Hold puppies, kittens, and babies anytime you get the chance.
H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
So here I am, a deadline for a blog post looming over me, and I’m drawing a blank on what to write. To my rescue: a telephone call from a past client. Apparently they’ve brought home a new addition over the weekend and wanted to verify how to integrate their current dog with the new addition. After verifying that they meant a new baby, and not a new puppy (completely different set of rules), I set about giving them the lowdown on creating a harmonious house while dealing with a new baby. So here are a few things to bear in mind:
You’ve just given birth (historically, if you’re female). You’re sore, tired and overwhelmed with both love and the looming, daunting task of raising a mini-human. Unfortunately, the dog is going to fall by the wayside for a little bit. That’s okay (short-term). Okay, it’s not really ok, but you’re going to do the best you can with what you have. Piloting doesn’t mean being perfect…it means accepting that you’re the one in charge with difficult decisions, and that you will answer all questions. Only now you’re doing it on 2 hours sleep a night. There is only so much of you to go around. It’s okay. Fido will manage. This is short term, until you find your footing. Right now you’re doing triage, so don’t beat yourself up if Fido doesn’t get his usual 5 mile hike each day. Just do your best.
Look For Shortcuts.
Just because you’re doing your best doesn’t mean there isn’t a baseline that needs to be adhered to. For example, when I was pregnant with my son Eric, Darwin was already an old dog of about 10. His baseline for activity was at least a walk of about 1/2 mile every day. That was no where near his maximum capacity, but that was the sweet spot. Any less than that, and he would start to exhibit unsavory behaviors, such as hyperactivity, pacing or even destruction. Right after I had Eric via c-section, I wasn’t even up for 1/2 mile hikes, so I did the best I could to equal that amount of activity. Short cuts, if you will, such as these. Think outside the, uh…leash. Agility, backpacks or playdates. I had a client who, while pregnant with twins, trained her dog to run up and down the steps on command, just to wear him out. No, this won’t work forever, but it’s not meant to. It’s meant to be a stop-gap between the time you give birth and the time you are able to sleep more than 4 hours a night.
The same goes for Work. Make sure your dog is still getting the mental Work they require. Otherwise they will come up with something to occupy themselves, and believe me, you won’t like it.
Remember Whose Baby This Is.
I’m all for bonding kids and dogs, but the time to do that is a little bit later. Right now Fido needs to understand that this is your baby. And thank you for the offer, Fido, but I think I’ve got it. Odds are Fido will ask you questions about the baby. It’s natural to be curious about something new (and loud and smelly) that enters your life. However, it’s up to you to set boundaries. With my children, the boundary was roughly 2 feet. My dogs were not allowed within that area of my child. Mean? Maybe. But there were no bites – no issues with uncertainty around my children. They were mine, and I’ll tend to them, thankyouverymuch. I treated my infants as if they were a chocolate frosted cake I was carrying around. Would you let your dog go nose-to-nose with that? Nope, didn’t think so.
By making sure Fido understands that this is your baby, you are removing all his rights to correcting the child (read: nipping the child to get them to stop crying). There will be no face licking when the baby spits up all over (a dangerous and repulsive behavior).
Once the child is about 6-8 weeks old, it’s a good time to start slowly introducing them. If Fido is on the floor sleeping by you, and the baby is calm, take the baby’s foot and start slowly petting the dog with it, immediately giving calm positives when the dog remains calm, and giving a gentle, but firm, negative if your dog gets excited or hyper. You are training your dog that calm interactions with the baby equal positives. Add more stimulation to the situation as your dog grows accustomed to the interaction. Gradually start to bridge the 2-foot perimeter you set up for safety previously. Gently redirect your baby towards appropriate petting if they start to grab Fido’s fur. Praise positive, gentle petting. You are setting the flavor of future interactions. Read: no pouncing on the baby. No jumping on the toddler wandering with a handful of pretzels. No pulling on Fido’s ears/tail/tongue. You are setting the scene for future interactions between your child and Fido now. Don’t wait until there’s a problem – establish calm as the go-to mode between them.
Abuse Your Dog (a little)
Yeah, this one’s a bit of a heartbreaker, but you’ve got to get Fido used to some things that babies may do. Obviously it’s up to you to make sure that your children are acting appropriately towards your dog, but accidents happen in a heartbeat. Set everyone up for success.
Start pulling on Fido’s tail (and then immediately giving them a reward). Take a knuckle and “noogie” his ears gently. Pry open his mouth, and then give a positive. Get them accustomed to anything that a young child may do. No, it’s not fair that your dog has to go through this to help de-sensitize him – it’s always up to you to make sure you child acts appropriately – but if you screw up (because, like, you’re human), then hopefully you’ve set the groundwork for success rather than becoming another statistic.
…And Protect Your Dog
Yes, kids can be jerks to dogs, knowingly or otherwise. Make sure you handle it. If a toddler-aged child is abusing an animal, give them a hardcore consequence – I don’t care what your parenting style is, drop the hammer! A harsher punishment is nothing in comparison to a dog bite!
If it’s an 8 month old baby, that’s a different story. No, a child that young doesn’t understand that it is wrong to yank fur off the dog, but your dog will need to see you are protecting them from the threat your child is giving. Protect your dog! (Another good reason for the “2 foot rule” regarding babies, as I stated above.)
In my house all the animals are mine. Yes, my children will cuddle with whatever animal is available, but they are borrowing my animals. Because let’s face it, elementary school kids don’t always take good care of what is theirs. Toys get broken or discarded. However, what belongs to mommy? Well, that’s a different story. What’s mine will be treated with respect and with the understanding that consequences happen if my things get broken, abused or disrespected. If my kids treat the dog well, get him water if the water bowl is low or simply engaged appropriately? That deserves some praise.
“Help” the cat down the back porch, though (as my daughter, River, did)? That was a full week without any type of electronics. My daughter almost died during that week. I had the eulogy written out and everything….we were frankly surprised she was able to pull through, but miraculously she did. And has never done anything remotely disrespectful to the animals again.
In short, use common sense. We need to bear in mind what we are integrating: a young child and a dog. Not two grown adult humans. Misunderstandings happen. It doesn’t mean that your dog is Cujo, or your baby will grow up to be Elmira.
Address the small issues as they happen, so they don’t grow to be huge incidents later on. Above all, maintain a sense of humor. Because when you look back, yes, these were the good ol’ days…but only because you’re finally out of them.