A growing family is an exciting time full of new experiences, lifestyle adjustments, unique challenges and above all else, immense rewards. During the busy and sometime chaotic preparations the needs of our furry family members can be overlooked. Sometimes these needs become painfully apparent (usually at a very inconvenient time down the road). There is no one magical technique to ensure harmony when introducing your furry child to your newborn, rather a series of small steps taken over an extended period of time that hold the key to cultivating a healthy and positive relationship.
So, what is it about babies that can throw some of our dogs for a loop?
The sights, smells and movements of not only the child, but the toys and supplies, the frequent visitors, in addition to the random and unpredictable touch sensations (both pleasant and uncomfortable) often flood our dog’s senses leaving them to feel stressed and sometimes fearful. The unavoidable schedule change, usually a decrease in activity, along with limited attention may understandably generate feelings of unease and displacement ultimately giving way to what we perceive as jealous behaviours.
Yes, an old dog can learn new tricks!
It doesn’t matter the age of your dog. If you take the time to prepare them for the approaching changes, you can set them up for success and help them to not only adjust, but thrive in their new family environment.
BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
Just as in every balanced and loving relationship, a strong foundation of trust and understanding needs to be laid before we can ask our dog to face potentially difficult tasks. This starts with developing a clear line of communication between yourself and your dog through focusing on three main goals:
Step One: Tools for Success
As with any training project, the more time you dedicate to your efforts and the longer you practice, the better prepared you and your dog will be for the big event. Ideally, most dogs will begin this process with the basic understanding of common commands such as; come, sit, down, stay, leave it, drop it and off. However, they may require some work on improving response time and reliability. If your dog has very little obedience background, it is recommended that you begin basic training while you are still in the process of family planning, or, within first few months of pregnancy, to maximize practice time.
These basic commands will become the corner stone of your common language and provide the groundwork for more advanced training, geared to assist your dog during the adjustment period. Once your dog has mastered responding to basic commands in a variety of real life scenarios, with distractions present, it is time to move on to a few advanced commands.
Advanced commands such as, backup, touch (hand targeting), mat and stay, polite door greetings and loose leash manners are extremely helpful throughout the adjustment period and well into the future as your baby matures.
Step Two: Easing into Change
We would like to think that we will be able to maintain the same level of attention and affection for our dogs after the baby is born but unfortunately, the simple truth is, you often can’t. Just as when an only child receives their first sibling, attentions and affection that were reserved for one, will now be divided between two. With this realization, people often feel compelled to lavish attention upon their dog as pre-compensation, however, this often serves to bring the division of attention into sharper contrast once the baby arrives, making the decrease of attention more noticeable and ultimately, more stressful for your dog. In some cases, where we have excessively catered to our dog, it may be necessary to decrease the overall attention we provide them. However, it is important to do this slowly and over a longer period of time, to make the change as gradual and subtle as possible. Thankfully, most of the time, simply redistributing your attention and affection to a more appropriate time is enough to prepare your dog for this change. Limiting access to your affection by making it contingent on command response will not only encourage your dog to work harder for you, improving response time, but reduce unrealistic expectations for attention.
Even with the best laid plans and optimal effort into training, some dogs simply require more time than others to adjust to changes within the family dynamics. Highly anxious dogs and those who show a sensitivity to touch, motion or sound, often benefit from having a safe place where they can go to avoid the commotion of the baby. Teaching your dog to be calm and comfortable while alone in a crate or bedroom provides your dog with the opportunity to take a break when they are feeling overwhelmed. This escape option helps reduce potential conflict that can occur from staying in a social situation when your dog is feeling uncomfortable.
One thing every new parent is short on is time, especially during the first few months after your child is born. Food puzzles and games like fetch or command relays (giving your dog commands in quick succession as you move through the house) are a fabulous way to provide your dog with mental stimulation while allowing you to multitask (command relay while putting away laundry!).
Step Three: Defusing the Alarm
Even for dogs who have spent time around small children, infants can seem very peculiar and even terrifying due to their erratic movements and wide range of sudden, and sometimes ear-piercing vocalizations. Baby toys and supplies can be equally confusing and overwhelming for some sensitive souls, early introduction to such items will greatly reduce your dog’s stress levels. Gradually introducing your dog to a range of baby; sounds at various volumes, up close, far away, through the monitor, as well as quick sudden movements, unexpected touch and baby supplies / toys, at a rate that does not provoke a fear response, is half of the battle. The other half is developing a positive association with those items and stimuli for you dog. Understanding what your dog finds rewarding and enjoyable is the key to success when implementing a desensitization and / or conditioning program. For some dogs this may be food, for others this may be play or affection, and for many, what they find reinforcing in that moment changes with their needs. For example, a dog who just had dinner may not be as motivated to work for treats, or a tired dog may not be as motivated to work for play. The game is simple, ignore your dog until the item or sound you are working on is present. Once the problem stimuli is present, begin offering the reward of choice, the moment the stimuli is removed stop offering the reward.
Strollers can be a hot button for many dogs...
...just seeing them across the road can lead to an emotional outburst. This is mainly due to the strange shape, movement and sound. Although you may feel a little strange taking your dog for a walk with an empty stroller, you certainly don’t want to find out that your dog is fearful of it on your first family walk. Among the baby items you should be working to desensitize your dog to, the stroller should be one of the first. Because the stroller can be difficult for many dogs to accept, it is recommended that you break the exposure down into three separate steps. One, master loose leash manners while walking alone, two, desensitize your dog to seeing the stroller and watching it move slowly, three, begin walking with the stroller.
Last but not least, preparing your pooch for unexpected, and sometimes uncomfortable, touch. Babies are curious creatures, exploring their environment by touching, grabbing and putting things into their mouths. Unfortunately, our furry friends are not exempted from this experimental faze. Teaching your dog that good things happen when they are slightly manhandled, or inconvenienced, will improve your dog’s tolerance to such actions and serve you well as your child develops into a toddler. The common actions you want to desensitize your dog to include; poking, tugging ears, tugging tails, reaching for their face, touching paws and sudden grabbing of the fur in various locations on their body. This can be accomplished by starting off small, gently poking or grabbing your dog and immediately stopping and rewarding with verbal praise and a high value treat (something your dog absolutely LOVES!). Over time, as your dog becomes accustomed to this new game, slowly increase the invasiveness of your action. BE CAREFUL!!! The goal is to not cause your dog pain but to work towards normal levels of discomfort associated with an infant’s touch.
Step Four: Sibling Introduction
On the day of the big event all your hard preparation work will finally pay off, making it easier to promote a smooth and stress reduced introduction. Here are some steps you can take to encourage a positive experience for both your dog and newborn:
Step Five: Daily Encouragement
As you and your family begin to adjust and fine tune your new life schedule, continue to look for ways to further the bond between dog and child. Here are some tips for promoting a healthy relationship between all family members;
Thank you to our guest blogger Julie Speyer, CDBC, CPDT-KA. She is a Canine Behavioural Consultant with Canine Foundations.