Anyone who has seen a picture with a baby and a puppy knows that is way cuter than a baby and a cat or any other pet. There is something about the two that connects with our hearts and has a huge “aww” factor. But for real life dog and baby owners, there is a whole set of concerns and problems that have to be dealt with. The health of both is critical to the health of each other. Then there are the potential behavioral problems of the dog interacting with the baby. All of this requires a closer look. The items on this list are in no particular order because every baby-dog interaction will be different.
1. Learn to be patient with the introduction
This is probably the most important item on the list. As much as we would like our dogs to understand what we are saying, they don’t. The same goes for babies. You are dealing with two entirely different forms of communication – the look. Babies are trying to figure out what you mean. Dogs are interpreting what you mean by your body language. Putting those two forms of communication together in a room and letting them have at it is definitely an exercise in patience. There is no need to have high personal expectations on this one. Some things just take time, and they will let you know when they’re ready.
2. Realize there is a potential battle for attention that neither may be happy with
Men are more likely to understand this, being deprived attention from mom as she focuses in on the newest arrival to the family. (No, we’re not talking about the puppy.) The most important thing to remember here is that the baby and the dog need attention. This point will specifically be dealt with in the next point, but here the focus is on how the baby and dog will demonstrate their need for attention. Sometimes new dog owners with a baby feel they have to get rid of the dog because managing the attention needs of both seems impossible. It’s not. What you have to do is take mastery of the situation and let both know who is in charge (and control) of the situation. The sad baby face and sad doggy face can be heartbreaking, but they’ll get over it.
3. Find the right mix of attention between dog and baby
Yes, we are purposely not including the significant other here because they will have already learned through the presence of the baby that their attention time has been severely cut into. We know that baby is going to be very demanding of everyone’s time, so there is little left for Spot. This is an important consideration when choosing the dog from the start, as there are breeds that demand a lot of attention so will not be a good choice with a baby around. What you need to understand about dogs deprived of attention is they can become more aggressive – the last thing you want with a baby in the home. Toys for dogs are a great way to reduce the amount of attention time they demand because they will find ways to amuse themselves.
4. Deal with behaviors that try to get your attention
Anecdotal evidence confirms that baby, dog, and significant other may engage in the same attention getting behaviors. Though both dogs and babies will make noises to get attention such as barking and crying, not giving in to the natural instinct to stop the ruckus will go a long way in bridging the demand for attention with the time you have available. (Pause to consider what it would sound like to have a crying baby and a barking dog together in the same room.) While you will have to check to see if there is a problem, it is far more likely that the baby’s cries require attention than the dog’s. If you can get creative, find a way to get both dog and baby together when they are showing their attention getting behaviors at the same time. They may learn from one another and it is a great way to introduce them to each other.
5. Keep tabs on the dog at all times
This is on the list because losing track of the dog may mean you find him or her introducing themselves to the baby in an unauthorized and unapproved way. It is not suggesting that the dog will do any harm to the baby, but that without you monitoring the situation, anything goes. One natural dog behavior is to lick a human’s face but it is not something you want to happen, a point that is discussed in greater detail later. On the other side of the coin, if the baby does something natural for a baby out of curiosity and unintentionally harms the dog, bad things can happen. (Refer back to #2).
6. Learn to recognize the signs of the dog being stressed out
There is more than ample research that show dogs get stressed out. Owners may see them licking their noses or being overly active, communicating to you that their own stress levels are high. Dogs are keenly aware of their environment, so when there are increased stress levels among people there is a good chance it will affect them as well. Recognizing the signs of doggy stress will clue you in on when the best time is to begin the introduction process – and when to take some of that attention time and put it to good use to destress your furry friend. Babies can be sensitive to stress, so if you introduce a stressed puppy to a baby they may see the dog in a negative light.
7. Give the dog a safe space to retreat to
Just because you may not have your own retreat in the home doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t need it. It has watched humans interact, so knows how stressful just watching can be. It also realizes the baby is a smaller version of a human, but hasn’t yet learned to become a two legged ball of stress. Owners often see dogs retreat to a corner of the home when two people are arguing because they want no part of it. We just talked about stress, and giving you dog his safe space gives them room to feel safe. As a personal experience, we played a game with our 6 month old puppy where we put his blanket on the floor in the kitchen and chased him around the house. Whenever he would run to the blanket and lie down, we would yell “Safety!” It was amazing how quickly he picked up that was the place where he could go and be safe.
8. Give the baby a safe space by restricting the dog from certain areas of the home
Fair is fair. If the dog is going to get their space, the baby needs to assert its territorial rights as well. Once the baby starts crawling around they try to claim the entire house as their territory. The problem is many owners haven’t considered that the dog pretty much has the same view of the house. In this case, baby wins. Restricting the dog from certain places in the house will give the baby a sense of security. The shared spaces need to be monitored (see #5) even after the introductions have started.
9. Don’t give the dog too much face time with the baby
Take all the pictures you want with the baby and the dog, just don’t let the dog lick the baby’s face. There are several reasons for this, the most important that babies have a long way to go before their bodies are prepared to fight off germs and infections. Despite the urban legend that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s – it’s not. Beyond the fact that a dog is likely to put just about anything in its mouth, their tongue also serves as a way to scratch and clean themselves. As much as people think it is cute for a dog to lick a baby’s face, it is a recipe for disaster.
10. Schedule an appointment with the veterinarian
Of course every new dog owner will take their puppy to the vet and have them checked out, right? Not necessarily. People who buy dogs from breeders on Facebook or listed locally may trust that the original owner has taken care of the vet business. There is a chance they haven’t. For the safety of your baby and for yourself, make sure the dog has had a recent checkup by the veterinarian before even thinking about any introductions.
