The first “child” for many couples is a dog or cat. So what do you do when you’re getting ready to welcome your first human child to the family?
We talked to several dog trainers and pet experts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and all agreed it’s important to prepare your pet for this big life change well in advance. Having a baby will affect everyone in the house, human and animal alike!
By taking gradual preparatory steps, you can make this a less stressful time for your pet – and it will ultimately make the transition easier for you and safer for your baby.
Many thanks to Wendy Dek, owner of Canine Advanced Training Services; Kellie Snider, Animal Behavior Programs Manager at the SPCA of Texas; Scott Sheaffer, owner of USA Dog Behavior LLC; Mark Minnerly, owner of The Dallas Dog Trainer; and Erin Tate, D.V.M., Medical Committee Chair at City Vet, for their help!
Vaccines and health concerns
Dr. Tate at City Vet talked to us about any health risks pregnant women should worry about around their pets.
She emphasized the importance of making sure all your pets are up to date on their vaccinations and medications to guard against heartworms, fleas, and intestinal parasites before the baby is born. Some parasites can be transmitted to babies, children, and even adults.
If you have a cat, avoid cleaning the litter box while you’re pregnant. Cats can carry a protozoal parasite called a toxoplasma in their feces, and it can be transmitted from mothers to unborn babies.
If your dog never went through obedience training, or did but still has trouble following simple commands, now is the time to fix that. Bad habits that don’t bother you much now could become frustrating and even dangerous with a baby in the picture.
All the pet experts we heard from agreed dogs need to be able to sit, stay, and go to their crate (or bed, or mat) on command. Obedience training can also help overcome other habits like jumping and excessive barking.
Ms. Dek of Canine Advanced Training Services implores parents to start this training as early into pregnancy as possible. “Don’t wait until you’re eight months along and think that your dog will be fluent with these exercises with just a few weeks of practice,” she warns.
Cats can – and should – be trained as well, says the SPCA’s Ms. Snider. To make sure cat and baby always interact safely, teach your cat basic commands such as going to its mat or bed on cue.
Decide in advance whether you’ll allow your dog into the nursery, and start practicing how you want it to interact with the room. Even if you decide to let your dog into the baby’s room, create a way you can control its access. Baby and dog should never, ever be together unsupervised.
You can control your dog’s access to the nursery by training it to come in only when you invite it (for highly obedient dogs) or by using baby gates that will keep it out except when you want it in the room with you.
You can teach your dog to respect these boundaries using a reward system. “Always make it a positive thing for your dog to be away from you in these situations,” Ms. Dek advises. “Walk back to the doorway occasionally and give the dog a treat.”
Teach your dog to entertain itself
Right now, your dog may be used to having your undivided attention when you’re home. This will obviously change when there is a crying baby in the next room.
If your dog can sit quietly and entertain itself for long periods of time, you will be able to change diapers, nurse, and attend to the baby without worrying about your dog getting in the way or feeling neglected.
Introduce the idea of self-entertainment slowly and, again, use a reward system to reinforce that this is a good thing, not a punishment.
“This can mean chewing a stuffed Kong or rawhide in their crates or on a mat, or being tethered so that they can’t reach the baby,” Ms. Snider explains. “They should also understand that when they cooperate with parents good things happen, like getting treats or getting a chew toy they don’t get any other time but when mom is nursing.”
Adopt a new schedule
Newborns are notorious for having no schedule – and for completely throwing off yours. There are a few different ways you might approach this problem, depending on what would work best for you and your family.
Mr. Sheaffer of USA Dog Behavior recommends adopting a new schedule during pregnancy “to desensitize the dog to it.” He suggests getting up and going to bed at different times and having more random meal times.
Ms. Dek echoes this idea, saying it’s important to “get into a routine that you think you’ll be able to stick with when the baby arrives.” If you think you’ll start walking your dog at a certain time every day, for example, start that now and bring along the stroller.
Of course, it may be impossible to predict exactly how your schedule will change with a newborn. Instead of adopting a new schedule, Ms. Snider again emphasizes teaching your dog to entertain itself because that skill will help it cope with the potential disruptions to its routine.
Odd as it may sound, it might help for both parents to practice carrying a bundle around as if it were a baby so your dog can get used to this odd new sight. Some trainers recommend getting an actual doll to carry in a blanket, although Ms. Snider suggests a pillowcase filled with tennis balls as a substitute.
Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, and some trainers, like Ms. Dek, also recommend starting to use baby lotions and powders to get your dog used to some of the new smells that will come with the baby.
Others, like Ms. Snider, are skeptical that this will actually make a big difference. It won’t hurt, certainly, she says, but the most significant new smell in the house will come from the baby itself, and there’s no way to prepare for that in advance.
For noise-phobic dogs, Mr. Sheaffer recommends playing recorded baby cries and rewarding your dog with treats to desensitize it to the sound. Ms. Dek also advocates this, saying you should start soft and then gradually increase the volume to help your dog remain calm around these noises.
Every baby’s cry is different, however. While playing the recordings might help your dog adjust to the volume or types of loud noises, Ms. Snider warns it might not prepare your dog for your baby’s cry.
Bringing your baby home
Some people recommend bringing home one of the baby’s blankets a day or two before the baby to get your dog used to the smell. Although you can definitely try this, Ms. Snider notes it may not be all that helpful because a baby’s smell changes a lot over time.
When you first come home from the hospital, let someone else take the baby while you go inside and see your dog again for the first time. Let your dog express its excitement to see you and give it attention and time to calm down.
Once your dog is calm, have it sit next to you and put the baby on your other side. Mom should be between dog and baby at all times. Reward your dog for being calm and sweet, using what Ms. Dek calls “high-value rewards,” such as cheese, chicken, or a hotdog. Use these particular rewards only when the baby is around to encourage positive associations.
Be careful during this introduction – Ms. Snider warns that snaps can happen fast even with the most trusted pets. Don’t force your pet to interact with the baby, and let it move away if it wants to. If your dog feels uncomfortable or trapped, it might lash out.
Going forward, let your pet be a part of the new routine and make sure it still feels special. Be sure to spend time with your pet every day, even if just for five or 10 minutes of one-on-one time.
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