There is nothing more exciting, or more anticipated, than the arrival of a new baby. Whether a family is adopting or experiencing a pregnancy, expecting a baby brings on many hopes, dreams, and questions. Often, some questions focus on the relationship between the family's four-legged "baby" and the soon-to-arrive human baby.
(photo by Bette Yip)
"Will our dog accept the baby?"
"Will our dog be jealous?"
Questions like these weigh heavily on the minds of many dog-loving families. However, with the confident and constant supervision of their trusted adults, most dogs adapt just fine to the new family member. There are simple activities that can help ease the transition—activities that families can practice before a baby arrives.
Lay the groundwork before the baby arrives
Make a list of the behaviors your dog currently uses to get your attention. Does your dog drop a moist and slobbery tennis ball in your lap while you are watching TV in the evening, "asking" you to throw it? Does your dog nudge you, wanting to be patted while you read a book or talk on the phone? Pick the most common behavior, the one that may become problematic when you are tending to a newborn. Will you appreciate your dog bringing a soggy ball to you while you are holding your baby? Will you be able to pat your dog while you are feeding your newborn? Plan ahead to decrease some of these attention-seeking behaviors, and you and your dog will be more successful once baby arrives.
- Identify the behavior you want to decrease.
- Plan a short training session (less than 30 minutes) at a time of day when you can predict the behavior will occur.
- Make a chart divning one week's time, and put it on the wall on the other side of the room.
- When your dog displays the problem behavior, simply get up and put a tally mark by that day on the chart, and then come back and sit down. Repeat this step for each occurrence of the behavior during the session. (Do not speak to your dog or give eye contact—just look at, and move toward, the chart.)
- When you return to your seat, tell your dog what you want him to do. For example, ask him to sit, lie down, or go to his mat.
You will notice that the frequency of the problem behavior decreases as you repeat this training session over several days. The improvement is due to the lack of attention you pay to the dog. Moving away from your dog is the opposite of what he wants. In the face of the attention-seeking behavior, instead of saying "no" and giving the dog attention, you are engaging in another activity, focusing your energy on the tally mark and not the dog.
If you are on bed rest or unable to get up for this exercise, use a clipboard to block your entire lap area. A pillow is helpful, too. The goal is to become extremely involved in something else, and, therefore, completely unavailable to your dog when he is being pushy for your attention. Rather than saying "no" to him, you are engaging in another activity.
Make baby noises very familiar
It is a great idea to expose your dog to the many sounds babies make. You can do this through baby sounds CDs as well as through socialization exercises. Keep in mind that nothing is quite as distinctive as the sound of a newborn. Newborn cries are unique, and are meant to be an alarm. Dogs are naturally inquisitive and reactive; their reactions can make new parents concerned and uncomfortable, though. When a newborn cries, your dog needs you to tell him what you would like him to do. A simple "Thank you, I have the baby. Go lie down, Buster," is a good, way to handle the situation calmly. You want to remind the dog that you are still managing situations, even though life at home has changed a bit with the baby's arrival.
If you practice with a baby-crying CD ahead of time, and use a cue, you can teach your dog to go to his "special spot" when he hears the cry so that he is not underfoot. Click and treat the dog once he is in his spot. Pairing the cry with a specific action, followed by the click/treat combination, works well.
Carrying a doll—does it help?
Carrying a doll is role-playing—not so much for the dog, but for you. You are not looking to "fake out" your dog as much as you are looking to get into the mindset of having your hands and torso occupied by a baby. Using a baby carrier of some sort can be helpful. Add bags of rice to the carrier to make the exercise more realistic and to shift your posture as you carry the weight and move about. While you practice this exercise, ask yourself these questions: Does your dog listen to you? Does he jump up to explore the item? What about when you bend down?
Place a teddy bear in the carrier on top of the bags of rice to practice responding to your dog's inquisitiveness. What does your dog do when you chat with Teddy? Have treats ready and plan ahead for whatever it is you want your dog to do. Be ready to train and reinforce the behavior you want.
Do not give your dog the chance to practice inappropriate behaviors. Catch him sitting and being gentle, and reinforce this terrific behavior. Always end the activity or training on a positive note, and practice as often as possible before the baby arrives. With practice, you can feel confident that your dog will respect your limitations when your hands are occupied, or when you are cuddling with the baby.
Acquiring new items for the baby can be exciting for both you and your dog. As each item comes in to your home, teach your dog the behavior you want him to practice when he is near it.
Expect that your dog will want to sniff the items. If the items are noisy or move, turn them on and play with all of the settings and attachments. Let your dog get his fill of observing the new environment. Plan to spend time with your dog during this process—grab a book, sit in a comfortable chair, watch, read, and wait.
What you are waiting for is the moment your dog loses interest in the new equipment and lies down. Click and treat him for lying down calmly, away from the new item. Repeat this process several times with each new item, with the item in its desired location. Over time, the items become less and less interesting to your dog.
Will your dog follow your directions while you are sitting or lying down?
Many owners find that their dogs only listen when they stand and give directions. Once the baby arrives, your dog must listen to you regardless of the position you are in. The following exercise can help to build that listening skill, and your own comfort level.
Tether your dog to an object across the room, or have a helper wrap the leash around his or her waist to create a "hands free" situation. The helper should not be involved in the lesson other than to act as a post to keep the dog in the location you desire. Helpers should face away from you and your dog so that they are less likely to react to you or the dog.
- To begin the exercise, choose a spot to sit or lie down. Have treats prepared and within easy reach so that you do not have to get up. Fold your arms across your chest and lean back into your seat.
- Once your helper has tethered the dog and is facing the opposite direction, get your dog's attention and say, "sit."
- If your dog sits right away, click and treat. If your dog ignores you, do not immediately repeat the command. Instead, look away, take a breath, and then try again. Make it fun, act like a tease. Be interesting!
- Once again, get your dog's attention, say "sit," and then click and treat for success. Toss the treats to your dog so that you can both remain in place.
- If your dog absolutely has no interest in you and seems frustrated, ask your helper to bring the dog closer to you and try from there. Sometimes letting your dog sniff the potential rewards can motivate him to behave better more quickly.
For a challenge, repeat this exercise with your teddy bear or baby doll in your arms, and pretend to talk to and interact with this "baby." Lift the baby, cuddle him, coo, and use "baby talk." Practice this entire exercise with the "down" command as well.
Take your time with this training. Practice the training exercises in different rooms, and include some distractions as well. Once your dog listens consistently from a short distance, practice from further away until you feel the tether is not necessary any longer.
Once the baby arrives, you will be glad that you worked on this task. Continue the exercise after the baby arrives, too; training is a great dinnertime activity! Knowing that your dog will follow directions from anywhere in the room is a huge comfort.
Parenthood can feel overwhelming at first, even without having to struggle to include your dog and maintain harmony within your home. You may feel mixed emotions—and you will certainly receive contradictory advice from all different sources. Preparing for some of the inevitable confusion ahead of time by using these exercises will help you and your dog begin your new life with the right paw forward.
Remember that when a new baby comes into a home, life is different—and that can be a very positive change. With a baby, there are more treats, more opportunities for games, and most importantly, more love.
Congratulations—and good luck to you and your family!