If you’re expecting a baby, you know big changes are on the horizon. Every member of your family will be affected, and the family dog is no exception.
Many expectant parents want to shelter their dogs from this reality and may even spend the pregnancy heaping lavish amounts of attention onto the dog. While it might seem logical to make the most of those last stretches of quality time, this is actually one of the worst things a parent-to-be can do.
Through a Dog’s Eyes
Make no mistake: your dog knows something is up.
Our older dog Grendel is fiercely protective of any of our employees who might be pregnant. Like clockwork, the obsession with the mother-to-be begins about five weeks into the pregnancy. This is not a learned behavior. My wife has never been pregnant, and babies who visit our home do not hold our little dog’s interest. (Unless they drop Cheerios. Cheerio droppers are the most awesome creatures on the planet, fully worthy of a dachshund’s undying devotion and fealty.)
Perhaps her nose alerts her to the presence of pregnancy hormones. Perhaps she is able to hear the fetal heartbeat. But she figures it out long before the blessed event is announced to family or posted on Facebook. When a team member is expecting, Grendel is jokingly referred to as the fetal monitor. She knows exactly what is going on, which means chances are, your dog knows too.
If you spend the tail end of your pregnancy making Rover think the impending event is all about him, he is going to have a rude awakening when the baby arrives with the customary chaos.
He may demand the same amount of attention he was given prior to the birth by resorting to pushy behaviors like jumping on you, barking or scratching at the door. These behaviors can frazzle the nerves of a sleep-deprived new parent.
Despite their best efforts to keep their cool, new parents often guiltily confess to shouting at their dogs, usually while in the baby’s presence. This can cause the dog to associate the little one with negative experiences, which can make him feel wary, suspicious or fearful of the baby. Such associations are a recipe for danger.
Additionally, it’s important to think about how a dog might see a newborn. While it’s fun to refer to our dogs as our fur-kids or fur-babies, they are animals — and predators, at that. Imagine what a dog might see when being presented with a newborn. It’s wrapped in a blanket. It smells like a mammal. It gurgles and squeals and flails around, flapping its tiny little limbs in sporadic motions. It is warm. It is helpless. How might a predator mentally classify a creature that behaves in such a manner?
You guessed it: prey.
Sadly, many babies are injured or killed by dogs who have no idea what babies are, or how they are expected to behave in their presence. And please do not think only large dogs are capable of such behavior. Some of the more harrowing incidents between dogs and babies have involved Pomeranians, dachshunds, and Jack Russell terriers.
All dogs must be prepared in advance for the arrival of a new baby and the accompanying changes before the big day arrives. So let’s get started!
Decide What Your Dog’s Boundaries Will Be
Once the baby comes home, you may not want to allow your dog into the nursery. You may not want him on the furniture with you while you are feeding or holding the baby.
These are not necessarily universal rules, but rather a matter of personal preference. Think about what life is going to look like once the baby arrives. Do you want your dog to be underfoot while you are changing diapers? Do you want him to snuggle next to you on the sofa while you are trying to nurse a fussy infant? Do you want your dog to sleep in your bed during a phase when you are likely to be sleep-deprived as it is?
If the answer is no to any or all of these questions, start setting the expectations and teaching appropriate behaviors now. You will not have the time, energy or patience once the baby comes home, and this will only lead to frustration for both you and your dog. Use only positive, reward-based training techniques. If you need help, enlist the services of a certified professional dog trainer.
Introduce Rover to the Sights, Sounds and Smells of a New Baby
Dogs can become overwhelmed and fearful when presented with too many big changes all at once. Thankfully, the American retail beast has plenty of remedies for this dilemma! Dog training CDs and downloads can help dogs become desensitized and non-reactive to the many sounds made by babies. Play them often, and reward your dog lavishly for remaining calm while they are playing. If he reacts to the sounds, reward him the moment he disengages and continue to praise him as long as he remains calm.
He should also become accustomed to seeing you carry, wear and hold an infant. A baby doll works wonders, and there are many that look shockingly realistic. Start carrying the doll around the house, and get him used to waiting patiently for your attention while you tend to the "stunt baby." This is a great tool for teaching your dog not to jump on your lap while you are holding or feeding the baby, or to only approach the baby when you are nearby.
If you have started to accumulate baby gear, set it up now. Get cracking on that nursery. Let Rover see and smell all the new things that will be sharing his space before the baby comes home. If you want him to stay away from it, teach him to do so now. Slather the doll, your hands and the baby gear with whatever lotion you plan to use. If you plan to switch laundry detergents, do this now as well. This will introduce some important new smells into Rover’s environment before baby chaos ensues.
Take an Honest Look at Your Dog’s Behavior
As your pregnancy progresses, start jotting down the things Rover does that drive you crazy — even if they are funny or cute. Now multiply them them by a million and subtract sleep, free time and silence. This is how you will feel when dealing with slightly annoying behaviors (which are likely to escalate), combined with the demands of caring for a newborn baby.
Does he bark at the slightest breeze? This will wake the baby. Does he jump on people? He can scratch the baby. Does he pounce on your lap without permission? This can injure your baby. Does he relentlessly pester you for treats or attention? You get the picture.
Be honest with yourself. No dog is perfect, and the spirit of the exercise is to nip nuisance behaviors in the bud before they spiral into potentially dangerous situations. It’s also about keeping your sanity down the road. Parenting is a marathon, and while marathons are grueling, there is time to prepare and train. If you can figure out which behaviors are likely to make you crazy, you can work on fixing them before life is turned upside down. Think of it as a behavioral tune-up that will save you aggravation down the road.
Fine tune your dog’s basic obedience commands, and make sure he will respond to your voice, as opposed to your stance. Review behaviors like "out," "off," "sit," "stay" and "down" while you are sitting or lying down. You may not have the luxury of getting up to show Rover you are serious when your baby is demanding your undivided attention.
Give Rover His Own Space
With all these new rules and boundaries, it may help Rover to have a space of his own full of toys, blankets and all his favorite things. Whether it’s a crate, a bed or a baby-proofed nook, this is where he gets to go when he needs to get away from baby madness. When the baby becomes ambulatory, Rover’s space is off-limits. Dogs are far less likely to be fazed by babies if they have a safe space to which they can retreat when they are feeling overwhelmed.
Chances are, Rover won’t be the only one feeling overwhelmed. Dogs tend to take their behavioral cues from us, so do not underestimate the importance of self care. Call in some favors, find a babysitter and treat yourself to a spa day or a date night. Plan to be nice to yourself. You’ll be thankful for the break in the long run.
Dr. Ian is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic in Miami.