Children and dogs make great life companions and having a firm friend in an animal is a joy when you're growing up. Raising children around animals and introducing them from a young age has many advantages.
Having a dog as a friend can improve a child’s social skills and caring for a pet can encourage responsibility
"As a mother and dog owner myself, it’s clear that children and dogs can be really great friends. Dogs can also help children develop kindness, understanding and respect for living things. Having a dog as a friend can improve a child’s social skills and caring for a pet can encourage responsibility", says RSPCA dog welfare expert Dr Samantha Gaines.
With the right guidance you may be surprised by how quickly your dog adapts to your baby, and as your child grows, their friendship will grow, too. Here are our recommendations on how to create the best relationship between child and dog. These are just suggestions as every dog is different!
Part 1: How to prepare your dog for a new baby
Often during the excitement of anticipating a new baby we can underestimate the impact it will have on our pets. They will no longer be able to have as much of our attention as they are used to, and the new family member will bring with them new furniture, smells and sounds that can take some time getting used to. So preparing a dog for a new baby should start well in advance of their arrival.
To make things go as smoothly as possible, it's important to take the time to teach your dog new skills that they'll need to know to keep out of trouble, and help them slowly adjust to the changes that lie ahead.
Train your dog in advance
Nine months is plenty of time for you and your dog to work through any existing issues and smooth out any bad habits, and for you to establish your authority. The best way to approach this is through positive reinforcement. "Brush up on your dog's training so that he/she will lie quietly for short periods, won't jump up, can walk on the lead without pulling and come when called. This will make both your lives much easier", advises Belinda Phipps, Chief Executive of NCT. If you're occasionally a little lax with discipline, it's time to reinforce rules and boundaries. This is important because little misbehaviors that are minor irritations now may not be as easy to handle when you’re coping with a newborn.
Teach it important new skills
A useful skill or trick to teach a dog is "please go away". Teaching your dog to go away when you ask will enable you to control their movements and interactions with your baby. To teach your pooch this skill, show them a dog treat, say “Go away,” and toss the treat four or five feet away from you. Repeat this sequence many times. The next step is to refrain from throwing the treat until your dog starts to move away. Say “Go away,” and move your arm as though you’re about to throw a treat. When your dog moves in the direction of your gesture, even if the dog only takes one step, say “Yes!” Then immediately fling a treat four or five feet away, in the direction your dog started to move. After more repetitions, try waiting until your dog takes several steps away before you say “Yes!” and toss the treat.
Make any new rules now, not later
If you don’t want your dog on the furniture or the bed after the baby arrives, introduce that restriction now. If you don’t want your dog to jump up on you when you’re carrying your new baby or holding the baby in your lap, start teaching them to keep all four paws on the floor. If your dog is used to sleeping in bed with you and you want that to change with the baby’s arrival, provide a comfortable dog bed that can be used instead.
Introduce any new physical boundaries
Many people don't want their dog entering the nursery in the first few weeks. Cesar Millan, dog behaviorist and authour of Short Guide to a Happy Dog, recommends starting with making the nursery off-limits. "Condition your dog to understand that there is an invisible barrier that they may not cross without your permission. Eventually, you can allow your dog to explore and sniff certain things in the room with your supervision. Then you decide when the dog needs to leave. Repeat this activity a few times before the baby arrives. This will let your dog know that this room belongs to its pack leader and must be respected at all times", he explains.
This might sound harsh, but it's better to slowly pay less attention to your dog so that they can get used to not being the centre of attention, rather than indulging them with too much energy to make up for when the baby arrives. "Resist the temptation to lavish your dog with extra attention in the weeks before the baby’s due date as it will only set them up for a bigger letdown when the baby comes", explains the ASPCA. Dog trainer Victoria Stilwell adds "Give your dog longer periods of undivided attention (such as playing fetch in the yard or going for a long walk) rather than short bursts of attention throughout the day. This will prepare your dog for the inevitable decrease in attention he will receive when baby comes."
