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I’ve had my share of litters – and not just canine ones. You see, I’m the mother of triplets. When Stephen, Allie, and Krista came into my life – in that order, a couple of minutes apart – I had two middle-aged Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Blitz and Diva had certainly met children before, and didn’t mind them, but the arrival of the babies rocked their world.
Diva, an old hand at motherhood herself, decided avoidance was the best option. Blitz, on the other hand, was a basket case. But with my favorite remedy – tincture of time – and some hard-earned experience, we eventually overcame this reluctance. That first year of mixing dogs and babies was stressful, but it taught me more than any book could.
In fact, nobody really tells you what to expect when you bring a new baby home to an older dog. Here is some hard-earned advice about both sides of the fence – acclimating dogs to little kids, and teaching little kids to share a home with dogs. If at any time you are concerned about your dog’s behavior, consult a qualified trainer or behaviorist.
Advice Books Are Only a Starting Point
You can try to accustom your dog to the idea of a baby by walking around the house with a doll. But it’s no guarantee that your dog is going to seamlessly transition from life before baby to the new nuclear-family reality. Dogs are smart. They know the doll isn’t a baby. And they do know that everything in their world is changing. As your pregnancy progresses, everything about you starts to morph, from your gait to your hormones to your routine. New furniture shows up. Rooms get rearranged. Your anxiety level peaks.
Any major life change requires an adjustment period, and dogs are no different. Just assume that this will be the case, and provide your dog the space – both mental and physical – to figure things out. When things get hectic, or out of control, give your dog crate time with a good chew toy.
When it comes to interactions between dogs and babies, follow the advice of experts. Amid all the confusion and exhaustion of a new baby, it’s easy to let other people get into your head. If it’s an experienced dog person, that’s one thing. But if it’s someone who isn’t well-versed in all things dog, then keep that in perspective. People who understand dogs understand canine body language and instincts, while others may misinterpret even friendly canine gestures.
Dogs read your body language and your pheromones. If you are anxious and worried about your dog’s reaction to the baby, you may inadvertently be encouraging that anxiety. Try to find a happy medium between vigilance and stress. Practice feeling it. Practice breathing normally and not holding your breath when the two are in the room together.
Don’t run film loops in your head about the worst-case scenarios. Do try to envision a calm, serene encounter. This sounds simple, and in theory, it is. But in practice, it can be the most daunting hurdle you face, especially if you have a dog who’s having difficulty with the new-baby transition.
Take Baby Steps
You can’t expect a finished product right out of the gate. Plan out your encounters between dog and child – no matter what the age – and start simple. Try to create tiny successes and build from there. Talk to your vet about ways to support your dog through anxiety.
In my Blitz’s case, he exhibited a whole spectrum of emotions, starting first with excitement, leaping, and snuffing. When he smelled the babies through the bars of the crib, he breathed their scent in so deeply that he sounded like a vacuum. Once the novelty wore off, and the babies became a fixed part of our routine, then bewilderment set in. He was fine as long as they didn’t touch him. Once they did, the panicked looks and grumbling started. Whenever Blitz was around the babies and reacted without fear or concern, he’d get a click and a treat.
Corrections don’t work when fear or anxiety is at the root of the problem. They usually make things worse. But if I did hear a grumble when I sat beside Blitz on the couch with a baby and bottle, he was calmly but firmly ejected from his spot.
Fast forward five or so years later. When a babysitter and the kids were playing a boisterous game of tag, Blitz woke up and indicated, eloquently but wordlessly, that he was worried about the children. When those babies first came home, I would have never thought that scenario possible. But many dogs, like people, just need an adjustment period.
Your dog’s crate should be their sanctuary, a space that is just theirs (and ideally off-limits to kids). If you have babysitters, nannies, or visiting relatives who take on dog care as part of their household helping, you can’t rely on them to be as vigilant as you would be. In those cases, a snap-lock on the crate with a note – “Do not let out!” – reminds them in your absence.