by Kellie B. Gormly
We love our dogs, so much so that for many people their dogs are considered full members of the family. And that prime status shouldn’t change when you bring home a new pint-size human – but, experts say, parents need to prepare and set new boundaries when introducing a baby to their dog.
“Now, it is like dogs are also humans,” says Christine Vitale, manager of injury prevention of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). “But remember: It’s not a human being; it’s an animal and has instincts.”
Preparing your dog before you bring home your baby—preferably months, not days or weeks ahead of time—helps a lot, says Penny Layne, aka Aunt Penny. She is a certified professional dog trainer, and dog and baby consultant with Family Paws Parent Education. The company provides an international network of experts who help dogs and children live together.
“The more time you give us to get your dog ready for the baby, it will up your chances of being successful,” says Layne, who teaches classes about dogs and babies to expectant parents at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. “When things change slowly, that works better.”
“Our goal is to include the dog in the family’s life,” Layne says. “We want to be able to keep the dogs out of the shelters.”
Well-intentioned but unprepared parents may make some of the following mistakes with their babies and dogs. Here is what not to do.
Don’t force interaction.
“We don’t want people taking the baby and pushing it into the dog,” says Layne. “If the dog is pushing away, he’s communicating to us that he’s not comfortable now. “
Instead, invite your dog over to see and sniff the baby, and let him come on his terms. “We never take the baby to the dog,” says Layne. “Let him make the choice when he’s been invited.”
Likewise, don’t allow your little one to approach the dog when the baby starts becoming mobile. “We want to teach the babies early that we always call the dog to us,” Layne says. “We never want them to corner the dog, approach the dog while it’s sleeping, or trap the dog.”
Don’t isolate the dog from the family, but continue to provide her a safe haven.
Provide something like a dog crate, gate, or tether, which Layne calls “success stations,” so she will feel comfortable watching the baby from a safe distance.
“We don’t want to separate them; we want them to be there in a safe way,” Layne says. “We want them to be included with the new family and the baby. Don’t put them in a room behind closed doors.”
Don’t prop your baby against the dog for a photo.
It may look adorable, but putting the baby on or against the dog puts the baby at risk for a bite, Vitale and Layne say.
“Instead, have the parent hold the baby while the dog is sitting there, or the parent is between dog and baby,” Layne says.
Similarly, avoid close face-to-face contact between the baby and the dog, as dogs can be unpredictable and you want to keep a safe space, Vitale says.
Don’t allow unsupervised access to the nursery.
The dog needs to know that the nursery is the baby’s territory; otherwise it might chew on things, get into the diaper bin, or breach the crib.
“What we like to do is we prepare the parents and tell them, if you’re going to allow the dog in the nursery, allow the dog there when you’re there,” Layne advises. “Otherwise, keep the door closed.”
Don’t scold your dog when it’s being curious.
Of course the dog is curious—a miniature two-legged being is intriguing. Just remind the dog of what you want her to do, Layne advises.
“If the dog comes over and wants to sniff the baby, ask the dog to sniff,” she says. “We don’t want to yell at them just because they’re curious. We want to ask them to do something for us and then invite them over.”
Before the dog meets the baby, Vitale says, you should introduce him to items that have a baby’s scent, sight, and sounds; baby lotion and diapers, for instance. Or, you can play a CD that has baby sounds to get the dog desensitized to them. At the hospital, you can wipe the baby with a blanket and then send that blanket home with someone to give to the dog so he can get to know the baby’s smell, Vitale says.
Don’t misinterpret body language and affection.
If your dog is licking the baby but his neck is stretched out, he is actually communicating that he wants more distance. Layne calls this the “kiss to dismiss” posture. “Not all licks are considered kisses,” she says.
Also, if a dog growls at the baby, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s aggressive, Layne says. Think of a dog’s growl as a baby’s cry: It says, “I’m uncomfortable. Can you help me out here?”
We don’t want to discourage growling, she says, because that is the warning that usually comes before a bite. If you heed the stress signals from body language, you can prevent a bite.
And limit or avoid licking, Vitale advises. Though a dog affectionately licking a baby may look cute, it can be a germy practice, and babies have delicate immune systems.
Don’t leave the baby and dog unsupervised—ever.
Even just 30 seconds to go to the bathroom or answer the phone can endanger the baby, Vitale and Layne say. Either take the baby or the dog with you. And the supervising adult must be alert and attentive, and not distracted.
“If you’re going to lie down on the couch with the baby on top of you, make sure the dog is in the crate or behind the gate, because a lot of times we fall asleep in that position,” Layne says.
Also, never let babies and small children play with your dog unsupervised, Layne and Vitale say. They might annoy and provoke the dog by pulling her tail, climbing on her, or grabbing her ears, leaving the dog with no recourse but to defend itself.
When the baby starts crawling, don’t allow the child access to the dog’s food, toys, or treats.
Observing these limits can help prevent a dog resenting the child for intrusion into his territory.
“We want the children to respect the dogs, and the dogs to respect children,” Layne says. “We don’t want that baby taking things away from the dog and putting the baby in an unsafe position.” Also, dog food and things that dogs chew on can harbor germs that make kids sick… a particular risk to kids who are at the “put everything in my mouth” stage of development.
Don’t expect your babysitter to watch both the toddler and the dog.
When you are away from home, this would be a good time to put the dog behind closed doors with food, or put him in a crate in another part of the house. Or, if your dog enjoys going to doggy day care, consider reserving him a spot while you’re going to be out of the house anyway.
“We can’t expect the babysitters to all be educated on [pet] safety,” Layne says. “We just want them to focus on the baby.”
Don’t punish the dog for anything related to the baby.
Doing this could set up a rivalry, and could cause your dog to associate the newcomer with something unpleasant, Vitale says. Instead, use positive reinforcement for good behaviors and do everything in your power to prevent bad behaviors from occurring in the first place. If misbehavior becomes a recurring problem for your dog, talk to your veterinarian or a certified animal behaviorist.
Finally, don’t neglect your first “baby.”
The new human baby naturally becomes the center of attention, but that can leave other members of the household, including your dog, feeling left out and unloved, and maybe acting out for attention. So make an extra effort to give your dog love and time. If Mom is especially close to the dog, for instance, she should take the pooch out for a one-on-one walk while the baby is with Dad.
Note: If you’re walking with both the baby and the dog, don’t tie the leash to the stroller. If your dog tries to chase a squirrel or a strange dog approaches and a canine confrontation ensues, the baby would be in danger.
For additional information, visit the ASPCA to read their tips on Dogs and Babies.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM