My husband and I welcomed an active, lovable Vizsla into our home about a year after getting married. We were looking for a little something extra to nurture and figured a dog was just what we needed to get our family started. Despite all the prep and research we did, Finley quickly proved to be more than we bargained for. She broke a leg, escaped from the house, contracted pneumonia, and exhibited severe separation anxiety all within the first six months of us having her.
After enrolling in pet insurance and twice-a-week doggy daycare — and stocking up on all the canine behavior literature we could fit into our apartment — we started to feel more comfortable with the idea of expanding our family even further. This time, with a human baby.
Nine months of pregnancy is a long time to think about the impact a newborn will have on you, your husband, and your hyperactive pup. So I read Please Don’t Bite the Baby (and Please Don’t Chase the Dogs): Keeping Your Kids and Your Dogs Safe and Happy Together — twice — and took copious notes. My dog demands a lot of exercise and attention. And despite the fact that Finley is the sweetest, most affectionate creature I’ve ever come across, I knew that even the nicest pup could lash out if her furry buttons were pushed one too many times.
Beyond my personal puppy problems (see hyperactivity and separation anxiety above), once I realized that more than half of the 4.5 million dog bites that occur in the U.S. every year involve children younger than 8 years old, I knew that it would be downright irresponsible for me not to prepare my dog for the arrival of my child. Of course, the flip side to such scary statistics is that having a furry family member helps children learn empathy, and it also means your little one is less likely to have pet allergies as well as respiratory tract infections and ear infections in the first year of life.
For me, and for many others I’m sure, the benefits of having a pup when a baby is due far outweigh the risks. But there are risks. Thankfully, certified professional dog trainer and dog behavior consultant Lisa Edwards has distilled all of the myriad possibilities in Please Don’t Bite the Baby. Not only does she draw from professional expertise, but she has recent personal experience when she brought home her son, Indy, to a house full of four-legged pups, namely Pinball, Porthos, and Boo.
Eager to tap into Lisa’s wisdom, I chatted with her about how dogs and babies can peacefully coexist.
Dogster: What’s your professional background and experience with dogs?
Lisa Edwards: I started training professionally at the end of ’99, beginning of 2000. I started training for animal-assisted therapy teams. Most people start with basic classes, but I started at the calculus level, so it was kind of a backwards entrance. I had a knack for it.[Lisa went on to become lead trainer and behavior consultant for the Animal Rescue Foundation-Beacon and the Danbury Animal Welfare Society, a Pet Partners evaluator and instructor, and an AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluator. She also has her own teaching and consulting business, Three Dogs Training.]
What about dogs and babies doesn’t go well together?
As a society, we suffer from “good dog syndrome.” A lot of dogs are really good. So we expect all dogs to be good, but they’re not. I think a lot of people get lucky and a lot of people intuitively might do some of the management strategies without even thinking about it. But then there’s a whole host of people who think, “I have a good dog. Things will be fine,” but that may not be the case.
How should you respond if your dog growls near the baby?
The thing that will keep your child safe is your dog feeling safe around your child. So the first step is to get the dog out. Throw a treat outside the door and close the door behind the dog. Secure the child. At that moment we have to ask ourselves, “What happened?” A dog may tolerate something a hundred million times, but the next time, the dog may not tolerate it.
Friends and family suggested we give our dog a hospital blanket with the baby’s smell to make the first introduction. Why do you recommend against doing this?
Every time we bring something home for our dog, something made out of fabric, it is for them to chew, lie on top of, chase around. Never before in your dog’s life have you brought home a piece of fabric with the message: This is something that you will have to respect and live with for the rest of your life. It’s something very abstract for the dog to understand. Yes, it will familiarize the dog, but if you were pregnant and living with the dog, she already has the scent cataloged in her head.
Is it easier to bring a baby home to a young dog who is new to the family or to an older dog who has already been in the family for a while?
It always comes down to the dog’s personality. While Pinball was the most trouble in our home, Porthos was the one in which I had no idea how he was going to react around a baby. He had been around kids, and was always interested but concerned around them. So it was a total crapshoot. When Indy arrived, he was interested, appropriate, calm, and very good, but there was no way for me to speculate on that.
How can you teach a toddler to respect a dog’s space?
It’s all about management. I couldn’t live without my baby gates. If I’m in the nursery and Indy is getting ready for bed and nothing is chaotic, then Pinball can come in. I guide Indy on how to pet him. It really is all about managing the space, so that if Indy is riled, I can get Pinball to safety.
At what age can parents leave their children unsupervised with a dog?
The bite statistics tell us that there’s a huge drop off at 8 years in terms of the number of bites to children, and then at 12 years old they drop off again. I believe it’s correlated with the ability of kids to follow directions and to read the dog. There’s that study about leaving children in a room with a cupcake, and the researcher says that the child will get a second cupcake if he waits just a few minutes and doesn’t eat the first. Would your child pass the cupcake test? As a parent you say, “When I’m out of the room and the dog comes in, you need to follow these rules.”
At what point should a professional trainer be called in to help?
Any time there is a growl, bring in a professional just to make sure that everything is going in the right direction. [Also bring in a pro] if your gut is telling you something is going on, or you feel uncomfortable, or if your dog simply cannot follow directions around the baby. If your dog would normally sit and won’t do it around the baby, make sure you have a professional who understands these concepts. The ASPCA and AVSAB both have “how to pick your trainer” position statements on their websites. The IAABC and CCPDT have trainer searches.
Any final words of advice for people with dogs who are having babies?
Don’t wait until it’s too late. If in your heart of hearts you think you can’t do this and want to rehome the dog, then do it before there’s a bite. If in your heart of hearts you think you can do it but things are kind of falling apart, don’t wait until there’s a problem. Once there’s a problem, the issues are so much more difficult to fix, and we are then rebuilding trust. That’s a slow rebuild. When in doubt, get the dog out.
Please Don’t Bite the Baby, published by Seal Press, is available on October 20.
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About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox, and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).