Preparing for Baby: Putting Your Dogs First
Written by: KORI MACKALL
Wife, Mommy of one Human Baby, two Fur-Babies, and MPBF Volunteer
“What?! Dogs before baby?! Are you crazy?!”
Hold your gasps, it is not as extreme as it sounds, let me explain.
Not long after finding out we were pregnant, my husband and I instantly began to think about how it would affect our dogs. Our dogs, a 9- year-old Catahoula mix and a 4-year old rescued pit bull, were our first children. We volunteer in rescue so perhaps we are more exposed to the needs of our pets than the average person, but finding a plan to make sure we had a successful transition bringing a baby into our home with our dogs became priority. Before we bought anything for the nursery, before we considered strollers and car seats, we considered our dogs. We had already been working with a professional dog trainer for a few months that had helped us work through some territory issues our dogs grew to have when we moved into our new house. This may be a slight exaggeration but I believe we told our trainer about expecting a little one before we told some of our friends. The point of all of this background information is to stress the importance of seeking a professional trainer when you are up against a major change/transition. I've grown up with dogs my whole life and I didn't work with a professional trainer until the last three years. My previous dogs were well behaved, knew basic obedience, and even a few fancy tricks, but nothing major had ever occurred for us to seek the assistance of a professional. I considered myself a savvy dog owner but through our volunteering in dog rescue I really came to understand the importance of not only dog training, but also understanding dog behavior. This has led to my number one recommendation of finding a professional trainer for anyone getting ready to welcome a baby into their home.
With that said, I want to share some of the specific preparations we took with the help of our trainer. As a detail I will note that we committed to weekly training sessions for almost the entire nine months leading up to our little ones arrival. Our last training session was the week before I delivered- and I had been on bedrest for five weeks, but we kept each training session. Dedication and commitment is key.
1) Focus on Basics
Our dogs knew sit, sometimes they knew lay down, and we had worked on leave it. But we really focused on basic commands becoming consistent and every time (not just when bribed with treats). We started with positive reinforcements (hot dogs in their case). We worked on sit, down, leave it, come, off, and a few others. These are of course basic commands, but consistency is what we focused on. When you have a newborn in your arms and your dog is sniffing or getting into something you can exactly grab a treat and bribe them to "leave it" like you once could. If you're sitting with the baby on the couch and the dog comes to jump on the couch, they need to know "off" means right now, right when you say it. In fact this leads me to my next point...
We had to break some bad habits and come up with clear boundaries for our dogs. I can admit fault in saying our dogs were insanely spoiled. They could lay wherever, sleep wherever and as long as they weren't destroying anything play wherever for many, many years. After moving into our new house our dogs had developed some territory issues. This is also incredibly common with bringing a baby into the home. To a degree, everyone wants their dog to protect them, but territory issues are tricky and they need to be thought of before it becomes an issue because they can become difficult to break (trust me, speaking from experience). Boundaries we made included no longer being allowed on the couch and sleeping in their crates. Sleeping in crates was tougher on me than them; I always snuggled with my fur babies! But when you think ahead to baby being in a bassinet near your bed, or those who choose to co-sleep, those first few weeks after delivery are tough and you need direct access to your baby without worrying about your dogs curiously checking everything out, or putting their paws on baby in bed/bassinet, or worse becoming territorial over your bed. Our trainer suggested that our dogs always be lower than the baby and this always stuck with me. If you think about it, you are larger than your dog (unless you're blessed with some sort of mastiff or giant malamute), you are always higher than your dog, which if taught correctly, helps give you an alpha or authoritative role over your dog. So, the plan to always keep the baby higher than the dog made a lot of sense. If the baby is on the couch, the dogs are on the floor. If the baby is playing on the floor, the dogs are elsewhere. That may sound extreme to some, but I'm serious. There is no need for any dog to be on the floor next to a newborn. Even with you right there, should the dog become spooked in any way your chances of preventing an injury are most likely slim. These boundaries were HUGE changes for our dogs. We worked on them immediately and for over eight months. But by the time the baby arrived, the couch was no longer their place and the dogs did not relate this change to the baby. The dogs had adjusted sleeping in their crates with no issues, and actually I think they came to prefer this with the hustle and bustle of midnight feedings of babies (they prefer to not be disturbed during their beauty rest). I will tell you as much as I hated my dogs not sleeping with us, this was something I became so thankful for. I had an emergency C-section and had no idea the amount of pain and the difficulty that would follow the first week or two getting up to feed our baby. Just sitting up was a great struggle, I can’t imagine having to scoot our forty-plus bound fur-babies over. Knowing they were comfy in their crates was a great relief to me in that time.
