ATLANTA — In the past 30 or so years, dog ownership has sky rocketed while, unrelatedly, young couples are increasingly choosing to delay parenthood into their late 20s and 30s. Where these trends intersect, a dog may even be something of a surrogate child.
With couples pouring their parental love and affection into their pets, too little thought is usually given to how the dog will take to the sudden arrival of a real child.
The truth is that dogs, like people, can and do get jealous and insecure. Like us, they are prone to feel unloved or neglected when they’re no longer the center of attention. So imagine how a dog who has commanded an owner’s attention feels when that attention suddenly shifts — almost around the clock — to a new baby.
Sadly, many people fail to consider how to prepare Fido for this turn of events. As a professional dog trainer, I’ve had many clients who dismissed my warnings about potential problems, only to deeply regret it later.
Dog ownership in the United States is at an all-time high. About 55 million households include one or more dogs, according to several national surveys. And 80% of dog owners say they consider their dog to be a part of the family rather than a mere pet. And yet, many of these canine relationships become troubled with changes in the family. This can lead to serious problems.
I’ve seen many situations where doggie was the boss of the house one day, and several weeks later, she was on her way to a shelter. And dogs who feel jilted or afraid can and do get aggressive in these kinds of situations. Between 2010 and 2012, 360,000 children suffered dog bites; 66% were under age 4. They can be disfiguring and require surgery, and many child victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from such attacks.
But in most cases, these scenarios are easily preventable.
Begin by asking yourself key questions: Does your dog like children? Is she afraid of loud, sudden noises? Does she bark incessantly? Does she suffer from separation anxiety?
The answers to these questions can help you design a road map for preparing your dog for baby’s arrival. Once again, you need to make changes in your dog’s life that she might find less than thrilling long before you have your baby. Otherwise, your dog may associate such changes with your baby’s arrival, and that could trigger an unhealthy competitive dynamic between them.
Your road map should include special consideration of three key thresholds in your baby’s life.
You should plan for the arrival of the baby by implementing whatever structural changes you’ll have to make in the rhythm of your dog’s life long before the baby arrives. How long depends on your dog and how deeply embedded into your routine she is. But at a minimum, changes should be implemented no later than a month before your due date. At a maximum, begin the moment you find out you’re pregnant.
The key point is that your dog should not be able to associate these changes with baby’s arrival and begin nursing a grudge.
Look who’s grabbing
The second threshold rolls around when the baby approaches 8 months of age and begins crawling and grabbing. By this point, the owner should have worked hard to condition the dog to the awkward grabbing and pulling at sensitive body parts that a baby will inevitably dish out.
They should also have created a safe zone for their dog so it can retreat beyond the baby’s reach when stressed. Additionally, they should have taught their dog to distinguish child toys from dog toys.
This is relatively easy to do. Begin by getting dog toys that are significantly different in appearance from baby toys. At the same time, dab a little Listerine on all baby toys and teach your dog that the scent of Listerine equals an “off” command. This will go a long way to helping your dog make the right choice.
Most important, ensure that dog and baby are never, ever left unattended together, even for a moment.
Look who’s walking
The third threshold comes at around 14 months, when the baby starts walking. This shouldn’t present a major stumbling block if the owners have crossed the first two thresholds. Rather, it will allow parents to begin focusing on structured, fun interactions between their child and dog, such as appropriate games, rudimentary pseudo-training and more.
The point is that taking the time to prepare your dog for the arrival of your baby can pay off in spades in terms of a safe, wholesome and a mutually rewarding relationship for all involved. On the other hand, failing to spend a little bit of time preparing your dog for this significant addition to your family can have dire consequences. This is why, tragically, so many new parents end up rehoming their beloved, often older dogs within three to six months of a baby’s arrival.
In a perfect world, dog owners have 16 months from the time they find out they are pregnant to the day when their baby begins to crawl. That’s a lot of time to make sure their dog knows what to expect. So do yourself and your dog a favor by choosing the road to a harmonious and loving future for all.
Michael Wombacher is a professional dog trainer and author of “Good Dog, Happy Baby.”