Baby Friendly Dogs

By Anchen Verster – Registered nurse and midwife, SA certified perinatal educator


We have a 1-year-old mixed breed dog that brings our children immense pleasure. She has cost us thousands in garden furniture and garage tool damage but I suppose the price is worth it. I’ve actually just filmed my 9-year-old sitting in his pajamas singing a song to the dog while stroking her. Initially we inherited two Labradors from a retiring couple. One of our twin toddlers was terrified of dogs so the intention was to get dogs to help her get over her fear so that visits to another home didn’t mean hours with a toddler hanging around my neck. Unfortunately the Labs have passed away and Zip has joined our family but Maya is no longer terrified of dogs.

As I do many postnatal home visits the number of families with a large variety of pets fascinates me. Each family has different boundaries for their pets. Usually the baby is the newcomer and the pet has to adjust. These adjustments vary from suddenly being ousted out of the main bedroom as sleeping place or no longer being allowed in the house. Safe interaction between baby and dogs is imperative and it’s your responsibility as the owner to take the lead on this.

Preparation for a new baby in the house should start well before the homecoming. If your pet has unsafe or anti-social behaviours, now is the time to work with a professional to eliminate them. You will also have more time to be consistent in working on these behaviours while you are pregnant (or while your partner is pregnant). This is unlikely to happen after the birth because your energy and time will be focused on the baby.  It is also important in this time to establish or re-establish your position as leader – especially if you have become a bit slack on rules and boundaries. This is imperative when you need the dogs to obey a command immediately like “down” when they are excited around the baby chair. Remember to make sure the commands are clear and unambiguous.

Start establishing boundaries that you will enforce after your baby comes home. Like a toddler who is suddenly excluded in activities because of a baby sister, your dogs will associate new boundaries and exclusion with the baby unless they are well established before the birth. In other words if the baby room is going to be ‘out of bounds’ make sure that it is ‘out of bounds’ long before the baby is home. The same goes for sleeping in your room. Most parents have their baby sleep in their room for the first few months and this is safe practice. If the dogs usually share the room it might be worth making changes before the baby is home. New mothers often feel the demands of a new baby are overwhelming and having excited dogs rushing around at the same time even if you relished their presence before the birth can sometimes just feel like too much.

You may need to make use of safety gates and latches. This is a very tangible way of setting and maintaining boundaries.

You may want to play some sounds of babies crying so that your dogs can get more acquainted to the sounds.

Most dogs will sense that there is an impending change, they may even change behavior the day you go into labour so they are well aware ‘something is in the air’ but just not sure what or how to interpret excited or anxious ‘owner behaviour’. Try and stay as calm as possible and as said previously be consistent with your treatment of the dogs. Remember both dad and mom have to be consistent with their treatment of the dogs. To explain – dad cannot say it is okay to sleep inside while mom sends the dogs outside. You have to decide what the rule is going to be and stick to it.

Once the baby is born bring home a blanket or burp cloth that is covered in the baby’s scent and allow the dog to smell it while you are still holding it – showing ownership over the scent.

Your baby will already be covered in some of your dog’s body flora (microorganisms) even before coming home from hospital. As dog owners part of your body flora includes flora from your dogs – I like to call it family flora. This is then transferred to your baby at birth. In a sense this prepares your baby’s system for contact with your dogs.

Before planning the meeting make sure you get rid of some energy in your dogs by taking them for a walk. Once returning home with the baby, allow the dogs to sniff but not to come too close. Be confident and firm but very calm. You can allow closer interaction in the days to follow but continue to be very firm surrounding the boundaries that you established prior to the baby’s arrival. Keep rewarding gentle bahaviour in your dogs.

Always supervise interactions with dogs and baby and especially with dogs and toddler. Even the tamest dogs can be caught off guard with a toddler’s pinch or tail pull and may invoke a snap or even a bite. Don’t assume that you can always anticipate the response.

Once home with your baby continue to follow the usual routine with the dogs. If someone else is helping with walks – introduce them to this person and allow them to go on a few walks with this person before the baby arrives home. Remember to try not to make significant changes in routine once the baby is home.

Dogs respond differently to the arrival of a baby and many owners are pleasantly surprised at the smooth transition. The positive response is often related to temperament and preparation rather than the breed of dog. For example although you may have a more assertive breed of dog, the dog may respond very well to a baby in the house if well prepared and introduced with confidence. Smaller dogs may be more “put out” by the presence of the baby because they are used to being handled like a baby. Try and decrease some of this handling during the pregnancy time so that it is not associated with the baby’s arrival.

Some dog handlers and trainers recommend leaving the baby with a babysitter when taking dogs for walks. I’m not sure how practical and attainable this is. The baby-in-sling while taking the dogs for a walk meets the dogs needs of exercise, exploration and energy release, keeps the baby close to mom or dad – emphasizing the hierarchy but also keeps baby calm; a great opportunity for the growing family to enjoy time together.

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