A new baby and the family pet

In our modern world most people see their pets as members of the family. More and more pets are kept indoors and many take in most aspects of the entire family life and activities. In fact, it is quite common for a young couple to jointly own a pet prior to starting a family. In those cases the pet is sort of filling the baby place in the family dynamics. The situation changes though when a real baby comes into the picture. There is nothing more exciting than welcoming a new baby into the family. Becoming parents is challenging and a life changing experience. It takes lots of preparation by all the family members including the family pets to make the transition as smooth as possible.

I recommend to all dog owners to consult with a behaviour specialist or trainer prior to introducing the new baby to the dog. It is essential to make sure that the dog is well trained and obedient. Getting to know your dog, being able to foresee its reactions, recognizing “what pushes its buttons”, and above all being able to control your dog is essential in order to form a safe relationship between your children and the dog.

Let's face it, as much as you love your dog right now, when the new baby arrives, your dog's status in the family will change. Many people treat their dogs as if they were their babies. When the real baby enters the family, many of the dog privileges might be taken away. New rules come into effect along with new boundaries and restrictions. I can’t stress enough how important it is to apply all the new rules as early as possible before the baby’s arrival. It is very important that the dog will not associate the baby with negative consequences. All changes have to be done very gradually. Start by slowly reducing the amount of attention you give your dog. If there are specific places you know the dog will not be allowed (the parents bedroom or on the furniture for example), apply the new rule right away.

Expose your dog to babies and toddlers in a well controlled fashion (on a leash and with a muzzle on ,if required). Babies and toddlers walk, smell and sound differently from adults, and it might take some training for the dog to understand that they are not a threat. Remember to praise the dog by petting it, and you can consider giving it a special treat every time it behaves properly around babies. The idea is to associate the baby with positive connotation.

After the baby is born, and before you bring it home, take a blanket or a piece of the baby’s clothing and introduce it to the dog. Do not let the dog play with that object, make it clear that this not a toy. Make your dog sit, let your dog sniff the object and praise the dog with a treat. Again, the idea is to associate the baby with good behaviour and a positive consequence.

When you bring the baby home, let a friend or another family member hold the baby. Make sure that the person who the dog is most attached to attends to the dog. Give the dog lots of attention - the dog probably missed you a lot when you were away in the hospital. After appropriately greeting the dog, introduce the baby to the dog. Have the dog on a leash for better physical control, and slowly let it sniff the baby. If the dog misbehaves, calmly take it aside and try again later. Remember to praise the dog and give it a treat every time it behaves well.

It is very very important not to exclude your dog. Your dog is one of the family members. Excluding the dog once the new baby arrives will not only harm your dog but also may lead to the dog’s negative association with baby, resulting in a vindictive revengeful behaviour often towards the baby itself.

I have witness cases in which the dog did not have any difficulty adjusting to the newborn, but once the baby became more independent, started to crawl around and get into the “dog’s territory” (in the dog’s eyes) the problems started. Do not feel too comfortable with your dog if initially he or she did not show signs of jealousy. It is important to closely monitor the dog’s behavior even after few months of the baby’s arrival. Teaching the child appropriate behaviour and gentle handling of the dog is also very important for the dog’s well being.

Never leave your baby alone with the dog, regardless of how much you trust your dog.  Dogs can be very unpredictable.
If your dog starts to show signs of new bad behaviours such as urinating in the house, distracting things in the house, becoming aggressive etc, it is probably signals of anxiety and a call for help. Involve a behaviour specialist immediately.
I’m stressing again that introducing a new baby into an existing family that includes pets is a step that requires preparation and special attention. These tips given here are very general and probably not sufficient enough in some cases. Consult your vet and ask for directions or a recommendation for a behaviour specialist that will guide you through the process, taking into consideration the specific personalities and dynamics of your family and pets.   


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About the Author

Dr. Moshe Oz owns Rose Valley Veterinary Hospital, a small animal veterinary practice in West Kelowna.

Dr. Oz has deep love and affection for animals. It was his childhood dream to become a veterinarian, a dream that he has fulfilled when he graduated with honours from KUVM,on 2006. Dr. Oz's special interest is internal medicine and surgery.

In his free time Dr. Oz enjoys training and racing triathlons, including the legendary Penticton's Ironman.

Dr. Oz can be contacted through his website: www.KelownaVet.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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