Introduce baby sounds and smells now
For dogs who haven’t spent much time with them, babies can seem like pretty frightening creatures; they make loud, screeching noises, they smell different, they look different, and they move differently too – much more unpredictability than grown ups. To avoid your dog reacting unfavourably towards any of these behaviours, it's a good idea to get them used to as many baby-like sights, sounds, smells and movements as possible. The ASPCA advises to gradually introduce baby sounds, sights and smells four months before the baby arrives, and associate them with rewards (giving your dog a treat when they behave well), which will help your dog learn to love life with the baby.
One way to help the dog get used to a baby's sounds is by buying a recording of realistic baby noises (or find videos on YouTube) and play it frequently. The ASPCA suggest that whenever you play the recording, give your dog plenty of attention, dog treats and anything else the dog likes. After five to ten minutes, turn the recording off and ignore your dog for half an hour or so. Do this several times a day. Instead of becoming afraid or upset when the baby makes a noise, the dog will learn to look forward to them because they predict attention and treats!
You can easily get your dog acclimatised to new baby supplies, such as toys, car seats, highchairs, walkers and swings, by introducing them to your dog one or two at a time. "Allow the pet access to all the baby paraphernalia so they can sniff it and get used to it, particularly if it is in the communal areas of the house", advises Cat Henstridge. To get them used to a baby's toys (and distinguish between them and their own toys), let the dog investigate the new toys, but if he/she picks them up, immediately redirect their attention to one of their own toys or chew bones.
To get a dog used to baby smells, you could try using a little bit of the baby’s lotions, shampoos, creams and powders on yourself (you could get a Johnson's baby skincare essentials box) so that your dog associates them with a familiar person. Once the baby has arrived, bring home a blanket with their scent and give it to your pet or place it in their bed, to get them used to their smell.
Establish the new schedule
One to two months before the baby arrives, anticipate the changes you’ll make to your dog’s daily routine, and start making those changes. "Many dogs experience anxiety when their lifestyles are drastically altered. Although things will change with the arrival of your new baby, you can minimise your dog’s stress by gradually getting them used to these changes in advance", explains the ASPCA. It may help to prepare your dog for a less consistent daily schedule. Try varying the time you feed your dog. For example, if it gets breakfast every morning at 7:00 A.M. sharp, start feeding at random times between 6:00 A.M. and 10:00 A.M.
Plan dog walking in advance
One way to help maintain your dog’s walk schedule is to take the baby along with you. "For the mum-to-be, this has the added benefit of outdoor exercise, which can help boost her post-partum mood", explains Cesar Millan. But it will take some adjustment for your dog to get used to walking behind the stroller or with some wiggly creature strapped to your front – you could practice in advance, so you’re both masters at it by the time the baby is there. Teach your dog to walk gently next to the pram now, and you'll thank yourself later.
If you're considering hiring a dog walker to take over the responsibility of exercising your dog, at least for the first few weeks after the baby arrives, start interviewing dog walkers now. To help your dog get used to leaving your house without you, you can have the dog walker start taking her on occasional walks.
Part 2: How to successfully introduce your dog to a newborn baby
First impressions are important, and your dog should have pleasant experiences with your baby right from the start. Follow these steps for a successful first meeting.
Prepare the dog in advance
If you're able to, bring an item that contains your baby's scent, such as a burp cloth, from the hospital before bringing home the baby. Challenge the dog to sniff from a distance, while you are holding the item. By doing so, you are communicating to your dog that the item is yours and then giving permission for the dog to sniff. This helps start the process of creating respect for the baby.
Let the dog lose some energy first
When bringing your baby home from the hospital, send everyone else into the house first so your dog can express its usual excitement to see people. You could even ask someone to take the dog on a long walk beforehand. After it's had a minute or two of greeting time and expends some energy, put her on a lead. This is important, even if you have no reason to believe that it'll react poorly to the baby. That person should also get some small treats ready to use during your dog’s first few moments with the baby, advise the ASPCA.
