My dog Henry is my everything. I talk to him, run with him, play with him, and force him to watch reality television. I spoil him (hello, Barkbox!) and cuddle him every night in bed. I also don’t have kids (can you tell?) so all my love, money, and attention goes to him.
Because of his spoiled lifestyle, I often think about when and if I have kids. How will he react? How will our relationship evolve? Is he going to be gentle and kind to the new baby? Or will he be snarky and resentful, perhaps even dangerous?
If you have a dog and are already expecting a child (congratulations, by the way!) or plan to have a baby someday, what can you do to prepare your dog for a baby in the home? While you can absolutely keep your dog – ignore the naysayers who tell you to get rid of all your pets – you do need to do some things before and after your baby is born to make the process as seamless and safe as possible for both your dog and your baby.
Before the baby arrives...
Expose your dog to the baby's environment
Dogs are curious creatures. They greet you with licks and sniffs when you get home, trying to figure out where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing all day. To help your pup acclimate to the sight and sound of your baby, take him to the nursery and let him sniff around, suggests Dr. Jim Lowe, technical services veterinarian with Tomlyn pet products. By giving him access to the nursery, he can check out the baby environment and acquaint himself with the new room and new items in the room. Try to spend time in the nursery every day and walk around with a baby blanket or baby items so he can get used to this routine.
Introduce a baby doll to your dog
By carrying around a doll, you’re showing your dog that something important has your attention and that he must be respectful, says Amber Jester, a certified animal behavior specialist at Operation Kindness. It’s also smart to carry treats and reward any calm behavior such as laying down or stepping away from the doll. Wearing baby oils or powders can also make the training process more realistic and help your pup become familiar with those smells.
Play baby sounds
Play recorded sounds of a baby cooing or crying so your dog gets used to the new sounds he will hear. "Play the sounds on a low volume as the dog engages in his favorite activity such a playing ball, eating or enjoying a massage or brushing," suggests Jester. "Your dog should continue in the activity without looking for the source of the sound, ensuring the noise is not bothersome or negative. Gradually, as the dog is comfortable, increase the volume of the audio to replicate the likely volume of the baby’s actual cry."
Train your dog
Your dog should already know basic commands like sit, stay, lay down, and come. If she doesn’t, you need to teach her. If she doesn’t know it now when it’s just you and your partner, how she will act when there’s a baby in the home? A dog needs impulse control — she can’t always take, take, take — and needs to be patient. Start training her by placing off-limit items in areas that are within her grasp (like above her head) and making her stay seated until you say yes. Treat and praise her as you say yes, showing her that yes is the command you want her to follow, but that she needs to patiently wait until you say it. Once she grasps that exercise, start placing the treat near hard-to-reach places or baby areas like the crib or highchair. You should also teach your dog two other skills: "hand targeting" and "go to."
Take your dog to a playground
But keep him leashed at all times and away from kids, especially if you’re unsure of how he’ll react. It will help him get used to the sights and sounds of babies and children playing. If he seems to be doing well — he’s happy, his tail’s wagging, he’s trying to play — then you can let him run around with them. (Keep him leashed, though, especially if the parents seem apprehensive.) But if he seems scared or nervous, keep him by your side to look, not touch.
Keep your dog indoors
Although dogs don’t hunt as often as cats (I can never get my dog to catch a mouse), they do get into mischief outside, especially if they’re unattended. Keeping your dog safe inside the home will prevent her from eating or interacting with sick animals and bringing them into your home. And since sick rodents are riddled with disease, if your dog interacts with them, she, you, your family, and your baby will be subjected to possible illness and infection.
Close off parts of your home
By keeping your dog away from certain areas – the nursery, crib, or playpen – you can ensure your baby’s safety as the dog gets used to her presence. Although it’s a good idea to let your dog walk around the nursery and get acquainted with it, you don’t want her to get too comfortable in there. If your dog is super nosey or a jumper, try using a gate or screen door so your dog cannot enter the room but can still see into the room and feel a part of the action.
Make gradual changes
Pets can be like us — sassy, stubborn, and super particular about what we like and expect. So make gradual changes, not abrupt ones, to keep your dog less stressed and resentful about the baby’s arrival. If you have to alter his play or feeding time, what time he takes his walks, or where he sleeps at night, try to do it months before the baby is due to arrive.
