Introducing a new two-legged baby to your much-loved four-legged friend can be a real challenge. By Katie Cincotta.
What are the chances that the animal behaviourist you’ve asked to offer insights about preparing for the arrival of a baby has just had her second little one?
Quite good, it seems. Melbourne’s Dr Kate Mornement, an animal behaviourist who runs Pets Behaving Badly, recently welcomed a second baby boy into the family, and was keen to impart her professional and personal opinion on making the leap into parenthood with pets.
Dr Kate says the best way to ensure a safe and smooth transition to having a tiny human around your beloved dog is preparation. “When we had our first baby in May last year and our second just last month, it gave me some additional insight into the reality of the process and really reinforced that early preparation is the key to a successful transition,” says the pet psychologist.
“Having well-trained and socialised dogs to begin with certainly helped, but we’d also done the groundwork, in the months prior to the birth of our first, to ensure our dogs coped with a little human in the house.”
While science is yet to explore whether dogs recognise that a woman is pregnant, Dr Kate says it’s highly likely that dogs can detect hormonal changes via their incredible powers of scent, which have been acute enough to pinpoint cancer in humans.
In my own experience, our Cavalier King Charles used to love laying her head on my growing belly, and I often wondered whether she could sense, or hear, the growing life inside me.
Of course, once all that new furniture arrives — cot, changing table, bouncer, wardrobe etc — and the parents are desperately trying to assemble them without killing each other, that’s certainly when the jig is up. Letting your dog explore all that baby paraphernalia well before the baby arrives starts to warm curious doggy minds up to the impending changes.
“Dogs will notice changes to their environment, such as the introduction of nursery furniture and other baby items. It’s important that owners begin to create a positive association, using positive-reinforcement training. Use your dogs’ favourite treats, as well as praise, to reward calm and compliant behaviour in the nursery,” Dr Kate says.
Setting up some parts of the house as no-go zones before the baby arrives can also help your dog adjust to boundaries, especially if they’re used to having the run of the house. “We installed baby gates to section off certain areas of the home,” says Dr Kate.
Another important change for your dog will be adjusting to the sounds of a newborn, which could be a shock to the system at first. “We played sounds of babies crying and cooing, pairing them with treats to allow our dogs to get used to the sounds and not be fearful or anxious,” explains Dr Kate.
Home from the hospital
Once baby is born, have your partner or a family member bring a blanket with the baby’s scent home as the first gentle step towards introductions. “Let your dog sniff the blanket and pair the smell with praise and high-value treats,” suggests Dr Kate.
For the actual first meeting between fur kid and human kid, it’s best to wait until your dog is calm and relaxed and your baby has been fed and is sleeping. “Hold your baby close to you while sitting on the couch and have your partner bring your dog into the room on-lead. Again, use praise and treats to reward your dog for calm behaviour and to create a positive association with your baby.”
Don’t make the mistake of overdoing the interaction. Begin with very short introductions of a couple of minutes and separate your dog from your baby in between sessions. As your dog becomes more comfortable, you can increase the length of the training sessions and the amount of time your dog spends near your baby.
While baby gates and play pens can allow your dog and baby to spend time together in the same room, it’s important to remember that infants and canines should never be left alone together and must always be supervised.
Change isn’t easy for parents or dogs when a newborn suddenly has everyone’s attention and is making demands day and night for feeding, cleaning and comfort. “Bringing home a baby undoubtedly changes the social dynamic and normal routine of a household. However, teaching your dog to associate your baby with positive experiences, by pairing baby with your dog’s favourite things (eg praise, attention, treats, games), should significantly reduce the chances of problems arising,” explains the animal behaviourist.
Coping … or not
Unfortunately, if some dogs have been used to getting a lot of attention, there is a chance they won’t react well to a new focus in the house, especially such a vocal and demanding one taking up so much time and energy.
Signs to look out for which may indicate your dog might not be coping with the new arrival include separation anxiety, destructive behaviour, excessive vocalisation, clinginess, going off food and house soiling.
Fear and anxiety is another common behaviour seen in dogs not coping with a new baby in the house. “Look for avoidance of the baby, panting, pacing, whining and low body posture when the baby is nearby,” says Dr Kate.
Missing out on walks and playtime can also have an impact on the family dog, with parents struggling to deal with the effects of night feeds and sleep deprivation. But it’s important for both new parents and their dogs to keep exercising, which is good for the body and the brain.
“Exercise is important for stress relief and mental health in humans and dogs. If you’re too busy to exercise your dog, consider having a neighbour, family member or dog walker walk them.”
Doggie daycare and food-dispensing toys are other options to ensure physical and social enrichment continues for your dog after the arrival of a baby.
Food is where instinct can take over, so it’s important to ensure your dog isn’t allowed to steal food or fight over food around your child.
While you’re eating, it’s good to get your dog into the habit of sitting on a mat or a pet bed, not right under your nose waiting for crumbs to drop. You don’t want your dog harassing the baby for scraps once they’re feeding in a high chair or, worse still, trying to steal their meal.
Sadly, Dr Kate experienced the circle of life before the birth of her second child. Her beloved Boxer, Archie, was diagnosed with cancer and passed away, leaving her with her Labrador, Joseph, and two little ones under two. She says her and her family look forward to adding another canine companion to their pack when the boys are a little older.
Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory