5 steps to living with babies and dogs
Babies and dogs: a topic too serious to be avoided. Are you a parent? Please read this.
The internet is filled with pictures of babies and dogs together. While most people’s reaction is “AWWW HOW CUTE”, dog trainers cringe at the sight of such proximity. Why? Because… dogs bite. “Oh but mine doesn’t”. That’s what I hear in many of the cases I had in my years of practice as a dog trainer: “He was fine for 3 years, now all of a sudden he bit Johnny in the face”. Dogs are fine until they aren’t. Maybe they were giving signals all along, maybe the last time baby pulled Fluffy’s ear was the last drop.
To be clear: Babies and toddlers are not doing anything wrong. They are taught by their parents to be magnetized to dogs from a young age. “Johnny, look, a DOGGIE!!”. We dog trainers advise against doing this. For more on this topic, PLEASE go visit this amazing blog series HERE. Please also buy some good baby-dog books.
The question is, how can you make it work? You live in a small space, you have a dog, you are planning on having a baby or already have one. Here are some steps that will help you!
1) LEARN HOW TO READ BODY LANGUAGE
Many problems can be prevented when you know how comfortable or uncomfortable your dog actually is around the baby at any given moment. The aggression ladder does not start with growling or a snap. That’s a very very advanced stage. Dogs give SO MANY signs when they are not actually enjoying the experience. Did you notice the lip licking? That quick tongue flick? The yawning that is not because he is sleepy? Did you notice a head turning away, a small freeze? All these signs are subtle and happen in maybe a second or two. But when you know what to look for, it starts to become obvious. Please talk to a trainer and let them help you learn the specific signs of your dog and how fast your dog escalates. That information is important!
Please watch the video below and imagine you are a dog scared of babies coming at you. When baby finally reaches you, she pokes you, grabs your fur, plucks some out, stares at your face, tries to hug you (which makes no sense for dogs), and acts erratically. For a dog, all of those things are scary. A dog who fells fear is prone to bite.
2) MANAGEMENT: GATES, PENS
Tall baby gate, exercise pens for dogs, baby-only safe spaces are a must for families with dogs. One of the most crucial things you can teach your dog before baby comes is to be able to relax while separated by a baby gate, away from you. Many will say “Oh, but my dog is crate trained and is quite happy to sleep in the other room while I work in the computer”. Ok, lets put that to test. Install the baby gate now. Test it. Many times we think our dogs are ok until the dog now sees she cannot actually reach you when she wants. Barrier frustration begins. Put your dog in the living room and go to the bedroom with a closed baby gate between you two. Sit on the floor and make cute sounds “Hi, baby… who is looking adorable today? YOU ARE!”. Is your dog still good? Is she barking, pacing around? Is she frustrated that there is a barrier between you? You will never know until you test. Now it would be a good time to hire a trainer to help you.
3) BASIC OBEDIENCE TRAINING
Does your dog know how to: go to mat, settle, lie down, stand, back up? Can your dog do these behaviors when you don’t have treats in your hands? With long durations? Can your dog do them while you are 15 feet away? While you are sitting on the floor? Ah!! That one gets people!!
When are these behaviors useful? All the time! Get your dog to reliably move out of the way when hurricane kiddo is fast approaching. Ask Fluffy to settle in her mat when you are feeding the baby. Trust that your dog will backup on cue and avoid a baby collision. The list could go on.
Look at this picture. Can you spot the potential problematic situation?
I am the one who took the picture from my chair in the corner. My dog is resting just next to me.
What do you think my baby might want to do at any second?
Crawl in my direction!! HI MOMMY!
This does not look good to the dog who is just chilling. Baby will have to beeline in dog’s direction to get to me. No, no. You want to prevent this kind of thing from happening before it happens. A dog that responds to cues will just stand up and go somewhere else when asked.
4) BABIES AND TODDLERS CAN’T FOLLOW DIRECTIONS RELIABLY
They might know that you don’t want them to grab the dog’s hair or pull the dog’s tail. But they cannot yet stop themselves from doing it. This has to do with how kids’ brains develop. While they have an easy time to “act” (touch, grab, go) they cannot easily “inhibit” a neural impulse at this age (the idea of stopping their action). It has NOTHING to do with defiance. “But he knew better than that, he knows not to grab Fluffy’s fur”. Knowing is not the same as being able to stop their impulse. Even if sometimes the kid is able to stop, you CANNOT count on it every time. Close management with direct supervision to keep your dog and baby safe is YOUR responsibility, not the baby’s or toddler’s.
You must watch them actively: limit setting, interrupting, body blocking, giving directions to both. Can’t do that for the next hour? Then they should stay separated until you have time for THAT kind of active supervision. Anything less is not enough, simply put.
Do not expect reliable impulse control. Inadequate supervision is one of the biggest reasons for dog bites. Do you feel you need a break from limit setting? Please research RIE Yes Spaces for your baby. Or check out this amazing blog!
Example: Your dog is cornered. Either literally (in a corner, narrow corridor, bathroom), or figuratively (resting on a couch or mat). This dog CANNOT be approached by babies. You have to stop your crawling baby or running toddler. Simply asking your toddler to stop from afar won’t do it. You have to make it sure she does not reach your dog, consistently, every time. This way the dog will also trust you are in control, you are a good manager, and will keep her safe from scary baby.
5) COEXISTENCE, NOT INTERACTION
Babies don’t know how to be “gentle” with dogs. They grab, they pull, they hit. Teaching them to “pet gently” is a mistake I see often. Instead, baby and dog need to learn how to “parallel play”. Coexistence, not interaction, should be the default. The goal should be that both baby and dog have no expectation of tactile interaction. While baby is still not moving, your job is to teach the dog not to touch or get too close. When baby is mobile, closed gates will facilitate that learning. Later you may be able to introduce supervised, non-gated moments.