Dogs and babies: What to know when introducing them and tips for staying safe
November 21, 2019
Bringing a new baby into your home is a big event. While you’re preparing baby’s room, keep in mind the arrival of your bundle of joy also represents a big change for your dog … especially if this is your first child. Most pet parents can look forward to happy years ahead with their growing families. While idealized social posts of babies napping with the family dog tell one heart-warming story, every parent needs to remember the reality that dogs are dogs. Sometimes, they bite babies, regardless of breed, and for a host of reasons. Use the following guide to ensure a smooth and safe transition to this exciting time at your house, and what to consider if things don’t go smoothly.
Do babies and dogs mix?
Before baby’s arrival, it’s critical to take steps to make sure baby is protected. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that nearly 800,000 dog bites during that year required medical care. While it’s been a long time since they’ve released new data, the CDC still issues the following cautions when it comes to dogs mixing with children:
- Half of dog bites are inflicted at home by the family dog.
- Children under 10 are more likely than adults to get bitten.
- A child’s bite injuries are more severe than those suffered by adults.
When you’re worried about your dog’s reaction to baby
When baby arrives, your hope is everyone, dog included, will be one big happy family, with your best friend adoring baby as much as you do.
On the other end of the scale, some dogs view the baby as prey, and they can and do attack. This is seen as a version of social aggression, where the dog sees himself as higher in status in the family pecking order. Since dogs can’t tell us why, some chalk up this behavior to a lack of socialization with babies and small children, the dog’s temperament, bad training, or a combination of these factors.
Can your dog handle a new baby?
For some pet parents, this can be a heart-wrenching question when there’s a baby on the way. If your dog has a history of growling or snapping, especially around little ones, that’s a red flag, signaling something needs to change at home before baby’s arrival.
First, consider the severity of the dog’s past response.
- If your dog’s aggression history didn’t escalate beyond growling, snapping and showing teeth, many trainers and behaviorists regard these behaviors as correctable.
- If the dog has a history of biting, especially if the injury was serious, such as skin tears and deep puncture wounds, that should give you serious pause — even if it happened only once. Once a dog learns he can hurt others to solve a problem, it’s not easy to train them out of this response.
In the meantime, carefully weigh your options:
- Rehoming the pet. First all all, if you choose this route, don’t beat yourself up. Welcoming a new baby can change your entire world, turn your priorities upside-down. It’s not uncommon for dogs to get re-homed after the arrival of a baby. If you need to put your child first and find a new home for any reason, that doesn’t make you a bad person.
- Do your due diligence: If you’re rehoming your dog because of its history of aggression and biting, it’s critical that you do everything possible to disclose this information to whoever is taking your dog in. For example, if you’re working with an animal welfare group, ask questions on how they ensure your dog’s details don’t get lost in the transition.
- Behavior training: If your family can commit to working with the animal, consult with a dog behaviorist, one with expertise in helping dogs adjust to children. This professional can give you an objective opinion, assist with training, advise you on how to manage your pet, and help create a safe setup for baby.
Preparing your dog before baby’s arrival
In the months, weeks and days leading up to baby’s arrival, here are some things all pet parents can do to ease their furry friends through the transition.
Spend extra time on obedience training
Consider how your dog responds to verbal commands and which areas need improvement. With a small human entering the mix, having better control over your dog will be key to a safe and peaceful household. Here are some training areas to consider:
- Comes when called (even if there’s something more exciting at hand, like a squirrel in a tree or tasty bone).
- Sits and stays on command.
- Refrains from jumping up on people.
- Heels when leashed. (Trust us, when you’re handling both a leash and a stroller, the last thing you want is a “leash-lunger.”)
Create a kid-free space for your dog
Train your dog to go to this space on command. Whether it’s a bed in his designated room, a special mat or a kennel, having this ability to control your dog is one thing that can calm the chaos. (Later, as baby becomes mobile, your pet will have a place to retreat to when things get overwhelming.)
Take baby steps before the big arrival
Some pet parents start doing “baby things” around the house in the weeks leading up to the birth. Set up the highchair, and allow the dog to sniff over the baby gear, including carrier and baby toys. Take walks pushing the baby’s empty stroller. Play recordings of baby sounds to familiarize your pet with foreign noises.
Start transitioning to the new routine
Resist the urge to lavish attention on the dog before the baby’s birth. A sudden shift can be distressing to dogs. In fact, now’s a good time to reassign feeding, playtime and walking duties to someone other than the baby’s main caretaker.
Make a pre-introduction
Before introducing your dog to baby, familiarize him with baby’s scent. Allow him to sniff a blanket your baby was wrapped in or one of those cozy hats that baby was wearing.
Living in harmony with dog and baby
Those first few days and weeks with baby can be hectic for all family members. Here’s how to get through those first few months and beyond.
Introduce your dog and baby carefully (and cautiously)
When it’s time for your dog to meet baby, keep your dog leashed, but invite him to walk over and meet the baby. If your dog seems upset or worried, don’t force it; let him take all the time he needs. During this meeting, keep holding the baby; they should not be at floor level together. When the dog responds calmly — responds to commands, doesn’t paw and jump up — reward him with treats, praise and ear rubs.
After a series of calm “leashed” greetings, let your dog sniff baby off-leash.
Never leave a dog unsupervised with a baby
Gate off baby’s room, and close the door when baby is sleeping, so your dog can’t get access when no one’s around. Even if you swear there’s a zero percent chance this pooch would harm a baby, taking this step can help you avoid a host of unwanted and mess-making behaviors, like tipping over the diaper pail or shredding baby’s teddy.
Keep little ones away from the dog’s face
In some dogs, a close direct stare at face level can trigger an aggressive response. Don’t let babies and dogs play on the floor together. When baby is having some tummy time, for example, gate off your dog or bring him to a different room. (Be sure and offer that all-important treat, or keep him occupied with a treat puzzle, so the dog doesn’t develop negative associations with the child.)
Stay a step ahead of baby’s rapid changes
In very short time, babies progress from being completely helpless to gaining the abilities to reach, grab, pull up, crawl, walk and throw. These developments can lead to a new set of conflicts with dogs. Even the most patient of dogs can growl or snap in response to tugs on the tail, ears or whiskers, and it can happen when you least expect it.
Re-evaluate your dog’s diet
Raw pet foods are very much in trend for our beloved pets. But when living with a baby, toddler (or any household member with a compromised immune system), consider the benefits your pet is gaining from that diet against the extra steps you’ll add to your routine to sanitize everything that comes into contact with the food. With baby bottles on the counter, and bags of breast milk in the fridge, and schedules becoming even tighter and more hectic, is it worth the risk of your child contracting a food borne illness? (As baby becomes more mobile, you’ll also discover they’ll want to play with doggie’s dishes.) Play it safe and switch to a high-quality kibble or canned food. Either option is far less likely to spread a life-threatening illness.
Introducing a new family is a huge transition for everyone under your roof. Be patient, realistic and prepared, and you’ll create a safe home for your young family.