Control the introduction
Teach your dog how to approach the baby properly and gently, and allow the dog to make safe initial investigations and approaches. Praise your dog for any calm interest in the baby. Of course you too should be in a calm state. The dog should be allowed to sniff the baby, but at a respectful distance. During this first meeting, don't bring the baby too close. Eventually, the dog can be allowed to get closer and closer to the baby. By doing this, you are teaching the dog to respect the baby as an important member of the family. "Avoid scolding your dog. Remember, you want it to associate the baby with good things, not your displeasure", warn the ASPCA. "Don't place the baby on the floor with your dog and never hit or shout at him for approaching the baby in the wrong way", says Belinda Phipps (Chief Executive of NCT). Instead, gently, show the dog what you wish it to do and reward him/her when they get it right. If you have multiple dogs, let them meet the baby one at a time.
Part 3: How to create a harmonious home with both the dog and the baby
Spend time together
The most important rule to remember is to never leave any baby unattended with any dog, no matter how docile and friendly that pet may be. Instead, spend time together, playing calmly together, or cuddling together.
Don't neglect the dog
Try not to neglect your dog, and try to keep their routine, particularly walks and play time, as consistent as possible. "This will help them to feel secure, less anxious and they will be less likely to behave badly or become stressed", explains Cat Henstridge.
Keep the dog busy
Make sure that your dog has enough exercise and things to do – a bored dog with too much energy can get up to all sorts of mischief while you are busy with your new baby. Another good tip is to buy a few new toys for your pets. These will keep them entertained and busy while you are concentrating on the baby and they will be less likely to become overly focused on the little one or demand too much of your attention. "Puzzle balls and interactive toys are a good choice for this", Cat recommends.
Reward your dog
Help your dog to see the baby as a nice thing to be around. Give your dog treats and lots of praise when he behaves well around the baby.
Part 4: How to prepare your baby, toddler or child for a dog
Once your child is in the exploratory state, it's a great opportunity to teach your child not to bother the dog, poke it, prod it, yank its tail, etc. These lessons on mutual respect cannot begin early enough. "Too many children have inadvertently provoked an otherwise peaceful dog, simply because they were unsupervised or their parents had not given them proper instruction" says Cesar Millan.
Teach your child to respect your dog
"Just as parents teach their children how to act around traffic and how to safely cross the road, it’s also their responsibility to show youngsters how to behave when they’re around their own or other dogs – either in public places, or in private homes and gardens” says RSPCA dog welfare expert Dr Samantha Gaines. As your child develops, teach him to respect your dog’s body, safe zones and belongings. The RSPCA recommend teaching children not to approach dogs if they are eating or have food; if they have a toy or something else they really like; if they are sleeping or on their bed; or are sick, sleeping, in pain or tired.
Instead, show your child what gentle, enjoyable petting looks like, and teach them to stroke and scratch your dog in its favorite spots. Explain that hitting, kicking or pinching dogs, as well as riding, teasing and intentionally scaring them are NOT okay. You could teach your child to play structured games with your dog, like fetch, tug-of war and hide-and-seek.
Control a child's excited behaviour during first meetings
When introducing children to new pets, it is vital that their early interactions are all supervised by a responsible adult. "Children have a tendency to become over-excited which can be confusing or distressing to the animals, and dogs especially can become too boisterous and frighten youngsters", explains Cat Henstridge. Before you bring the pet and child together, have a chat about how best to behave (with the child). Make sure they know to stay calm, quiet and only interact with the pet when it approaches them. If you are introducing a dog, keep them on a lead at first, so they can't jump up or chase. Also, make sure any pet has an escape route or somewhere they can retreat to safety if they find the kids overwhelming.
When to give a dog space
Always supervise your child when they are with a dog, and look for signs that the dog might be feeling uncomfortable such as yawning, lip licking or avoiding eye contact. “We also recommend providing your dog with a cosy spot in a quiet room where they can retreat to if they need or want their own space,” Dr Gaines adds. “It’s good to teach your children to leave the dog alone when he/she is in this area."
And of course, have fun together!