Guide to Creating a Good Safe Bond Between Dogs and Babies
The birth of a new baby is a joyous occasion, but many dog-owning couples worry how their new baby and dog will interact. Knowing all the possibilities beforehand is important to prevent accidents or injuries, to the dog as well as the child. Some people feel that it is best to keep dogs and babies apart, at least until the child is old enough to exercise self-control and gain respect from the dog. Fortunately, this extreme approach is unnecessary in the majority of cases. Whether they should be allowed to interact depends on factors relating to the dog, the child, and the environment.
Dog factors involve the temperament and mood of the dog, which depend on the dog’s genetics and learned behavior. Two of the most important genetic factors are the tendency to develop dominance and the magnitude of the dog’s prey drive.
a) The most serious problems occur when dogs genetically predisposed to high levels of dominance or predatory behavior are raised in a way that promotes their aggressive tendencies. For example, a naturally dominant dog raised by an overly indulgent owner makes dominance issues between the dog and toddlers even more likely.
b) A dog that is potentially dominant, is undersocialized, and has had unfortunate social experiences during puppyhood, is most prone to develop fear aggression. This type of aggression poses a different threat to children, particularly children unfamiliar to the dog.
c) Dogs with high prey drive that are misunderstood and mismanaged also pose a threat to children. The key to preventing problems of this nature is responsible breeding, appropriate selection of pups by would-be owners, good socialization, limit setting, and proper control.
The Dominant Dog and Babies
The dominant dog is that somewhat pushy, overconfident and willful individual whose behavior often ranges from independent to demanding. Features of dominance include possessiveness over food, toys and other objects, resistance to petting, nail trims, and discipline, and space guarding.
These apparently moody dogs are fine 98 percent of the time, but in the other 2 percent are downright irritable or frankly aggressive. Their response to certain interventions from the owners ranges from a growl to a lip lift, snap or bite, and occurs when there is competition over a resource or in response to challenging gestures or unwelcome demands. The actual expression of this condition may be as mild as an occasional growl in a few specific situations all the way through to a dog that has so many signs of dominance that even the owner can diagnose the problem.
Dominant dogs are rarely a problem with newborns, though it is highly recommended that they be introduced only under strict supervision, just to be on the safe side. Typically, the dominant dog’s response toward the infant is one of mild interest or even indifference. Indifference often prevails for the first year or so of the baby’s life until he starts to ambulate confidently and presents an annoying challenge to the dog. Some dominant dogs don’t appreciate the arrival of the newborn and may sulk, compete for attention, or even start urine marking.
However, they are usually not a frank threat, at least until the toddler delivers the first challenge. Sometimes the toddler’s “transgression” is completely inadvertent or a miscommunication from the child to the dog (i.e. kissing the dog on the muzzle or giving him a hug around the neck). A slightly older toddler may purposely push the dog to his limits by grabbing him by the ears or tail or attempting to ride the dog like a horse. There comes a point in any dominant dog’s life when, if challenged at the wrong time or by the wrong person, he will react. The reaction may take the form of a warning growl or may be as severe as a bite directed towards the face. The response is fast, short-lived (a few seconds), and afterwards the dog might appear contrite or remorseful.
Dominant dogs are very sensitive to the circumstances under which a challenge occurs. Their response may vary depending on the time of day, the location of the perceived insult, and the level of the challenge. In general, they are more aggressive in the evening, when they are tired, when they are in possession of favorite food, and when they are in an elevated position with respect to the child. A combination of such circumstances is frequently responsible for triggering an aggressive event.
To paint a picture of this type of aggression, imagine a child approaching a dog lying on a couch. The dog has a bone nearby. The child suddenly throws his or her arms around the dog’s neck and kisses him …on the muzzle. As innocent as this scenario sounds, it is a behavioral “full house” for a dominant, protective dog.
Dominant dogs should always be supervised in the presence of children and should always be separated from them when close supervision is not possible. Devices that come in handy are X-pens, dog crates, baby playpens, outside runs and so on. Once the child is old enough to follow directions, around 6 years old, the adults in the house can teach the “Nothing in Life is Free” philosophy to the child and then assist the child in implementing it. This will elevate the child into her rightful social position within the home – above the dog.
Predatory Aggressive Dog and Babies
There are two situations in which predatory aggression is likely to pose a threat, one much less probable than the other. The least common situation is that of predatory aggression directed towards a very young newborn baby, usually during the first week, and almost invariably during the first month of the child’s introduction into the household. Even if the initial introduction has been conducted properly, these dogs may take some days to recognize the flailing newcomer as a new member of the family and in the early days may make the terrible mistake of regarding the human infant as wounded prey. In such cases, a predatory attack may occur with unthinkable consequences. If dogs show any signs of enhanced prey drive (i.e. they are completely obsessed with chasing cats and small creatures, constantly chase any moving objects, or show an intense interest in the infant), it is vital that the two be strictly supervised until a bond can be established.
The second situation in which predatory behavior can become a problem is when older children are running around screaming and yelling in “packs.” This type of behavior can awaken the predatory instinct in the dog that will join in the play often nipping and biting at children’s’ hands and legs. A more sinister and deadly version of this behavior can occur when a child, riding a bicycle or running, stumbles across a pack of two to five dogs cruising a neighborhood. The combination of a moving target, high prey drive and the packing or group aggression instinct can lead the small dog pack to attack the child with serious or even lethal consequences. If your dog has a high prey drive, make certain that he is never allowed to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. The only way to deal with dogs of such disposition when they cannot be supervised is to make sure that they are properly secured by means of a properly fenced enclosure.
The Fearful Dog and Babies
Dogs that are purely fearful are hardly ever a risk to children in their household. They often adore children they know but are easily intimidated by these children’s’ friends, particularly the noisy ones, and they will cower, retreat or hide away until the menace is gone. Problems arise when dogs that are fearful of children also have a measure of dominance and take a pro-active stance toward dealing with their nemeses. Aggression occurs toward children who overstep certain preset limits. When approached or petted by such unwelcome visitors, dogs of such persuasion will often back away while growling or barking, or will lunge. For the expectant mom, the fearful dog can be reliably predicted to present little or no problems regarding the new baby, even as the baby grows up. It’s strangers that are the main concern in this instance. Grandparents with a child-fearful dog face a problem when their grandchildren visit. Treatment of fear-based aggression is multi-factorial and includes the following:
Dogs that are extremely fearful of children and highly dominant present the greatest challenge and probably should not be exposed to children.
Getting Ready for Your Baby
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 Your Dog Home for the Baby’s 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 of the Baby and Your Dog
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 With Baby and Dog
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.