Let’s talk about something that this future mama thinks is under-discussed and uber important: preparing your dog for children.
Unfortunately, we’ve all heard of families that have to get rid of their pet because of an incident between the pet and a child. These situations are tragic for the families, the children who were hurt, and the pet, who is often taken to a shelter and eventually put down.
As a dog lover who has been attacked by a dog (as an adult), I believe I can see both sides of these situations more than the average person. While I would never advocate that a family keep an aggressive dog who has hurt their child, I also believe it’s irresponsible to not work with your dog to become family-friendly. Even dogs who have never shown aggression often still need help adjusting to being around kids. Babies and kids can be one big, scary mystery to dogs. Think about it. They make noises adults don’t make. They crawl at eye level with the dog. They don’t recognize a difference in the dog’s toys and their toys, and they have no concept of dog food v. anything else on the floor. They try to grab or pull the dog in a way that unintentionally causes pain. This can all add up to a bad situation that could often have been prevented.
I’ve known for a while that Blue Dog would need some work to adjust from being our number one baby to being a dog. She’s just fine with older kids and babies don’t phase her because she isn’t quite sure what they are, but as we discovered recently, toddlers scare the beejeejees out of her.
Over Memorial Day weekend, my sweet 9-month old niece, C., came to visit. Every time C. saw Blue Dog, she would squeal with delight, laugh hysterically, and crawl in a frantic attempt to get close to Blue Dog. Poor Blue Dog has never been around toddlers before, and she lived in a pretty constant state of panic for the three days that C. was here. She mostly tried to stay close to me, away from the baby, and with an escape route mapped out. Luckily, we had no major problems, but one time Blue Dog did make a little fake snap (didn’t actually open her mouth just kind of gave a warning move toward C.’s hand, which was reaching for Blue Dog). The weekend made me realize that we need to start preparing her now to be a family-friendly dog, rather than wait until we bring a baby home.
I’m a lawyer…so you know there has to be a disclaimer. :) Even if your dog is well-trained and has never shown aggression, you should always supervise your dog and a child’s interactions, both for the safety and protection of your dog and the LO. I’m not an animal behaviorist, and this is simply what has worked for us. You should seek the help of a professional if you have a specific issue that you need help addressing.
Here are some tips and advice I’ve gleaned about making your puppy kid-friendly.
1. Leave an escape route open for your dog. Don’t force your dog to be in close proximity to the new baby/toddler until they let you know they’re ready.
Initially, Blue Dog made it clear she considered the zone of danger around C. quite wide. If C. came close, she headed for the other room to hide. Even if I was holding Blue Dog and C. crawled over, my sweet puppy squirmed to leave. I always let her “escape” to another place where she could watch the happenings without feeling insecure. Dogs are still animals and if they feel cornered, they are more likely to lash out. If I noticed Blue Dog looking for an escape and not finding one, I moved C. or whatever was blocking escape.
2. Give your dog lots of love and attention so they don’t resent the baby.
Some of us blur the line between dog and child, and this certainly has applied in the Blue family. I used to make fun of people that referred to themselves as “mom” to their dog and dressed their four-legged friend in clothes. Then, Blue Dog came along, and wouldn’t you know it?!? I somehow morphed into “mommy” and even occasionally subjected Blue Dog to this kind of nonsense:
She was even a bee for Halloween once, but she was too humiliated to let me get a good picture. Smart dog.
Having been the Numero Uno baby in our house for the last three years, it would certainly be understandable for her to become jealous if all my love and attention were suddenly taken away and turned toward a child instead. While C. was here, I made sure to spend some time with Blue Dog, even if it was just picking her up and snuggling her for a bit. It helped to reassure her that she was not being replaced and that I still loved her, even though she was having to share my attention with C.