11. Before the initial introduction, wear out your pooch to a near maximum level
Choosing the right breed of dog for being around a baby is essential, but even with that taken care of you need to spend a good amount of time exercising the dog to a point of near exhaustion. This is another area where you need to know your dog well so you can definitively know where that point is. The reason is simple: the dog will be relatively passive (because they are so tired) and the baby can be curious without getting much of a response from the dog. Oh, and all that exercise should destress the dog.
12. Ensure two people are in the area when both baby and dog are active
Some people say you should always have two people around – one to watch the baby and the other to watch the dog. But there are times when one person can easily handle it on their own. One time is when the baby is sleeping and the dog is active. (The reverse is not true however as the dog is likely to be up and about when it hears the active baby.) And of course there is the state of nirvana, when both are peacefully sleeping. During the initial introductions having two people around is a better idea than one because should any problems arise, on can grab the baby and the other can grab the dog. Should that become necessary you can be guaranteed they will both be stressed out.
13. Avoid scolding or punishment if at all possible
This rule applies to everyone – dog, baby, and significant other. Sometimes things just pile up and you react instead of act. This is normal human behavior but you need to make an effort to put some boundaries around it. First, everyone begins to get stressed out and that means you will have violated at least half of the tips on this list. But just as important is that dogs learn more from your body language than what you say. Scolding or punishing them with the baby present (maybe even holding the baby while you are yapping at the dog) can connect in the dog’s brain and result in a negative association with the baby.
14. Eye to eye interaction is an important part of adjustment
A simple psychological response between humans is that when we look someone in the eye and they turn their eyes away from us, it is a sign of rejection or deception. When eye contact is maintained, a sense of trust is developed. A dog is not looking for trust as much as he is looking for acceptance. That is their nature and why they are always so eager to please. Perhaps more importantly baby and dog meet each other on a level playing field because they are literally seeing eye to eye.
15. Let the dog do what comes naturally and allow them to get a sniff
A dog’s sense of smell is 4 times greater than our own, and is one way they use to identify who it is that is around them. It is as natural as a baby’s smile for them to sniff the baby, and this is something you should do after the initial introductions have finished. Pick a foot, any foot (the baby’s) and let the dog sniff it – but only briefly. You don’t want him thinking you are offering him a doggie treat.
16. If you have a new dog, give them time to understand their environment
We just talked about the importance of smell to a dog, but they need to have a total sensory knowledge of their living environment. That includes smells, sounds, and people’s behaviors. A baby is one more unknown to a new dog in a new environment so they, like everyone else, will take some time to get used to. A new dog will almost always be the new center of attention for the first few days, so that helps in the dog acclimated to the people and the environment. After about a week you can begin planning on introducing the baby to the dog.
17. Find ways to get the baby and dog to see interactions before their initial introduction
This can be seen as Part B or Step 2 of #16. The dog will learn far more quickly about its environment and how to adjust to it than the baby. (The reason for this is the baby knows it has a life expectancy 8 – 10 times longer than the dog, so what’s the rush?) This part of the introduction process should show both the baby and the dog how everyone interacts with one another in a positive way. Everyone who lives in the home needs to make an effort to limit conflicts and confrontations in front of the new dog and baby for at least a month in order not to present conflicting behaviors to either.
18. Realize dogs are acutely sensitive to human anxiety levels
A lot has been said about stress and its effects on the initial introduction between dog and baby. One of the biggest reasons is that an anxious dog can become a dog that starts exhibiting erratic behavior, and some of that behavior is likely to be aggressive. Dogs often take their cues from the people around them, which include a baby who may be anxious. Evidence of anxiety includes the dog licking its nose and having its ears pulled back. When you see the signs of anxiety, immediately put the dog in their safe spot and give them time to relax.
19. Make sure everyone understands whose toys are whose
This includes everyone. Regardless of age, children tend to not only want to test the boundaries but also act pout of ignorance. They may think that it is not a problem to mix and match dog toys and baby toys, especially if the dog is fascinated with the colorful baby toys. The issue of germs and face time was mentioned earlier, and babies, like digs, tend to put things in their mouth (albeit for very different reasons). Keeping the dog’s toys near their safe space is a way to make clear to everyone that toys are not to be intermixed.
20. Separate feeding areas
This last point brings to mind a strange reality. Babies and dogs tend to like to put things in their mouths. We all know that dogs like to hang around the dinner table looking for scraps or the vegetables that “accidentally” end up on the floor. But when it comes to a dog’s feeding bowl you are likely to find them very possessive of its contents. Dogs have been known to take food away from a baby sitting in a high chair (unlike humans who only approve of taking candy from them). The best way to avoid this problem is not to feed the dog anything but dog food, but this is easier said than done in many homes. At the very least, keep the dog away from the baby until the baby is finished eating.
Many of the items on the list are actually simple to do. Some are no-nos, while others require you to be attentive rather than involved in a hands-on kind of way. There are some key points that cannot be overlooked, one of the most critical is keeping stress levels low so baby and dog can adjust to one another at their own pace.
Unlike many lists that write on this topic, I cannot find one item here that does not apply to every baby-dog owner. Maybe it is because this list is a primer for how owners should handle their dogs from the first day they arrive at their new home. Owners train their dogs instead of the dogs training their owners. Ensuring that both the physical and mental health are important parts of a dog’s life. And the most important part of it all – learning to be patient with both baby and dog as they grow up as part of the family.