If you're a dog owner who is preparing to bring a new baby into your home, you've obviously got a lot on your mind right now. And you're likely receiving an overwhelming amount of conflicting advice from random sources on the internet and from well-meaning acquaintances. How do you know what to prioritize and who to trust?
Here's a guide to help you feel more prepared and to direct you towards reliable resources and support.
Teach your dog these things before the baby arrives
BOUNDARY / BED CUE
This is a cue that lets your dog know it's time to go to a specific area -- a bed, mat, etc. -- and to relax there until further notice. It's one of the most valuable cues for any dog to know, because it's a super effective solution for pups who tend to counter-surf, beg for food, jump on visitors, chase the cat, bark out the window...pretty much all those fun "undesirable" behaviors.
And for a family with a new baby, a dog who can reliably relax in their area when asked is an absolutely essential thing. By using the method I'll share below, you're not only teaching your dog to respond to a cue to go to their boundary, but to actually physically relax and enjoy spending time there. And that part is essential, because if your dog loves their boundary, you are promoting calmness. This means that they will be much more likely to choose calm behavior over other behaviors. And that's the dream, right?
Check out this great eBook from Absolute Dogs to learn the steps to teach your dog a boundary.
"LEAVE IT ALONE" / INTERRUPTOR CUE
A lot of the time, we tell our dogs “no” or “stop” without teaching them what it actually means. They may stop doing the behavior momentarily because they are startled or afraid, but they are not actually learning what it is that you want them to do (or not do). In addition, the word “no” often becomes associated with negative feelings, a punishment of some sort, or a threat (“do what I’m commanding, otherwise…”).
It's much more effective to teach your dog that it is rewarding to listen to your communication. Once you've taught your dog this cue, it can be a really useful way to ask your dog to disengage from something and to do something else instead. For example, if your dog is getting a little too excited near your new baby, you will be able to use your cue to interrupt them and get their focus on you, and then ask them to go to their bed or do another behavior.
Check out my guide to teaching your dog the "leave it alone" cue.
Use management to set up for success
Management refers to adapting your environment or routines in a way that limits the opportunities available to your dog to make a "wrong" choice. It's one of the most essential elements of successful and sustainable dog training, and definitely a crucial part of keeping your baby and your dog happy and safe.
For most families, it's going to be really important to establish an area in your home as your dog's "safe space," and use a management tool like a gate to keep them in that area for limited periods of time. The purpose is that your dog learns that they can relax in this space without being disturbed, and that you can devote your full attention to caring for your baby. See the guide below for some examples. Depending on your dog and on the layout of your home, some strategies might work better than others. Not all solutions work for all dogs, so consider your dog's personality and previous experiences when choosing which ones to practice.
Regardless of which management strategies you choose, the key is that you and your dog practice them gradually, positively, and ideally far before your baby arrives. To help create positive associations with their safe space and to promote independence, you can give your dog things like stuffed and frozen Kongs, puzzle feeders, and other enrichment activities inside the space. You should of course also make sure your dog has access to a cozy bed, water, and toys in this space. Do not leave your dog there for longer than they are comfortable with, as this will create negative associations and stress. It's much better to practice early, frequently, and consistently, with brief sessions that gradually increase in duration.
Another thing to consider is the layout of your home, and whether there are ways to rearrange things to minimize potential issues (check out the graphic below). Ideally, make these changes before the baby arrives to give your dog time to adjust.
Practice future routines and create positive associations
Before the baby arrives, you can further prepare your dog for the transition by helping them get used to the sights, smells, and sounds of all those new baby supplies and products. Strollers, beds, carriers, toys...the more you can practice with beforehand, the better. Let your dog explore these new items. Practice moving and using the items in ways that you will need to when the baby has arrived. Create positive associations by giving your dog treats near the items and while they are being used.
It's also a good idea to practice holding and carrying a doll in the presence of your dog. This is a great way to observe your dog's reaction to the visuals of you holding a baby while sitting down and moving around the home. It's also a great way to practice using your dog's safe space or boundary cue. Once your dog is familiar with spending time in their safe space and/or on their boundary, you can practice picking up the doll and then cuing them to go there for a while before releasing them from the area.
How to handle introductions and interactions
So what happens when your baby has finally arrived? How should you handle those first introductions and the daily interactions between your baby and dog?
Your dog's personality and previous experiences and training will obviously play a huge role in how they react to their new sibling. Some dogs might react by showing behaviors like fear and stress, others with gentle curiosity, others with over-the-top excitement. Along with all of the preparation in terms of training and management that you have done with your dog, it's important to have a plan for setting up and supervising safe and positive interactions.
Learning to observe and understand your dog's body language is key to managing their stress or excitement levels around your baby. Be aware of subtle signs of discomfort or stress, for example yawning, licking lips, putting ears back, and scratching or grooming. Never force an interaction or put your dog in a situation where they may feel cornered or not in control. Remember to never punish your dog for growling or barking during an interaction; this is their way of communicating that they need space. This understanding among all family members is key to preventing unfortunate incidents like bites.
Take a look at the two infographics below for some great tips.
This article is just a brief summary of some of the many important ways to prepare for and manage life with dogs and babies. If you'd like to learn more, or would like information for homes with older toddlers or children, I recommend checking out the links below.
If you're interested in personalized support, I highly recommend working with a reward-based dog trainer who specializes in working with expecting families or families with children. You can find a directory of specialized trainers listed here.
Family Paws - the organization responsible for all the fantastic infographics in this article. You can find tons more helpful resources on their website, including webinars and individualized support for families with dogs and children of all ages.
Family Pupz - a reward-based dog trainer who specializes in working with families with babies, toddlers, and children. Their services include a Doggy Doula program that provides individualized support to expecting families or to families with toddlers.