Preparing Your Dog for Life with a Toddler
Many dogs who haven’t spent time around children find toddlers confusing and intimidating. Some find them downright scary! Read on to learn about what you can do to influence the developing relationship between your dog and your growing child.
Prepare in Advance
A wonderful thing about babies is that they start out not doing much at all and then become more active and mobile as they develop. These slow changes will help your dog get used to your newest family member gradually, setting both of them up for successful interactions. But before you know it, your baby will be a poking, grabbing, crawling machine! When your baby’s still young, start preparing your dog for a toddler’s touch, movements and unpredictable behavior.
As they explore the world, young children do a lot of grabbing, poking and pulling. You’ll eventually teach your child to treat your dog with gentleness and respect—but he won’t be able to grasp these concepts as a toddler. So before he starts crawling around, it’s important to help your dog get used to rough and even painful handling.
Poke the Pup
To prepare your dog for the way your baby will touch her, teach her that wonderful things happen when her various parts get poked and prodded. Use small, delicious treats, such as chicken, cheese or hot dog, to “pay” your dog for tolerating each and every slightly uncomfortable sensation.
If possible, dedicate a little time every day to practicing the following exercises. As you work with your dog, keep in mind that it’s important for your touch and her treat to happen in the correct order. The idea is to teach your dog that uncomfortable touching always predicts the delivery of goodies. That way, she’ll learn to look forward to it! So touch your dog first, and then give her a treat. These two events shouldn’t happen at the same time.
Poke your dog gently in the side or rump, and then immediately give her a treat. Repeat the poking five times in a row, four to eight times a day, until your dog feels a poke and looks up at you for her treat. When this happens, start gradually making the pokes a little more forceful.
Gently pull your dog’s ear, and then give her a treat. Repeat until your dog happily looks for her treat right after you pull her ear. Do the same exercise with your dog’s tail. Just as you’ll do when helping your dog get used to poking, do plenty of repetitions and gradually increase the pressure of your ear and tail pulling.
Pinch your dog, and then give her a treat. Repeat until your dog looks at you excitedly right after you pinch her. Start with very gentle pinches. Over two or three weeks of daily practice, work up to harder and harder pinches.
Gently tug on a handful of your dog’s fur, and then give her a treat. Repeat until your dog looks for her treat right after you tug on her fur. Then start to gradually increase the forcefulness of your tugs.
You can say something like “Oh, what was that?” in a cheerful voice each time you do something mildly annoying to your dog. Later, when your toddler touches her in an uncomfortable way, you can say the same thing to let your dog know that a tasty treat is coming.
If your dog starts to get jumpy when you reach for her, you’ve likely increased the intensity of your pokes and pulls too quickly. Go back to very gentle touching for a while. Only start to slowly increase intensity again when your dog seems relaxed and happy after you touch her. Make sure you also touch her in your usual gentle manner plenty of times throughout the day so she doesn’t decide that all touching is unpleasant.
Movement: Introduce “Baby Moves”
Some dogs have never seen a human crawl, so it can be an intimidating experience—especially because crawling puts a person right at their eye level. So it’s a good idea to help your dog get used to crawling before your baby starts to become mobile. Accomplishing this is easy! Crawl toward your dog. As soon as she lifts her head to look at you, pet her and give her treats. Eventually, she’ll start to anticipate fun and goodies when she sees you crawling in her direction. Everyone in the family should participate in this exercise. When your baby comes and your dog is completely comfortable with this new game, incorporate the baby into the picture, too. Have him sit on your back, supported by your partner, when you crawl. Continue to cuddle your dog and give her treats so that she continues to enjoy this strange, new human behavior! She should take it all in stride when the baby starts crawling on his own.
Resource Guarding Prevention
Babies and young children have no idea that dogs sometimes get upset when people get close to their food, chew bones or toys. Even if your dog has never behaved aggressively when someone approaches one of her favorite things, it’s a good idea to do some resource guarding prevention anyway.
Before your baby starts to crawl, start teaching your dog that when someone approaches her and a valued resource, wonderful things happen—and she gets to keep her stuff.
Continue to periodically do this exercise, sometimes just approaching to pat your dog while she eats, sometimes putting your hands into her dish and sometimes taking the dish away. Always give her a treat right afterwards.
Eventually, your dog will start to see you coming and happily back away from her bowl so that you can take it away and spruce it up with a fabulous goodie! At this point, ask other adults to practice with your dog as well. After she learns that anyone approaching her while she eats means that she’s going to get a reward, she’ll be much less likely to react aggressively if your unwitting child happens to approach her during a meal.
You can do similar exercises when your dog is chewing bones or playing with her toys. The more good experiences your dog has when people approach her and her favorite things, the better.
