Dogs are a wonderful addition to any household and growing up with a dog provides a child with valuable learning experiences about respect and care of another being. Most of all, growing up with a dog can be fun and comforting since the dog is always willing and available to play or cuddle whenever the child is bored or in need for affection. That’s the ideal picture, the one that media and cultural beliefs promotes in the mind of millions of us as we dream of building our own family. A spouse, a couple of children and of course, a family dog, represent for many of us the perfect family picture.
In the past we got married in our early 20’s and had babies soon after, the dog generally joined the family after the children were born. With more social pressure for higher education and both parents working, more people today chose to form a family later in life and the dog is often the first one in the home. This seemingly innocent change in the order of which we add new family members can sometimes have a dramatic impact on the outcome. When a puppy grows up in a household where toddlers are running around, screaming and pulling his ears, those behaviors become routine and are generally well tolerated. On the other hand, dogs that have grown up in an adult environment, with limited exposure to babies or very young children, may have a difficult time adjusting to such behaviors. A screaming child, or a toddler hugging or climbing on the dog can be scary for a dog that has not be previously exposed to such stresses. A dog may also have extreme reactions to babies even though, unlike toddlers, they don’t intrude into the dog’s space or ignore his needs for a break. In any case, for a dog that has not grown up around babies and toddlers, their sudden addition to the household can be very unsettling.
I’ve been one of those parents. 18 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, I owned a beautiful Siberian husky. This dog was exposed to all sorts of people and loved being around children even very young. He would enjoy playing with them and didn’t seem indisposed by their affectionate, but intrusive displays of affection. I was confident that he would do great with my own children. A few months before my son was born, a friend of mine came to visit me with her newborn baby. To my surprise, as soon as she walked through the door, my dog started jumping on her and pulling on the baby’s clothes. He was showing intensity in his level of interest in the baby that I had never seen before. Or had I? That intensity in his focus was that same as the one he typically had in presence of a small animal! In the few years of living with this dog, I had witnessed him kill a hamster and three birds.
Determined to test my dog before my baby was born, I borrowed dirty baby clothes from my friend and put them on a doll. I tested how my dog would react to me carrying the doll around or laying the doll in the baby’s stroller or crib. This was one of the few life changing moments in my life. Watching my dog tear into the stroller, frantically pulling out all covers to get to the baby as soon as I faked walking out of the room, brought me to a chilling reality. For my dog, babies fell in the same category as small prey. His behavior wasn’t generated by anger, spite, jealousy or any other emotion that I often hear attributed to dogs. My dog wasn’t ‘mean’, he was simply driven by his natural hunting predispositions, in other words, this was an expression of the activation of the dog’s predatory aggression. Predatory aggression is what Panksepp (2012) defines as one of the manifestation of the seeking urge. As a future parent, I had no other choice but to give him away before my baby was born. I was fortunate enough that a friend of mine who really loved that dog offered to adopt him as hers.
Fortunately, most dogs won’t display predatory behaviors around babies. The majority of problems between dogs and young humans occur because the dog has not been sufficiently exposed to them. Just like humans, dogs feel safer when situations or events are predictable and familiar. Babies and toddlers smell different, act different and sound different. Adults around very young children also act differently than typical. Unless a dog has been desensitized and regularly positively exposed to very young children, they can be uncomfortable around them. A stressed or scared dog will look for ways to feel safe again. Many will simply move away, but if that’s not enough, growling, snapping or biting can sometimes become the only options that the dog has.
Stories like mine are rare and fortunately no one was hurt, but accidents can happen. My goal is certainly not to scare future parents into surrendering their beloved dog, but mostly to raise awareness about their need for certain precautionary measures. While most dogs don’t have such reactions to infants, for everybody’s safety and welfare, it’s important to take the dog’s perspective into consideration when thinking of introducing a new family member, especially when that family member is vulnerable.
Here are a couple of ways to test the dog prior to the baby’s arrival:
- Just like I described above, use a doll dressed in used and unwashed baby clothes and act around it just like it’s a real baby. Watch the dog’s reactions. Most dogs will naturally want to jump up and investigate the baby. That’s a natural behavior and certainly not an indicator of the dog’s intentions. It’s the intensity of the reaction, the fact that the dog is difficult to redirect or doesn’t seem to calm down after a few minute should raise a red flag.
- Place the doll in the dog’s reach and watch what happens. You may also play recordings of baby cries right next to the baby to see if they trigger any particular reaction from the dog.
Even if the dog doesn’t seem to display any predatory behavior he can still be unsettled by the dramatic changes in your behavior and emotions, the ongoing focus on the baby and the differences in the overall activities in the house.
There a number of ways to help him prepare for the change in the household with a new baby including the following:
1/ Decrease how much attention is given to the dog so that this inevitable change doesn’t happen at the same time as the baby moving in.
2/ Take naps or try as much as possible to anticipate what differences in your lifestyle you’ll have and replicate them as much as possible.
3/ Look for ways to provide your dog with his need for playtime, mental stimulation and general activity. You might enroll him in a local daycare, find a walker or a neighbor with dogs to play with. Look for interactive toys that will keep him busy and satisfied.
4/ Train your dog for basic cues like ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘bed’ so you can easily reward him for appropriate behaviors instead of getting upset at him for jumping up or generally being disruptive.
5/ Teach your dog that being manipulated in all sorts of ways is a positive experience. By giving him treats while gently pulling on his ears, his paws, his tail, etc… you can help him gradually get more comfortable with being manipulated. This does not mean however, that young children should be unsupervised. Children should be monitored at all times when with the dog. Just because a dog tolerates being physically manhandled doesn’t give us the right to do so.
6/ Take your dog around young children and make it a great experience. You can go to the local park and as long as the dog is calm or curious but not afraid, give him lots of attention and treats in the presence of the children. If at any time you’re dog shows anxiety around young kids, you’ll need to seek the help of a professional trainer.
The benefits of raising children and dogs together are tremendous and worth the little extra effort to keep everybody safe. Overall, whether we have children, want children or don’t think we’ll be around babies and toddlers anytime soon, it’s always important to expose the dog to them. Life is full of changes, and over the many years we have with our dog, we cannot predict when he’ll come across a baby or toddler. Socializing young puppies by providing lots of positive experiences around very young kids is critical, but equally important is exposing them throughout their lifetime. With a little effort and creativity, there are many ways to help our dog create a positive association with infants.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.