Take your dog to the vet
Make sure he’s up-to-date on shots and vaccinations. If he’s sick, your family will be subjected to possible illness or infection (plus your dog is in pain, and no one wants that). Once you’re a parent, between the feeding times, sleepless nights, and constant crying, the only thing you’ll want to do in your spare time is take a shower, not go to the vet.
Don't be in denial
If you have fears – especially if your dog is extra possessive or aggressive – voice your concerns. Not all dogs are used to children, especially if you adopted your pup from a shelter and are unsure if he’s been exposed to kids in the past. Talk to your vet or behavioral specialist about what to do before your baby is born.
After the baby arrives...
Greet your dog alone
When you return home from the hospital, spend time with your dog alone in a separate room. Jester suggests bringing an item into the room that contains your baby's scent, such as a burp cloth or blanket. "Having your dog sniff the item from a distance as you hold it shows that the item is yours, and you are allowing your dog permission to sniff," says Jester. "This initiates the process of creating boundaries and respect for the baby." If he reacts calmly and positively to the blanket, give him treats and praise.
Stay calm during introductions
When you introduce your baby to your dog, it’s important to keep calm and carry on. Your pet feeds off your energy, so if you’re anxious or nervous, she will be, too. Jester suggests first taking your dog for a walk to drain her energy. During introductions, stay relaxed and tranquil and speak in a soothing voice. And never force your dog onto your child. Let it be gradual and natural.
Keep training your dog
But do so by first paying attention to your dog’s energy and personality. Joel Silverman, celebrity dog trainer, says if your dog is naturally calm and laid back and even ignores the baby initially, training him will be much easier. If he’s high strung and high energy, keep him on a leash when you’re first introducing him to your baby and even for a few days after that until you feel comfortable. "After a few days of keeping your dog on a leash, simply start giving him treats when you are standing in the area of the baby," suggests Silverman. "By doing this, you are redirecting the dog’s focus away from the baby and onto the happy distraction of the treats." As you get more comfortable with your dog being around your baby, you can relinquish leash control. First, you can let the leash drag from his collar so you can still easily grab it if you need to and then you can completely take it off (but keep it in the room so that it’s easily accessible).
Keep your baby elevated
In your baby’s first few days home, it’s important to keep him elevated so that your dog cannot see him, says Silverman. If your baby is going to be on the ground for play or sleep, keep your dog in a separate room until he gets accustomed to being gentle around your baby.
Don't forget about your dog
Make sure you spend time with your doggy every day – playing with him, doting on him, and giving him lots of love and kisses. Dogs don’t need lots of toys or special attention to feel like valued members of the family, says Jester. If you provide daily walks and consistency by establishing a routine, your dog will feel secure with the new addition to the family.
Keep your pup healthy
In addition to maintaining regular vet visits, Dr. Lowe says it’s important to make sure your dog is physically and emotionally healthy. Just because you’re sleepless in Seattle doesn’t he should be, too. Make sure he has a nice, comfortable bed and a quiet place to catch some ZZZs. He should be sleeping away from the baby and away from everyday commotion so that his sleep pattern remains normal. And try to give him new toys once in a while to spoil him and keep him mentally engaged, focused, and supported.
Never leave your dog and baby together unattended
No matter how much you trust your dog, it is never a good idea to leave him and your baby alone in a room together. In fact, in addition to marking off some areas in the house, it’s a good idea to buy a baby monitor to be alerted to your baby’s sounds and cries when you’re not around. "Many times children accidentally provoke an otherwise peaceful dog, simply because they were left unsupervised or they were not taught how to interact with the dog by their parents," says Jester. "Just as your dog has learned boundaries and respect for the baby, it’s important that your child also learns how to interact with your dog."
So again, I say congratulations! You’re going to be a parent to both a human and a dog, and it’s going to be fabulous. Before the baby arrives, enjoy your last few months with your pup and relish the moments of him being a lapdog. If you take the right steps before and after your baby arrives and regularly maintain a happy, healthy relationship with your dog, you’re going to enjoy the whole experience.
Image: Nathan Rice