Teach Your Dog to Retreat
Many dogs don’t realize that they can move away from a baby when they feel tired or nervous about interacting. If they don’t know that retreating is an option, they sometimes resort to aggressive behavior, like growling, snapping or even biting. This is natural for dogs when communicating with each other—but it’s clearly undesirable if such behavior is directed toward your child.
When a dog growls or snaps at a baby, his parents wisely swoop in to the rescue. Although necessary, the removal of the baby is exactly what the dog wants, so it reinforces her aggressive behavior. To prevent this unfortunate cycle of events, teach your dog that she doesn’t have to defend herself—she can choose to move away instead. (Of course, until your dog has mastered the skills below, step in to remove your child whenever your dog starts to look nervous—before she feels the need to express her discomfort).
Walking Away Is an Option
If you’ve already taught your dog a “Go away” cue, you can use it to tell her how to escape from uncomfortable situations. If you see your baby crawling toward your dog or if you see your dog start to look anxious while interacting with him, say “Go away” in a calm, cheerful tone. Avoid sounding angry. Your dog hasn’t done anything wrong, and your disapproval will only intensify her anxiety. Then point in the direction you’d like your dog to go. When she moves a few feet away from your baby, toss her a treat. After some repetition, your dog will learn that when she’s uncomfortable, she doesn’t have to rely on aggression to relieve her distress. She can simply go somewhere else. Make sure, however, that moving away from the baby is physically possible for her.
Designate Safe Zones and Teach Your Dog to Use Them
Choose Some Safe Zones
Note the layout of your home and designate or create ‘safe zones’ for your dog. These areas should be in the rooms where you spend most of your time. Comfy elevated spots usually make the best safe zones because your dog can easily hop up onto them to get out of your toddler’s reach. One option is to simply put a dog bed, small rug, mat or blanket on your sofa. Or, if you’re handy, build a sturdy shelf or platform for your dog to use instead. Provide good footing by gluing or stapling carpet to its surface.
Teach Your Dog to Go to the Safe Zones
Spend a few days practicing the steps above. (Aim for two or three 5- to 10-minute training sessions per day). When your dog readily jumps up onto her safe zone after you give her the cue, start to stand further away from it. At first, just stand a step away when you say “Go to your spot.” Then, during your next training session, try standing two steps away. Continue to slowly increase your distance from the safe zone, just a step or two at a time. After a week or two of practice, you’ll be able to stand all the way across the room and send your dog to her safe zone.
When you see your child crawling toward your dog, you can start using the “Go to your spot” cue if you see your dog become nervous about being close to him. Periodically reward her with a treat, chew bone or stuffed Kong toy to enjoy.
Prepare Your Dog for the Baby’s Touch and Movement
When your child is old enough to understand the lesson, you’ll teach him to handle your dog gently. However, not knowing any better, young babies often grab dogs’ fur, ears, tails and anything else within reach. To prepare your dog for this inevitability, accustom her to the types of touching you can expect from your baby, including grabbing, poking, pushing and pulling. If you teach your dog that good things happen when she gets poked and prodded, she’ll be able to better tolerate potentially uncomfortable interactions with the baby.
Poke the Pup
Poke your dog gently and then give her a treat. Gently tug on her ear and then give a treat. Gently grab her skin or pinch her and then give a treat. In a cheery voice, say something like “Oh, what was that?” each time you poke, pull or pinch your dog. Later on, when the baby does these things, you can say the same phrase. With repetition, your dog will start to anticipate tasty treats and simply look to you each time she gets pinched or grabbed. Practice these handling exercises four to eight times per day, and use especially exciting treats, like cheese, chicken or hot dogs. (Training sessions can be short—about five minutes long). When you start your training, be very gentle. Over time, make your touches more intense, like they will be when the baby delivers them.
Some dogs have never seen a human crawl, so it can be an intimidating experience—especially because crawling puts a person right at their eye level. So it’s a good idea to help your dog get used to crawling before your baby starts to become mobile. Accomplishing this is easy! Crawl toward your dog. As soon as she lifts her head to look at you, pet her and give her treats. Eventually, she’ll start to anticipate fun and goodies when she sees you crawling in her direction. Everyone in the family should participate in this exercise. When your baby comes and your dog is completely comfortable with this new game, incorporate the baby into the picture, too. Have him sit on your back, supported by your partner, when you crawl. Remember to cuddle your dog and give her treats so that she continues to enjoy this strange, new human behavior!
First impressions are important. Your dog should have pleasant experiences with your baby right from the start.
When bringing your baby home from the hospital, send everyone else into the house first so your dog can express her usual excitement to see people. After she’s had a minute or two of greeting time and expends some of her energy, have someone leash her. This is important, even if you have no reason to believe that she’ll react poorly to the baby. That person should also get some small treats ready to use during your dog’s first few moments with the baby. (It may help to prepare these treats in advance and keep them in a container near the front door).
