for some sit-stays until you see that she is relaxed at that volume. Then raise the volume a bit. Over a period of days and weeks, slowly increase the volume. Additionally, you should be using this time before the baby arrives to develop certain physical and management skills. For instance, you can try feeding Missy while holding the “baby.” You may find it a real challenge to pick up, fill, and replace Missy’s water dish. Don’t despair; doing tasks repeatedly will build up muscle memory so that you can, for example, successfully replace Missy’s water bowl without letting your rolled up towel baby fall into the water dish! You might also try to envision all the ways in which your partnership with Missy, the older child, would make life easier. For instance, if Missy were to sit and stay every time you opened a door and not run out the door or jump out of the car without your permission, it would certainly create less stress. Congratulations to you and Missy on the newest member of the pack.


Question

We have always wanted a dog, but renting rather than having our own home kept us from getting one. We just bought our own home, so we can finally get a puppy. However, we are having a baby in December. Part of us thinks that we should get the dog so it and the baby can grow up together. But part of us says that this may not be a good time. What do you think?

-Sarah & Larry from Plaistow, NH

Response

Ah, babies and puppies! They have an awful lot in common, which is why it is probably not such a good idea to get a pup at this point. Both require lots of attention. Both require a lot of time. It would be kind of like having twins!! From our experience working with clients, it is often difficult, especially for the poor new mom, who is struggling with post-partum depression while trying to be the best mom possible. Adding a second “baby” increases her work and emotional load, often exponentially. Would bringing in an older dog be the answer? If you could adopt a dog that has a proven record of being docile around infants and toddlers (two very different stages) and of withstanding the frenetic energy of a young child, then maybe. And with an older dog, you probably wouldn’t have to worry about your new home being trashed. Remember though—any new addition to your household is going to demand some time and attention If a puppy is what you really want, our advice: wait.


Question

My wife and I just had a baby. We are a little concerned about how our 5-year-old cocker spaniel, Nettie is reacting to the baby. Whenever the baby cries, she runs over to the crib and starts jumping and nipping at the crib. She whines and barks all the while. The other day, my wife was holding the baby on her lap while feeding him. When the baby started fussing, Nettie went so crazy that my wife had to put the baby in his room and then lock Nettie in another room until I got home. It really scared my wife. Is our dog just excited about the baby or is this aggressive behavior?

-Mark from Salem

Response

I am sure it is very frightening for you and your wife when Nettie reacts to the baby in this way. Your concern is well founded. Although your dog is excited about the baby, her excitement is probably not a joyous reaction to the new arrival, but rather a nervous, fearful one or a predatory one. Either of these could translate into aggression. We would suggest getting a professional evaluation of Nettie’s temperament. Based on this evaluation, a plan can be designed for working with her either to change this behavior or to desensitize her. Also, you need to be made aware of the do’s and don’ts of having the baby around a dog of Nettie’s temperament. In the meantime, do not have the baby and Nettie together unattended. Be sure that Nettie gets extra positive feedback, i.e. attention, praise, treats, toys, whenever the baby is around and Nettie is calm and relaxed.

Children & Dog Bites

At this time of year, when so many receive dogs as holiday gifts, we want to share some do’s and don’ts and other useful information. With a bit of education and understanding, you may be able to keep your child from being bitten by a dog, whether yours or another. We also hope to save dogs from being surrendered or put down because of biting that could be avoided. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), "50 percent of all children in the United States will be bitten by a dog before their 12th birthday." And chances are that the bite will be serious enough to require medical attention. Your child will most likely be bitten by a dog that he or she knows: the family pet, a neighbor’s or a relative’s dog. Educating your child is key to preventing dog bites.
  • Dogs are not toys. Teach your child not to pull the pup’s ears, hair, or tail, to drag the dog around like a stuffed animal, to poke and hit, or to squeeze or smother a puppy or adult dog. How often we trainers hear from the surprised parents of a child who has just been bitten that the dog "has always been so docile. He always lets the kids do anything to him--pull his tail, drag him around like a rag doll." Children are especially prone to behaving this way with smaller breeds, which, by the way, are capable of blinding your child or otherwise injuring him or her.
  • Dogs should be left alone when eating or chewing on a toy or bone. Of course, we suggest that you work with your pup to train him to willingly give up a favorite possession or food. But we also suggest that you teach your child not to try to take something from any dog’s mouth, including the family pet’s. Remind your child that he or she is not always willing to share a favorite toy or candy.
  • Dogs should be left alone when sleeping. We know we don’t like having our sleep disturbed and neither do dogs. Teach your child never to tease a dog. Often children will jump up and down or run, waving their arms, screaming in high pitched tones, offering the dog something then pulling it away. A dog may perceive a child, running and screaming, as prey, even if only in play. The dog may respond by jumping on the child and nipping or biting.
  • Many dogs feel uncomfortable being hugged around the neck. It is not a natural canine behavior, and some dogs never quite learn to accept this show of affection from us humans.
  • Teach your child to pet a dog only when the owner is present and has given permission to do so. Your child’s hand (palm facing down) should approach the dog first from under the chin rather than from above the head. Allow the dog to sniff for a few minutes before attempting to pet. Your child should stroke or "pet" rather than thump or "pat" the dog.
  • Dogs take staring as a challenge. Teach your child not to stare into a dog’s face or eyes.
  • Dogs should be approached from the side. Teach your child to avoid approaching a dog straight on or from behind.
  • A wagging tail does not always indicate a friendly dog. Tail wagging shows excitement, angry as well as friendly.
  • A dog that is not on a leash may respond to a child (or an adult or another dog) differently from when on lead or otherwise tied up. Also, a dog in the presence of its owner may respond differently when the owner is not present. Teach your child not to approach a leashed dog (even one that your child knows) unless the owner is present and gives permission to do so. Many bites occur when a child approaches a friend’s dog who is alone and tied up in the yard.
  • Teach your child to stand completely still (like a post or a tree), to be very quiet, arms down at her sides, and to look away (to turn the head to the side slightly) when a dog approaches. A frightened child’s eyes, open wide in fear and staring at a dog, may well be misread as a challenge.
  • Teach your child how to respect our canine counterparts, how to properly interact with them, and how to behave to prevent bites.

Question

Our problem is our 8-year-old son. He is constantly teasing our 2-year-old Golden Retriever; sometimes he is downright abusive. Our Golden is pretty tolerant, but every once in a while she nips him. I realize you are a dog trainer, not a psychologist, but do you have any advice? This is getting to be a real problem.

-Jim from Gloucester

Response

You first need to question why it is that your son is being particularly abusive with your dog. Could it be that your son is attempting to get your attention, even if it is negative attention? Is your son having any problems at school or with his peers; for example, is he the target of a class bully? Is your son experiencing any upheaval at home? Is he feeling particularly powerless or vulnerable? We have found these to be some of the reasons children act aggressively with their pets. There are a few courses of action you might try. One would be to give your son sole responsibility in some small way for your dog. For instance, he might be responsible for her evening feeding or for being sure the water bowl is always full. Lots of praise should be given for a job well done (even if at first you end up having to remind your son or you end up having to carry out the task along with him to insure it is done). Persistence and patience are the keys. Engaging your son in working towards positive, productive goals with his pet might help redirect your son’s energies and boost his good feelings about himself and his dog. For example, you might come up with some creative games your son and dog can play together or tricks he can teach her with your guidance. There are many fine books on these topics. Also, attending a dog obedience class (of course, one that uses positive, non-challenging methods) can help a child become a responsible and caring pet caretaker. If you do enroll in an obedience class, let the trainer know the problem in advance so that you and the trainer can discuss some ways that he/she can be of help.