Living with Children and Dogs
By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
In Partnership With Dogs
Do you have a dog and:
- you’re expecting a baby?
- thinking of starting a family?
- welcoming a grandchild into the family?
- about to become an aunt or uncle?
- moved into a new location with young children living next door?
If any of the above applies to you, what are you doing to help prepare your dog for this new change in his life?
This past year I found myself called upon to work with a number of new families – either ones expecting a baby or those with a new baby already in residence. In each case, there were either a few issues going on that no one expected or some behaviours that raised a few red flags.
I’m not quite sure why, but it doesn’t always seem to occur to all expectant parents to think about preparing their dog for the arrival of a new child into their lives. Maybe it’s because their dog is already good with kids, or maybe its because their dog is already friendly and a baby is just another human after all. It may be that their dog is still only a baby himself, so he should easily learn to fit a human baby into his life and they can grow up together – right?
Well, it’s rarely that simple, unfortunately. People really need to take the time to prepare their dog for any change in their lives and a new little one is a really big change!
All the space in your house from the knees down (or your waist down if you have a big dog) has been pretty much solely occupied by your dog (unless you’re in the habit of sitting or crawling around on the floor a lot). Suddenly, there appears a small person in your house who is also occupying that same space at times. This new little being is making strange and sudden noises, crawling around, moving unsteadily, grabbing at things randomly, soon toddling around and eventually running around with even more noise – all in the same space as your dog. Imagine how your dog might feel and what he might be thinking!
I don’t know if it seems like competition for that space, or if that space suddenly seems too constricting to your dog. Perhaps your dog feels like he has no way to escape. He might even feel that he’s gained a fabulous new playmate right around his size. Whatever your dog might think about this sudden change to his environment – happy, confused, worried, scared, nervous – we really don’t have any way of knowing exactly what that might be. All we have to go on is his behaviour and what he tries to communicate to us and hopefully respond appropriately and fairly.
This is what I frequently observe:
1. Dog’s who are not entirely comfortable with strangers on the street or in the house.
This can easily translate into a dog who becomes “protective” in his behaviour toward strangers who visit the new baby, hold the new baby, or stop to see the new baby in the stroller as you take a walk down the street.
2. Dogs who have resource guarding issues – aren’t happy with people around their food, toys or treasured objects like raw bones or beef chews.
This can easily become a dog who growls and snaps at a small person crawling by his “stuff”. It can also cause a dog to start finding new things to guard like a favorite sleeping spot or a precious adult human who is his cuddle companion.
3. Dogs who are a bit uncomfortable with children or who simply haven’t been around them much.
This can easily become a dog who is growling and even snapping at your new addition for reasons that aren’t always obvious. It’s one thing to see a child on the street or occasionally be startled by them racing around a corner on the street, it’s something else to be constantly surrounded by the sight, smell and sound of them 24/7.
4. Dogs who aren’t comfortable being handled and touched in certain spots or at certain times.
I meet many dogs who aren’t comfortable getting their nails trimmed, being toweled off, having their collars or harnesses put on, being touched on the head, having their tails and ears handled, etc. I also meet quite a few dogs who don’t like to be disturbed when they’re sleeping, playing with their toys or eating (which can be a part of resource guarding behaviour). This isn’t going to play out well with a young child running around and grabbing unsteadily at anything within reach.
5. Dogs who are generally considered pretty good with kids and seem happy to see them and be petted by them.
This seems like a big win, right? But, even if your dog seems to like and even seek out the presence of children, if you have a child around constantly things can certainly change. Your dog can feel that he has no advocate in the house and no real way to avoid being touched and petted when he doesn’t want to be. When he meets kids outside, eventually everybody moves on so the touching may never become too much. In your house, though, everything is different.
He is also the centre of attention when kids are rushing over to meet him, but in his house the new arrival captures all the attention and he may be starting to feel excluded in some family activities. Even worse, he may be getting into trouble for things that were okay before – getting up on the couch, grabbing toys on the floor that no longer just contain dog toys, grabbing at food held down at his height by little hands, etc.
6. Puppies or very young dogs who, for many months have been the centre of attention, had free run of the house, family laps, free cuddle time, regular walks and play time.
All that often changes when baby comes home and time is limited. Space is suddenly limited, as each youngster has to be kept separate at times. Walks become shared with a baby in a stroller who gets all the attention from passers by. Playtime becomes joint playtime with baby and rules are suddenly put into place that didn’t previously exist. Free run in the trails is limited because baby can’t easily come along. Parents clamp down on what were considered minor mistakes in the past – no nipping at my feet, biting my hand accidently when grabbing your toy, wrestling on the floor, barking during nap time, etc.
What can you do?
Prepare your dog for the arrival of a new child as far in advance as possible.
- Introduce your dog to the new smells of baby lotions, laundry soap, shampoo, diaper cream, etc. so these smells become familiar before the new baby arrives.
- Decide whether your dog will have access to the nursery or not. If they are allowed in, teach them an appropriate behaviour like remaining on a bed in the room when you are in there with baby.