It’s crucial to stay calm and relaxed when you and the baby enter the house. If you seem nervous and jumpy, your dog will pick up on your feelings and may become nervous as well, thinking that the bundle in your arms is something to worry about. Instead, speak to your dog in a soft but cheerful voice as you walk into the house. Have your helper distract her with plenty of treats so that her attention is divided between them, your baby and the other people present. The helper can ask your dog to respond to obedience cues, like sit and down, using the treats to reward her polite behavior. Praise your dog for any calm interest in the baby. Avoid scolding your dog. Remember, you want her to associate the baby with good things, not your displeasure.
Meeting the Baby
Whether you choose to allow your dog to investigate the baby right away or to wait until a later time, orchestrate the event carefully. Choose a quiet room, and sit down with the baby in your arms. Have a helper leash your dog and bring her into the room. Again, avoid nervous or agitated behavior. Talk to your dog in a calm, happy voice as you invite her to approach. Convince her that meeting and interacting with her new friend is fun, not stressful.
If your dog’s body language is relaxed and friendly, have your friend walk her toward you and the baby, keeping the leash short but loose. If she wants to, let your dog sniff the baby as you continue to speak softly to her. Praise her warmly for gentle investigation.
Even if your dog seems curious and calm, you may feel a little nervous about letting her get close to the infant. That’s normal for new parents and perfectly reasonable. Initially, you might feel most comfortable allowing only brief interactions. Let your dog sniff the baby’s feet for a couple of seconds. Then gently interrupt her investigation by praising her and asking her to sit or lie down. Reward her for complying with a few small, tasty treats. (Your helper can hand them to you or deliver the rewards to your dog himself). If you like, repeat this sequence a few times. Then have your helper distract your dog with a new chew bone or a food puzzle toy.
Teaching Your Dog to Love the Baby
As the baby settles in, continue to focus on associating him with good things for your dog. You may be tempted to give her plenty of attention when the baby’s asleep and then try to get her to lie down, be quiet and leave you alone while the baby’s awake. It’s actually much better to do the opposite. Try to give your dog lots of attention when the baby is present. Teach her that when he’s around, she gets treats, petting, playing—and anything else she likes. When you feed the baby, you can feed your dog, too. When you walk your dog, do your best to take the baby along. (Baby “backpacks” and slings are great for dog parents). This strategy, though it requires some skillful multitasking on your part, teaches your dog a valuable lesson. She’ll learn to love it when the baby is awake and active because that’s when good things happen for her.
Obviously, giving both the baby and your dog attention at the same time is easier if there are two adults in the home. But when that’s not possible, you can still accomplish a lot by holding your baby in your lap while you talk to your dog and stroke her, give her treats or toss a ball for her.
Also teach your dog that when your baby isn’t around, things get very boring. Your dog can be with you, but try to ignore her most of the time. This will make her eagerly anticipate the baby’s next active time and help her bond with him.
Out from Underfoot
It can be really hard to care for an infant if your dog insists on being underfoot. To make things easier and safer for everyone, you can teach her to move away when you ask.
Over your next few training sessions, gradually increase the number of steps your dog must take before you toss her a treat. Eventually, you can wait until she moves several feet away before you toss the treat. Once your dog has mastered this skill, you’ll be able to use it in other situations, too. When your baby starts to crawl, for example, you can use the cue to teach your dog to move away from him when she feels uncomfortable.
Quiet Time Together
Another great way to encourage your dog to stay out of the way while you’re tending to the baby is to teach her to settle down for some quiet time. Keep a dog bed or comfy mat in the room where you usually feed the baby. When it’s time to nurse or give him a bottle, provide something tasty for your dog, too. You can reward her for doing a nice down-stay on her bed, tossing a piece or two of kibble every few moments. Alternatively, you can give your dog an exciting new chew bone or food puzzle toy to work on while you care for the baby in the same room.
Polite Manners Around the Baby
As often as possible, reward your dog for behaving politely when she’s close to the baby. Encouraging calm, controlled behavior now will pay off in the weeks and months ahead—as your baby becomes more and more interesting and exciting to your dog. If someone in your family has time, consider taking your dog to a group obedience class or hiring a private trainer to show you how to teach the basics in your own home. A well-trained dog will make your first few days, weeks, months and even years with your child much easier!
What Was That?!
Baby sounds, especially those that are very loud, may upset and confuse your dog. Most dogs simply learn to ignore them, but some need extra help. If your dog seems distressed when the baby makes noise, associate the sounds with things your dog loves. If the baby squeals or cries, toss a tasty treat to your dog right afterward. After a little repetition, your dog will discover that baby sounds don’t signal anything bad. In fact, they predict the delivery of food!
