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
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.
QuestionWe 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
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.
QuestionMy 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
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.
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
ResponseYou 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.