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Preparing Your Dog for Life with a Baby

By:  Hagar Hauser, DVM, DACVB

Even though dogs are part of our family, proper training and management are needed to ensure safety around babies and children. Most expectant parents have a lot of time to prepare for their child, but a new addition to any family emerges unexpectedly for their dog. Prepping your dog for the new sights, sounds, and odors along with a change in routine is essential to promote a seamless and safe transition for your pet.

What can dog parents do to prepare their dogs for the arrival of a new baby?

Early preparation gives your dog more time to adjust to the new situation. Consider the situations your dog must adjust to and progressively introduce these circumstances to your dog so they are ready for them in real life. Give your dog time to learn, practice, and understand the upcoming changes.

Following are some of the strategies you can use to prepare your dog for the arrival of a newborn:

  1. Baby Toys and Gear Should Be Introduced Ahead of Time:

    Do not wait until your baby arrives to bring out new objects. In the months before your baby's birth, gradually spread-out various toys and baby products across your home.

    This includes baby gyms, highchairs, mobiles that move and make noises, playpens, strollers, toys, and other items.

    Allow your dog sniff the items and reward them with treats. Rewarding them will help build a positive association with the items before the baby arrives.

  2. Play Baby Sounds at Home:

    Dogs may be confused by infant sounds so play audio recordings at home and introduce them gradually. You can download sound samples from the internet to help you prepare your dog for a new baby.

    First, introduce newborn sounds at a low volume when your dog is playing, receiving treats, or enjoying another activity. If they stay calm, gradually increase the volume over the next few weeks and months to make it more lifelike.

    If your dog shows any signs of fear or anxiety while the sounds are being played, then stop the recording and start the next session at a lower volume.

  3. Introduce Baby Smells at Home:

    To introduce baby fragrances into your home, ask friends with babies for dirty baby clothes or blankets to borrow. You can also spread baby powder, baby wipes, baby fragrances, and other baby-related scents to acclimate your dog to them.

    Similarly to noises, you shouldn't overwhelm your dog with scents so introduce these slowly and let them explore the scents on their own.

    This exercise can help prevent your dog from becoming overwhelmed by the new scents when your baby arrives. Remember to associate the scents with pleasant things your dog enjoys, such as a game, treat, or play activity.

  4. Change Your Dog’s Routine:

    Consider how your dog's routine may change due to your pregnancy, newborn duties, and responsibilities. Start making changes as early as possible to acclimate them.

    Potential changes in your dog’s routine include:

    • Providing less focus and attention at various times of the day.
    • Taking them on shorter walks and using new routes.
    • Not allowing them to enter your child's future bedroom.
    • Allowing more visitors in your home.
    • Placing baby gates in your home to restrict access to particular sections of the house when guests visit your newborn, when you have a mobile toddler, or a toy area that is off-limits to your dog.

  5. Carrying and Interacting with A Baby:

    Carrying and playing with a friend’s baby or lifelike baby doll to mimic holding and talking to a baby in front of your dog can help prepare them for future interactions with your baby.

    Reward your dog for being calm and keeping all four paws on the ground. Turn around and ignore any jumping. If needed, place a baby gate between you and your dog during this training so they can still see the doll without jumping on you.

  6. What Should Be Done Once the Baby Arrives?

    Active supervision requires constant presence so never leave pets and small children alone together. This means the adult should not be watching television, on their phone, or otherwise distracted. An adult should also be physically between the dog and child at all times. If the adult leaves the room, either the pet or child should come with them.

    Give your dog a break while you're with your child in the same room. Encourage them to rest in their bed and offer a long-lasting treat. In this way, your dog can enjoy a positive experience on their own which allows you to spend time with your child one-on-one.

    No matter how well these tactics work or how well your child gets along with the family pet, you should never leave your infant alone in a room with your dog.

    If your dog exhibits undesirable behaviors, consult with a certified force free, fear free trainer to improve your dog’s relationship with your child and ensure safe management techniques are in place.

Are there specific training methods recommended?

Desensitizing the dog to new toys, playing with baby sounds, introducing baby smells, changing the dog’s routine, and rehearsing with a lifelike baby doll. By using these methods, the dog may get used to having a baby in the house by reducing stress and anxiety. It is important that the dog remains relaxed during desensitization because if they are stressed during these sessions, they will not learn how to relax around baby-related items. If your dog cannot relax during these exercises, consult with a certified force free, fear free trainer.

All training should be force free and fear free. There should be no use of aversive tools or punishment, including yelling, as this will further increase the dog’s anxiety and will create negative associations with the baby.

What should be done if aggression occurs?

If your dog is anxious, fearful, exhibiting undesirable behaviors, or aggression arises, then rapid effective intervention is needed. Physically separate the dog from the baby to ensure their safety. This may be done with baby gates, confining the dog or child into a playpen, or putting the dog behind a closed door.

Awareness and identification of aggressive behavior triggers are crucial. Aggression may be triggered by fear or anxiety from excessive noise or activity. In addition, if the dog has a history of pain, the child touching them may trigger aggression. Never allow a child to climb on a dog, sit on a dog, pull their ears/tail, put their face in the dog’s face, or tease them.

If your dog becomes aggressive, move them away in a calm manner, and never shout or hit your dog as this will worsen the situation and relationship between the dog and child.

We recommend consulting your primary veterinarian to see if a referral to a Board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist would be appropriate. A Veterinary Behaviorist can tailor training regimens, medications, and assess the specific causes of aggression. Most importantly, they will assist you to create a safe and peaceful bond between your dog and child.

Teach your Child to be Safe Around their Dog

To develop a harmonious relationship between your child and their pet dog you must teach them how to safely interact with them. Even if a pet dog in the home is tolerant, it’s important that the child learns these guidelines in preparation for interacting with other dogs.

  • Teach your child to respect the dog’s space. Dogs need time to relax when they feel overwhelmed just like people. Children should not approach a dog that is laying down or sleeping, especially in their bed.
  • Teach your child not to approach the dog around resources such as food, bones, and other high value items.
  • Encourage your child to watch the dog’s body language and move away if the dog is staring, stiffening, or growling. They should call for an adult if the dog is displaying aggression.
  • Under adult supervision, show your child how to gently stroke the dog’s back or chest instead of reaching over their head or touching sensitive regions like the face and paws. Demonstrate how you calmly approach the dog without making any sudden movements or loud noises that could frighten them.
  • Educate your child not to startle or corner the dog. In addition, they should not hug or kiss them.

Setting these rules and monitoring their interactions can help your child and dog build a secure and loving bond.

Metropolitan Veterinary Associates has two Board-certified Veterinary Behaviorists ready to help if anything arises. Our goal is to help you understand your dog’s behavior and enable both dog and family to lead safer, happier lives.