If Your Dog Is a Little Nervous About the Baby
Sniff the Baby
Some dogs are nervous about babies or even a bit afraid of them and go out of their way to avoid contact. If your dog seems a little worried about the new member of your family, you can teach her how to touch the baby with her nose on cue. This exercise will give her a safe way to interact with him and get used to his scent, appearance and sounds—without being forced to stay close for more than a few seconds at a time.
To get started, you’ll need to first teach your dog to touch your hand with her nose. Once your dog will touch your hand on cue, you can transfer this behavior to the baby.
Put your hand on the baby, palm facing toward your dog. Say “Touch,” and then reward your dog for approaching and touching your hand.
After a few repetitions, change the rules a little. First, say “Touch.” Then, right as your dog moves forward to touch your hand with her nose, quickly move your palm a few inches so that your dog inadvertently touches the baby. The instant she does, say “Yes!” Then give her a few extra treats. Repeat this exercise until your dog clearly tries to touch the baby with her nose instead of your hand. (For some dogs, this might take just a few repetitions. Others may need a few training sessions before catching on).
At this point, start pointing to your baby instead of presenting your hand after you say your cue.
If your dog enjoys this activity, she might soon start taking the initiative to gently sniff or nose the baby on her own. If this happens, be sure to praise her enthusiastically and give her a treat. Praise may be enough to maintain your dog’s new friendly behavior, but it’s a good idea to keep periodically rewarding her with treats, too. Doing so will help her learn that being close to the baby isn’t scary—it earns her your happy attention and, sometimes, something delicious.
Handouts at the High Chair
Timid dogs often have a hard time when babies start to become more active, more vocal and mobile. Luckily, this period coincides with the time when babies start learning about gravity by throwing finger foods from the high chair onto the floor. Allowing your dog to help you clean up these tasty experiments may convince her that having a baby in the house is a very good thing!
What NOT to Do
Never force your dog to interact with your baby. Let her approach him on her own. When she seems nervous, speak softly to her and praise her for bravely investigating.
If Your Dog Responds Aggressively to the Baby
Dogs who show aggression toward a new baby in the home often do so because they have not been well socialized to children and find them foreign and frightening. Some dogs don’t fear babies, but they become aggressive when guarding their food, toys or chew bones. Babies and young children can’t understand that they should leave the dog’s things alone. They may also have difficulty recognizing a dog’s warning signs or find growling and barking amusing. A child’s failure to heed such warnings can have disastrous consequences. A small percentage of dogs seem to react to babies as though they’re squeaky toys, and this response can be extremely dangerous, too. All of these situations put children at great risk of receiving a bite.
What to Do
Get help. If your dog shows aggressive behavior around your baby in any situation—or if you think she might—keep her away from him at all times and immediately contact an animal behavior expert. Please see our article on Finding Professional Behavior Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) in your area. Make sure that the professional you hire is qualified to help you. It’s important that he or she has extensive experience in successfully treating aggression in dogs.
Should You Correct Your Dog for Aggressive Behavior?
Obviously, it’s important that your dog learn to inhibit her aggressive behavior toward your child. However, the best way to deal with an aggressive dog is not to verbally or physically punish her. Punishment can backfire because it teaches your dog that bad things happen when your child is present—which is yet another reason to dislike him. If your child becomes a signal for punishment, your dog may fear or resent him even more. In particular, it’s important to avoid punishing your dog for growling, snapping, showing teeth or otherwise giving aggressive warnings when she’s upset. If you are fortunate enough to have a dog who warns you before biting, never scold or otherwise punish her for this behavior. If you inhibit her warning system, it may disappear—and you may not have a way to know when your dog is feeling uncomfortable or aggressive. She may just suddenly bite! As long as your dog growls, you have the opportunity to remove your dog or your child from bad situations.
The most effective and humane way to resolve aggression problems is to focus on changing your dog’s motivations for behaving aggressively. If your dog is aggressive toward your baby, you can improve her behavior by teaching her to like being around him. Again, it’s crucial to seek professional guidance. A qualified behaviorist or trainer can come to your home, thoroughly evaluate your situation and walk you through a systematic, safe behavior modification plan.
Establish Boundaries Around the Nursery
I recommend starting with the nursery off-limits. Condition your dog to understand that there is an invisible barrier that she may not cross without your permission. Eventually, you can allow your dog to explore and sniff certain things in the room with your supervision. Then you decide when she needs to leave. Repeat this activity a few times before the baby arrives. This will let your dog know that this room belongs to its pack leader and must be respected at all times.
Introducing Your Dog to a New Baby (The NATURAL Way)
You spent the last nine months preparing your dog for this new family member, and the initial meeting went well. But that’s just the beginning!
Your dog’s relationship with your baby will change over time. At each stage of your baby’s development, you’ll encounter new joys and new challenges. The key is to be alert to changes and to monitor interactions between them so you can step in and correct problem behavior — from either your dog or your baby!
Here are a few of the dynamics you may encounter as your baby grows — and how to get through them as a pack.