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Dogs and Babies - Creating a Good and Safe Bond

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Any dog with a history of aggression towards people should be closely supervised in the presence of children. As previously mentioned, dominance or predatory behavior both may result in aggression directed towards the child. Dogs that have a history of being food aggressive, aggressive if startled or awakened, or who are otherwise known to guard space or favored objects require close supervision in the presence of children. Also, dogs with high prey drive should be watched like hawks for any signs of excitement around the baby. Even if a dog is relatively even tempered, a danger still exists. A baby can inadvertently be injured by an extremely active dog as the dog attempts to play with or investigate the youngster.

Preparing for the Arrival

Prior to your baby's arrival, make sure your dog understands basic commands such as "come," "sit," "down," "leave it," "enough" and "stay." If necessary, seek the help of an experienced trainer who is well versed in positive training methods. At no time should your dog be subjected to harsh corrective training methods. The goal is for your dog to like you and your baby, not to obey out of fear that can arise from punitive training procedures. Provide 20 minutes of supervised aerobic exercise for the dog twice per day. Train your dog to occupy himself by providing long lasting food treats and appropriate toys.

It is helpful to train your dog to follow obedience commands while you engage in activities that you normally would with your baby. Pick up a doll and cradle it as you would a baby, while rewarding your dog for calmly remaining in a sit or down stay position. Rewards may take the form of food treats, petting or praise. Teach your dog to remain in a stay position as you present the doll/baby. Because dogs tend to react to sounds as well as movement, it may help to play tape recordings of babies crying or making other typical baby sounds. With your dog safely contained by a head halter and basket muzzle, expose your dog to babies of friends or neighbors. This should only be done if your dog can be safely controlled and is trained. Your dog should be exposed in a gradual manner and should associate the interaction with positive experiences. Continue the exposure until your dog remains reliably relaxed in the baby's presence. This may require several sessions if you own a very reactive dog.

Keep in mind that it is not uncommon for dogs to become competitive for the owners' attention when a child enters the family. Whether the dog truly is being competitive or whether he is responding to changes in his schedule and decreased attention is unclear. Make certain that your dog is kept on a consistent schedule and continues to receive adequate exercise and attention once you bring your baby home. Be sure to reward your dog for remaining calm in the presence of your new child. This allows your dog to associate positive experiences with the addition of the new family member.

The Arrival

If your baby is born in a hospital, bring home blankets or clothing bearing the child's scent to familiarize your dog with the scent of the new family member. When you and you child come home, another family member should tend to the child while you greet your dog. This will allow you to avoid having to reprimand the dog for an exuberant greeting during which your dog may jump at your baby in an attempt to greet you.

At Home

Monitor all interactions between your dog and your child until you are certain that your dog is relaxed in the presence of your child. It is best to err on the side of excessive vigilance rather than risk an injury to your child. Attach a screen door or baby gate to the entrance to your child's room. This precaution allows you to hear your baby but will prevent your dog from having access to the room.

Be patient and allow plenty of time for your dog to acclimate to the change in his environment. The sounds and smells of your infant will be unfamiliar and you are likely to have more frequent guests than normal. Introduce your baby to your dog when your household is quiet and the excitement levels have diminished. Avoid allowing your dog to interact with your baby when the baby is crying or waving her arms and legs. These stimuli could elicit a predatory or playful investigatory reaction by the dog. When your baby is particularly vocal or active, it is best to put your dog in another room unless he will perform a reliable down-stay several feet away from the baby.

Expose your infant to your dog in a gradual and controlled manner and make certain that all initial interactions are positive. One parent should attend to the dog and the other to the baby. Your dog should be on leash and muzzled if there is concern he may bite. Allow your dog to see your baby at a distance of 10-15 feet. Gradually allow your dog to approach if he is appropriately curious and reward him for being quiet. If your dog appears calm, you may allow him to smell your baby from a safe distance. If your dog shows any signs of excitement, you should proceed more slowly. Over a period of several days or weeks, your dog may be allowed to investigate your baby more closely.

Babies less than 1-year-old rarely present a threat to dogs. Most of the accidents that do occur at this young age result from misdirected predatory aggression. After 1 year of age, the child may become a threat or challenge to the dog, depending on the child's personality. Relatively shy children are less likely to be the subject of a dominant dog's aggressive tendencies because they are less likely to push his buttons. At the other end of the spectrum is the rowdy, highly active child that takes liberties with the dog. Dominant dogs do not tolerate such affronts well and need to be defended against the approach of such children. Then there's the clumsy child who stumbles across the dog at just the wrong time, sending an unintended signal of challenge to the dog. Because children are so unpredictable it is wise to protect them all by making sure that all interactions with the dog are properly supervised.

New parents have a tendency to worry excessively about the potential for their dog to injure the infant. By far most dogs adjust to new babies easily, quietly and without incident. If you are observant of your dog's behavior and take precautions to introduce your dog and the baby to each other gradually and while your dog is under control, you should be able to avoid problematic incidents. And remember, dogs' natural instinct is to protect new pack members, so there is a bright side to the equation, too.

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