3. Teach them that babies/toddlers bring good things to their world.
The easiest, quickest way to win Blue Dog’s heart is food. Because I want her to associate babies and toddlers with the best things imaginable, I skipped over regular doggie treats and jumped right to cheese and bits of meat. I didn’t try anything the first day and a half because I could tell that Blue Dog’s comfort level would not allow her to be at all close to C. Eventually, however, Blue Dog started coming to sit just outside of C.’s arm reach while in my lap. Then, I started my devious plan! A little nibble of cheese or meat suddenly appeared every time Blue Dog came over to sit near us. It only took a few times before Blue Dog connected the dots and suddenly wanted to be VERY close to us. Bwahahaha . . . Phase 1 accomplished!
With Blue Dog’s new found interest in being near us, I started putting the treat a few steps closer to C. and me. Blue Dog happily stepped closer, though she would often step back out of reach to eat her yummy treat. That was just fine with me because I wanted her to learn that approaching C. would not be dangerous or scary. All the time, I made sure that C.’s arms were not able to make any sudden moves or reach out for Blue Dog. Finally, we worked up to my tapping C.’s knee and saying “Kisses!” Blue Dog would come sniff and lick C.’s knee. This was immediately rewarded with much praise (though I’m not sure Blue Dog recognized C.’s cries of joy as “praise”) and a treat. When C. unknowingly pulled Blue Dog’s leash out of her box, Blue Dog popped right over to her waiting expectantly to go on her much-loved walk through the neighborhood. Mission accomplished.
4. Teach them to associate uncomfortable touching with great rewards.
Unfortunately, C. was only at our house for a few days, so our training came to an abrupt halt. I started researching ways I could help prepare Blue Dog without having a toddler handy. The ASPCA has some great articles on preparing your dog for a new baby, introducing your dog to your new baby, helping your dog to adjust to toddlers, and a host of other training tools.
One of the things that the ASPCA suggests is teaching your dog to learn to associate uncomfortable touching with getting a reward. While I certainly will teach my children to touch pets with respect and gentleness, these are concepts that a toddler who is exploring their world by touch and mouth just isn’t going to be able to internalize right away. So, I want Blue Dog to know that when she tolerates a touch that may be a bit uncomfortable, I will notice and reward her for that.
Essentially, the ASPCA suggests teaching them this by gently poking your dog and then immediately giving them a treat. Continue doing this until you poke them gently and they immediately look up for a treat. They now associate the gentle poke with getting a treat. Next, poke them a little bit harder and give them another treat. Continue doing this until the dog looks up expectantly. You can continue doing this pattern with poking, pulling ears, pulling tails, etc., until your dog has learned that if they don’t react to an uncomfortable touch, that they will receive great praise and reward. Note, that this is not instructing you to be cruel or actually hurt your animal. It is only to get them used to uncomfortable touching. While I hate doing anything to even make Blue Dog feel uncomfortable, in the end, I think it is much more cruel to not train a dog to be family-friendly and then take them to a shelter when they react poorly to a child.
5. Other tricks.
There are so many things that you can teach your dog that will help them adjust to life as a family dog, but I wanted to include two more that we are working on now.
One trick we’re teaching Blue Dog is to pick a spot to be their “safe” spot and teach them “Go to your spot.” The spot should be somewhere that is safe and out of reach. For us, that’s the top of the couch because it’s one of Blue Dog’s favorite spots and one that will be too high for toddlers for quite some time. By teaching them to go to a spot that is out of reach of grasping little hands, you’re teaching them that it’s okay for them to retreat when they need to. This helps protect your dog and your child.
I also have started carrying a few treats in my pocket when we go for a walk, which Blue Dog frankly needs after all these training treats! Blue Dog, much to her dismay, is a kid magnet. Anytime, we see a kid, they always run over and want to pet her. Now, I just whip out a treat and let them feed her one because dogs tend to associate anyone giving them food as (1) a boss, and (2) someone that can be trusted.
I’m sure there will be more updates as we teach Blue Dog to be a super family dog, and I hope to hear what all of you dog “moms” are doing with your four-legged “babies.” There are so many good resources about helping your dog adjust to a new baby or even just to kids in general; a simple google search will yield a plethora of tips and advice. If you haven’t started working with your dog to be family-friendly, it’s never too early or too late!
Have you done anything to help your dog prepare or adjust to life with kids? What worked for you and what didn’t?