Introducing your baby to the family pet

Follow these steps to ensure your dog and baby establish a loving and respectful bond. By Lisa Witepski

Try to imagine for a moment what it may be like for your dog to adjust to a new and demanding addition to the family. He will go from being the apple of your eye, cuddling with you while you watch TV, going for plenty of walks and having the ball thrown for him during any free moment, to receiving a lot less attention. Dog behaviourist Mari Borain, owner of GoodPet, explains that when a family expands, the key challenges from a pet’s perspective include changes in routine, new smells and sounds, and less time spent with their owners.

Tracy McQuarrie, founder of Dogtown Rescue Centre, agrees. “This is why it’s critical to make the family pet a part of the big event before the baby’s birth,” she explains. In fact, dogs are highly sensitive and may be able to ‘detect’ your pregnancy before you’re aware of it – so keep an eye out for behaviour that’s not typical (sulking in a corner, perhaps, or acting more excitedly than usual), and ladle on extra attention.

Treat your pup

From the moment you find out you’re pregnant, you should become something of a treat dispenser for your pet – especially when you find yourself in situations related to the baby. Do this, and you’ll build a positive association with the new addition from the start. “Take setting up the nursery, for example,” Tracy says. “This is a perfect opportunity to get your dog involved. This room is about to become home to products that bring plenty of new smells into the house, so by allowing your dog into the nursery early on, you’ll remove some of the strangeness. What’s more, if you give your dog a treat every time he walks into the nursery, you’ll start encouraging that positive association.” This is different to the approach adopted by many parents, who actively try to keep the family pet out, which actually makes it even more intriguing for him.

Plan ahead

One of the strongest emotions your dog will experience when you walk into the home carrying that little bundle is curiosity. It’s this, rather than aggression, that prompts him to leap up, sniff, and try to get in a lick, says Nicolene Jacobs, a dog behaviourist and trainer at Dirty Paws. One practical tip in this regard is to get Dad to carry the baby in, but it will also help to dispel some of the curiosity early on. Do this by sprinkling a blanket with baby powder, shampoo and other products.
The pram is also likely to be an object of wonder for your dog. Help him become more familiar with it by buying it ahead of time, then taking it on your daily walks. Remember that he may, initially, feel a little scared of it, but give him a few treats every time he interacts with it, and he will come to view it as something that brings happiness.

Be inclusive

If you’ve done the prep beforehand, the actual day of your baby’s arrival will be less fraught. “It will also help if you try to keep as calm as possible,” Nicolene says. “Remember that dogs pick up on your stress, so if you’re especially fretful, your dog will be tetchy.” She points out that since your dog is highly unlikely to allow this new item to come into his house without investigating it, you’ll fare better by letting him have a sniff rather than trying to wrap the baby in cotton wool. “The worst thing you can do is isolate the pet – that’s when he’ll start acting out.”
Once your baby’s settled in, it’s inevitable that your dog will miss all the time you used to spend together. Tracy’s solution is to double up when you can. At feeding time, go into the garden where the dog can sit with you while you feed, or allow him to accompany you when you change a nappy (and don’t forget to give him a treat at the same time). This will make him feel included, so there’s no need for jealousy.

Ready for a pet?

So your family is well established, and you’ve decided it’s time for the kids to have their own pet. Melanie Smith of Psych Assess offers this advice:

  • Your children need to be prepared for what’s in store.
  • Explain the good and bad of getting a pet, describe how the new pet might behave and how it might feel.
    Settle on how you’ll divide the responsibilities for caring for the pet between you.
  • Exposure to pets is also important, so look through books, watch movies, or visit a pet shelter.
    If your kids are still young, an older dog will be less hassle than a puppy. A puppy is more adaptable, but a shelter can help match a dog with your family and guide you through the adoption process.
  • Get your child to attend training classes with the new dog, so she can get an idea of how dogs behave and how to treat them.
  • Put ground rules in place before the dog can move in.

ALSO SEE: The best dogs for kids

No dog should ever be left alone with a child. It’s also important to remind children not to wake sleeping dogs, never to pull the dog’s tail or try to ride the dog. They should also not put their faces too close to the dog’s face.

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