By Renee Krejci
For four years now, rescued Boston Terriers Boris and Natasha have been like children to Stephen and Libby Scott of Chicago. But soon the young couple will be welcoming a new family member into their home and hearts—one of the two-legged, not four-legged, kind. Although some adjustments will be required on everyone’s part, introducing baby and pet doesn’t have to be a catastrophe if the right steps are taken.
“Taking the preparations early on is key,” says Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Suzanne Hetts, co-creator of the Helping Fido Welcome Your Baby DVD. “It’s certainly better to start changing the routine several months ahead of time rather than trying to do it after the baby has arrived or the last week before the mom is expected to deliver.”
Hetts also highly recommends assessing the pet’s behavior before baby arrives, a key component of her DVD program. “Then once they really have an idea in their mind about what the issues might be with their particular dog or cat, they can begin to focus on those,” she says.
The Scotts decided to hire Rendy Schwartz of Anything Is PAWSible dog training in Chicago to evaluate Boris and Natasha, even though the dogs are generally well behaved.
“It’s still important to us to have someone who does this on a professional basis to come in and evaluate them, because what we might think is harmless someone else might see as potentially a problem,” Libby says. “I would advise anyone who has dogs and is expecting to have someone come in and just evaluate your dog’s behaviors.”
According to Hetts, Schwartz, and the Scotts, there are many preparations that expecting pet guardians can take to prepare their pets for the arrival of an infant.
• Start bringing out baby’s furniture, toys, etc. to familiarize the dog with them.
“Just the other night I was watching TV, and Natasha comes trotting into the family room with a stuffed rabbit in her mouth, which is from our baby toy stash,” Stephen says with a laugh.
To help distinguish baby’s toys from Fido’s, try putting a dab of mint mouthwash on a few of the baby’s items. Try it first with one of the dog’s old toys. Place it with the dog’s other items. When he gets to the minty one, tell him, “No!” He will eventually understand that what smells minty is off limits.
• Establish blanket boundaries.
Get a baby blanket or towel and put it on the couch or on the floor where the baby might be. When the dog puts a paw on the blanket, teach him “Off!”
• Acclimate your pet to the sound of a baby crying.
Play a video of a crying baby on YouTube to see your pet’s reaction and get him or her accustomed to it. “Ten minutes of crying is not going to be unusual, and you need to know how they’ll deal with it,” Libby says.
• Adjust your pet’s feeding schedule.
If your pet free feeds, you might consider switching to scheduled feedings so a crawling baby won’t always have access to the food dish.
• Practice the first meeting with a baby doll.
“If you’ve had several months to walk through this routine with a practice doll, everybody knows what their role is, and everyone is more confident,” Hetts says. “The dog knows what he’s supposed to do, so everything goes much smoother.”
• Start giving your pet less attention.
According to Hetts, dogs don’t experience jealousy like humans do. They may compete with the baby for attention, though. That’s why it’s important to start giving your pet a little less attention before the baby arrives. Don’t spend as much time with your pet on the couch or tossing the pet’s toys around. Give the pet attention on your own terms, not when she is asking for it. “If the dog is just sitting here, I can pet him and give him attention because he’s not asking for it,” Libby says. “They just need to know that they can’t butt in on you and the baby.”
Once the baby is around, keep your pet occupied with toys filled with food and other goodies. “If you give your dog something to do rather than pestering you when you’re having to pay attention to your baby, that works a lot better than scolding the dog and telling him to go away or you feeling guilty because you can’t pay attention to him,” Hetts says.
• Structure the first post-birth encounter around the pet.
It may be helpful to bring home some items with the baby’s scent ahead of time to help familiarize the pet with his new housemate. According to Hetts, the first meeting between the new mother and pet should be all about the pet.
Stephen says he will be carrying the baby in and recommends other dads and partners do the same. The dogs will want to greet Libby and understand what’s different about her without the baby getting in the way.
It may also help if someone can tire the dogs out before the parents get home so they are less energetic.
• Teach the dog first and baby second.
“Boris’ ability to learn is greater than a 6-month-old’s, so we have to teach the dogs first and then the kids after,” Libby says. The first three months are often the biggest growing and learning experience for dogs. “Once you reach that point when the dogs understand the baby and the baby understands the dogs and they kind of grow together, it’s not as big a deal,” Libby adds.
Hetts warns, however, that sometimes problems can develop once the toddler becomes mobile and can invade the pet’s space. She says cats are usually better at dealing with this because they can run and hide in a windowsill, but dogs can often feel trapped.
“One of the warning signs that we really tell people to watch out for is that when the baby begins to get mobile, if you notice your dog leaving the room every time your baby is on the floor, that’s a real red flag that the dog just isn’t comfortable with the child and he’s making a good choice to leave,” Hetts says. “That is what we really want people to start working on—helping their dog be comfortable with the baby—and also that’s when parental supervision needs to be at 1,000 percent.”
Although there are obviously a lot of precautionary measures new parents can take, it helps to have a well-trained dog, whether you are expecting a baby in the near future or not.
“A lot of these [tips] are just fundamental dog-training things, not even about getting ready for a baby, but just how to manage the relationship with the dog in a gentle manner,” Stephen says. “Other than being familiar with the new baby items and the new being in the house, the rest struck me as basic obedience.”
For more tips and to purchase Hetts’ DVD, visit HelpingFido.com.