- Teach a solid “Wait” or “Go To Your Bed” skill and have a safe place for your dog to be in every room in the house so he can be included but in safer way than having free range depending on the ambulatory skills of your child.
- Take many walks with an empty stroller so they get used to how and where to walk and you can see how much training you need to do on their leash skills well before baby arrives on the scene.
- Desensitize your dog to the sights and sounds of children’s toys – especially noisy ones.
- Ensure you have good “Leave It” or “Drop It” cues to use and teach them which toys are theirs and which are off limits.
- Get your dog used to a confinement area so you can put him somewhere comfortable that he’s happy to be in when you can’t monitor both dog and baby.
- Ensure that you have a plan for your dog’s exercise needs and begin any new routine well in advance of baby.
Create some New Associations.
- Take your dog out to areas where children are congregating, walking to/from school, playing organized sports and begin getting your dog used to these sights and sounds.
- Work at a distance that your dog is comfortable with and spend a few minutes at a time feeding treats or playing tug and fetch games while in the presence of children. Ensure you practice this at different times of the day.
- Make sure you cover as many different age groups that you can.
- We want your dog to begin to associate great treats and having fun with the sights and sounds of children being noisy, moving at various speeds and doing different activities.
- Take note of any signs of discomfort that you observe and spend more time working in these circumstances with some spectacular treats.
Be Your Dog’s Advocate.
It should go without saying – NEVER, EVER, EVER leave a child and a dog alone for even the briefest of moments!
- Regardless how comfortable your dog may or may not be with children, do not allow children to simply run up and get in your dog’s space or touch him.
- Consider teaching your dog to touch his nose to a fist held out to him vs. having him endure petting on the head. With this new skill, your dog can interact in a fun way with a child who is instructed to hold out a closed fist toward your dog for a nose greeting.
- If your dog chooses not to interact with a child, respect this choice and back up your dog’s decision by asking the child to keep their distance. It’s a good teaching opportunity to explain to a child how dogs get to decide if they want to interact or not and why it’s a good and safe choice to respect that dog’s decision.
- Keep your dog and child separated at home unless you are able to safely monitor their activities or have help at hand to keep an eye on one or the other.
- Ensure your dog has a safe place to go to when he needs to get away. It’s critical that your dog can count on child being able to or being allowed to access.
- Have a confinement area (which can be the same as his safe place) that you can put your dog into when you can’t monitor things. Keep the association of this confinement or safe place location positive. Fill it with toys or treats and add in treat dispensing toys so it doesn’t feel like isolation and exclusion but rather a fun break with some special things your dog doesn’t get at other times.
- Don’t ever expect your babysitter to also monitor your dog. Ensure your dog can be safely crated or confined when others are minding your children in your place.
- Remember too that your child is also growing, maturing and changing so your dog’s environment will continue to change as your child’s ability to move about the house increases and changes. It’s easy to avoid that small person who can’t follow you, but when they can not only follow you but grab at you and your toys, how will your dog handle that?
Remember Your Dog Has Needs Too.
- Try and keep to your dog’s routine as much as you can even if you have to get the help of a friend to walk your dog at times.
- If your dog’s routine has to change, take the time to get them used to a new routine well in advance of the arrival of a new child.
- Ensure that your dog gets your undivided attention at times so they feel like they still have their alone time with you without the constant accompaniment of the new arrival. Consider taking a fun class with just you and your dog as a way for both of you to take a break with each other – maybe tricks, scenting or some fun outdoor group obedience classes are in order.
- Make sure that breaks – dog from child – happens as it needs to. Everybody needs a break from each other regardless of how they might love each other, or not. Err on the side of caution and give your dog more breaks than less – many small ones throughout the day would be ideal.
- Consider upping your dog’s mental stimulation so they have something to focus on that is helpful to their overall demeanor and any anxiety or concern they may feel. Invest in some new treat dispensing toys to keep him interested and mentally challenged.
Every single dog trainer you will ever meet cringes when we see those “cute” dog and child pictures that circulate on the internet and Facebook. Dogs can be incredibly tolerant which is often mistaken as “bombproof” and “great with kids”. Don’t make those mistakes – keep your children and your dog safe by making good choices and preparing and managing things well.
If you take the time to help prepare your dog for your new family member, then your dog can be a fun and beloved member of your family who fits in easily and can take part in most family activities.
We are counting on each generation to continue to have empathy and caring for our animals who do not have a voice to help themselves. We need to have children and pets able to live safely with each other. It’s important to be raised to think responsibly about our pets, be taught to take an active part in their care, and be encouraged to consider their mental and physical welfare. If you have an opportunity to interact appropriately with pets as you grow up, you are may be a little bit more inclined to be interested in and maybe even active in all animal welfare as an adult.
If you have a dog who you think isn’t entirely comfortable with your children (or other children), please consider hiring a professional dog trainer who uses positive methods and has experience with behaviour modification. Remember to keep it positive – for everyone!
Some Good Resources
- Living With Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind, a book by Colleen Pelar
- Colleen Pelar’s website: www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com
- Family Paws Parent Education website: www.familypaws.com