3) Introduce Baby Items and Baby Smells.
As the registry and shower gifts began to roll in, we introduced large items like the stroller, car seat, and bassinet to the dogs. We allowed them to sniff them, and watch the objects move. Our pit bull is scared of her shadow as a result of being neglected and mistreated as a pup so the idea of a rolling stroller and a vibrating bassinet was terrifying for her. We did not let them put their paws on the objects or jump up on them. We wanted them to get used to these new objects being around, but we wanted them to understand that they were not theirs. The smells- there's not a whole lot you can do here until the baby arrives. But a suggestion our trainer gave us was to bring home hospital blankets before bringing the baby home. My husband did this for us since I was laid up post C-section and with new baby. He brought home the blanket our son was first wrapped in, the baby hat the hospital put on him and one of the receiving blankets we had used. He introduced the items to each dog, one at a time (again...important). He let the dogs sniff the items and get used to the smell. The night before we came home he laid these items on top of their crates so they could have the smells around them all night and most of the following day. This gave our dogs at least a few days to have the “baby smells” around them before we came home and while that is not a lot of time, at least they weren’t brand new smells.
4) Slow and Steady Intros.
The day we came home from the hospital we had requested from all of our family that we get at least two hours alone after coming home so that the dogs were not overwhelmed by a ton of family PLUS a new baby. Our family was very respectful of this. We came home just the three of us (family that was staying with us went shopping for a few hours). We kept our “come home” routine exactly the same, which was suggested by our trainer. For us this meant coming in the house, putting our stuff down and then letting the dogs go outside. One small change we decided to make was to let them down one at a time. I stood down stairs holding our baby boy and my husband let them down. The goal was for them to have little to no interest, and that is exactly what happened. One at a time, they both ran downstairs and immediately to the back door to go outside to potty. Once they did that we let them inside one at a time. Nothing dramatic, but dogs are dogs. They have instincts to protect themselves when they get scared and no matter how well you know your dog or think “they won’t do that” you have to remember that they still have instincts that you won’t ever train away. To me, and this is my opinion, being over protective is better than being under protective and having the chance of a bite. Period.
5) Still Love Your Dogs.
This should go without saying, but I heard time and time again from people “one baby arrives you won’t have time for your dogs and you’ll always choose baby over dog”. While there is some truth to those statements, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Baby doesn’t automatically mean the dogs are on the back burner. Let me be clear, IT IS DIFFICULT to manage both. It is difficult to manage the demands of a new baby while also trying to keep your dogs’ lives normal. It is difficult to always be “on” in terms of knowing where the dogs are, what they need, are they too close, are they too unsupervised, etc. It is difficult to want to just let your dogs love all over your new baby and hold back because you need to keep consistency on boundaries. It is difficult to wonder if you have the energy and commitment to do it all. You will fly by the seat of your pants at times, you will make mistakes, and you will question what you are doing. But commitment is key, and once you commit and find your rhythm, you will find a routine that works for your family. Know that a new baby is a life changing adjustment not just for you but also for your pets. As your little one grows the rules will change with your pets, adjustments will need to be made, you’ll find things more difficult and then you’ll find them simpler. It takes commitment to make it work, but if you commit, you will find success and you will maintain a healthy and happy balance in your home as you add a beautiful bundle of joy!