When my son, Grissom, was born five years ago, I knew my English Springer Spaniel, Charlie, would have an adjustment period. Sure, he might prod me for more attention; jealousy was to be expected. Or maybe he’d act out and perhaps counter-surf more often than normal. Whatever was to come, I could handle it.
Little Grissom finally came home on that crisp, grey morning in October, swaddled in love and excitement. We settled in, and I knelt down to give my best friend Charlie, then almost two, a peek at the baby. He turned his gaze away from Grissom and said, “Baby? What baby?”
No, he was not the dog who lay watchful near my son’s crib, nor did he find delight in posing for pictures with my son. Hell, not even food falling from a highchair could bring Charlie to bond with Grissom. Like identical poles of a magnet, Grissom simply repelled Charlie.
What was the issue? “Well, as far as (Charlie) was concerned, you brought a space alien home,” said Sarah Wilson, dog expert and co-author of Childproofing Your Dog.
OK, I get it. Children toddle around, squeal, and display erratic movement. They smell different and are unpredictable. To make matters worse, Charlie had little-to-no socialization with space aliens, err, young children. Before Grissom was born, he was an only dog with a mom who worked from home. To be more than candid — I was Charlie’s bitch. Pardon the pun.
So, my dog’s reaction is understandable when explained by a professional like Wilson. “Charlie is thinking, ‘I don’t want to be anywhere near whatever that is,’ and becomes stressed by the toddler or infant and avoids him,” Wilson said. One symptom resulting from the situation can be resource guarding, she added.
Looking to rule out other contributing factors, I had Charlie’s vet run a blood panel, check his thyroid, and conduct a physical. Nothing medically could point to the negative, sudden change in his behavior.
Still, my darling Springer over the next few years would do his best work to show me the error of my ways. Having a child was my error, mind you. He showed me not in words but in several uncharacteristic, jarring behaviors.
It started gradually — with socks. If Charlie should find himself in the company of a stray baby sock, he would swallow it. Although I never caught him in the act, evidence of the offense would come days later when I would hear Charlie heaving down the hall. Then I knew I was about to find that one powder blue bootie that went AWOL last week. I stopped putting socks on Grissom. Cold feet versus a costly obstruction surgery? You would’ve done the same thing in my booties!
Also, bath toys were stolen from the mesh hammock suctioned to the tub wall, and then mutilated. Receiving blankets were lifted from baskets and never seen again. What was the worst? If Grissom was to wear a hat, Charlie had the gall to skulk over and pluck the darn thing right off his head.
Was it funny? Yes, admittedly I laughed and grabbed my camera, but the fun and games ended shortly thereafter when the dog began hoarding and guarding these aforementioned items, which now included a slew of Grissom’s toys.
The look in his eyes: Uncanny. Pupils dilated, face tense. You could almost hear him whispering “my precious” as a Matchbox car protruded from his muzzle. And if you tried to take the precious from him, he’d growl, maybe snap, and scare the Smeagol right out of you. Maybe he was a fat hobbit in a previous life.
Clearly humor and sarcasm is how I dealt with Charlie’s increasingly frightening behavior, but it was clear that his apathy and frustration with our new addition had turned to dangerous resource guarding and withdrawn behavior.
I had a decision to make. Charlie was my heart dog, so I never thought of surrendering him, but I can sympathize with families who don’t have a choice. These are the families with dogs who possess true predatory aggression and have far more serious issues than Charlie was displaying. I felt Charlie could be rehabbed, so I worked with a local behaviorist.
He helped me manage the resource guarding, but said we would never “cure it completely.” Wilson agreed, and said “the management never ends” nor does the “eagle-eye supervision.”
Small progress was made over the next few years. I educated my son, now five years old, and gave my dog, seven, places and secure crates to seek refuge away from my son. The growling and snapping was virtually eliminated, however the stealing and dilated pupils would remain.
What has helped significantly — above the training, treats, and trading system advised by the behaviorist — has been time and growth. My son has matured and grown tall above Charlie’s eyeline. He walks fluidly without flapping his arms. He uses his words as opposed to screaming and squealing.
Today, Grissom can perform basic obedience with Charlie, run him through a level-one agility course, and has Charlie’s cooperation with a few tricks. On rare and oh-so-precious occasions, you can even find Charlie at the foot of Grissom’s bed.
“As he gets older, Grissom looks more and more like what Charlie considers to be human,” Wilson said. “And it becomes less stressful for him.”
If you ask me, we’re a success story, a happy ending even. However, if you look at most of the animal shelters in the country, 30 to 35 percent of the dogs and cats are there because of conflicts with resident or incoming children, said Colleen Paige, animal behaviorist and founder of National Kids and Pets Day, which was on Sunday, April 26, this year.
The mom and avid animal lover launched the holiday to educate the public about safety between children and pets. Her goal is to create a curriculum for elementary schools that teaches children how to respect animals and handle them with care.
“If you teach children to have compassion for animals they will have compassion for each other,” Paige said. “The day also promotes the bond between children and pets. There’s nothing sweeter than the relationship between kids and their pets.”
I agree. The bond between Grissom and Charlie has yet to reach Timmy and Lassie status, but it’s there and growing. Our family has a ton to be grateful for. Like the fact that Grissom can wear socks again.
Have you brought a baby into your home when you already had a dog? How did you dog handle it? Tell us your tips and suggestions in the comments.
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About the author: Raygan Swan is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom who loves to write about her adventures raising a young boy and one neurotic, pushy English Springer Spaniel under one roof. In sharing her anecdotes and experiences, Swan hopes to enlighten and educate families who strive for harmony among their two-legged and four-legged children. In addition, she likes to compete in agility trials with her springer as well as kayak and hike. She lives north of Indianapolis and can be found at facebook.com/rayganswan.