Many dogs who haven’t spent time around children find babies utterly baffling. This isn’t surprising. They move, sound, smell and behave very differently than adults do. If your baby is still on the way, please see our article on Preparing Your Dog for a New Baby to learn steps you can take to help your dog adjust to the new changes ahead. If your bundle of joy has arrived, keep reading for important tips on making introductions and early interactions between your dog and baby as smooth as possible. If you spend time developing a good relationship between them now, they will likely become the best of friends for years to come.
Bringing the Baby Home
First impressions are important. Your dog should have pleasant experiences with your baby right from the start. When bringing your baby home from the hospital, send everyone else into the house first so your dog can express her usual excitement to see people. After she’s had a minute or two of greeting time and expends some of her energy, have someone leash her. This is important, even if you have no reason to believe that she’ll react poorly to the baby. That person should also get some small treats ready to use during your dog’s first few moments with the baby. (It may help to prepare these treats in advance and keep them in a container near the front door.)
It’s crucial to stay calm and relaxed when you and the baby enter the house. If you seem nervous and jumpy, your dog will pick up on your feelings and may become nervous as well, thinking that the bundle in your arms is something to worry about. Instead, speak to your dog in a soft but cheerful voice as you walk into the house. Have your helper distract her with plenty of treats so that her attention is divided between them, your baby and the other people present. The helper can ask your dog to respond to obedience cues, like sit and down, using the treats to reward her polite behavior. Praise your dog for any calm interest in the baby. Avoid scolding your dog. Remember, you want her to associate the baby with good things, not your displeasure.
Meeting the Baby
Whether you choose to allow your dog to investigate the baby right away or to wait until a later time, orchestrate the event carefully. Choose a quiet room, and sit down with the baby in your arms. Have a helper leash your dog and bring her into the room. Again, avoid nervous or agitated behavior. Talk to your dog in a calm, happy voice as you invite her to approach. Convince her that meeting and interacting with her new friend is fun, not stressful.
If your dog’s body language is relaxed and friendly, have your friend walk her toward you and the baby, keeping the leash short but loose. (If you’re not sure how to determine your dog’s feelings, please see our article on Canine Body Language for guidance.) If she wants to, let your dog sniff the baby as you continue to speak softly to her. Praise her warmly for gentle investigation.
Even if your dog seems curious and calm, you may feel a little nervous about letting her get close to the infant. That’s normal for new parents and perfectly reasonable. Initially, you might feel most comfortable allowing only brief interactions. Let your dog sniff the baby’s feet for a couple of seconds. Then gently interrupt her investigation by praising her and asking her to sit or lie down. Reward her for complying with a few small, tasty treats. (Your helper can hand them to you or deliver the rewards to your dog himself.) If you like, repeat this sequence a few times. Then have your helper distract your dog with a new chew bone or a stuffed Kong toy to enjoy while you all sit together. (To learn about Kongs, please see our article on How to Stuff a Kong Toy.)
Daily Life with the Baby
Teaching Your Dog to Love the Baby
As the baby settles in, continue to focus on associating him with good things for your dog. You may be tempted to give her plenty of attention when the baby’s asleep and then try to get her to lie down, be quiet and leave you alone while the baby’s awake. It’s actually much better to do the opposite. Try to give your dog lots of attention when the baby is present. Teach her that when he’s around, she gets treats, petting, playing—and anything else she likes. When you feed the baby, you can feed your dog, too. When you walk your dog, do your best to take the baby along. (Baby “backpacks” and slings are great for dog parents.) This strategy, though it requires some skillful multitasking on your part, teaches your dog a valuable lesson. She’ll learn to love it when the baby is awake and active because that’s when good things happen for her.
Obviously, giving both the baby and your dog attention at the same time is easier if there are two adults in the home. But when that’s not possible, you can still accomplish a lot by holding your baby in your lap while you talk to your dog and stroke her, give her treats or toss a ball for her.
Also teach your dog that when your baby isn’t around, things get very boring. Your dog can be with you, but try to ignore her most of the time. This will make her eagerly anticipate the baby’s next active time and help her bond with him.
Out from Underfoot
It can be really hard to care for an infant if your dog insists on being underfoot. To make things easier and safer for everyone, you can teach her to move away when you ask.
- Say a cue, like “Go away” or “Shoo!”
- Show your dog a treat.
- Toss the treat on the floor, a few feet away from you.
- Repeat this sequence 10 times.
The next step is to refrain from tossing the treat until your dog starts to move away.
- Say your cue.
- Extend your arm and point, using the same motion that you did when tossing the treat.
- The moment your dog moves in the direction of your gesture, say “Yes!” Then throw the treat past her.
Over your next few training sessions, gradually increase the number of steps your dog must take before you toss her a treat. Eventually, you can wait until she moves several feet away before you toss the treat. Once your dog has mastered this skill, you’ll be able to use it in other situations, too. When your baby starts to crawl, for example, you can use the cue to teach your dog to move away from him when she feels uncomfortable. Please see the section below called “Teach Your Dog to Retreat” to learn how.
Quiet Time Together
Another great way to encourage your dog to stay out of the way while you’re tending to the baby is to teach her to settle down for some quiet time. Keep a dog bed or comfy mat in the room where you usually feed the baby. When it’s time to nurse or give him a bottle, provide something tasty for your dog, too. You can reward her for doing a nice down-stay on her bed, tossing a piece or two of kibble every few moments. Alternatively, you can give your dog an exciting new chew bone or stuffed Kong toy to work on while you care for the baby in the same room. (To learn how to teach your dog to lie down and stay put, please see our articles on Teaching Your Dog to Lie Down and Teaching Your Dog to Stay. Please see our article on How to Stuff a Kong Toy for some creative long-lasting recipes.)
Polite Manners Around the Baby
As often as possible, reward your dog for behaving politely when she’s close to the baby. Encouraging calm, controlled behavior now will pay off in the weeks and months ahead—as your baby becomes more and more interesting and exciting to your dog. If your dog doesn’t yet know any basic obedience, please see our articles on Teaching Your Dog to Sit, Teaching Your Dog to Lie Down, Teaching Your Dog to Settle, Teaching Your Dog to Leave It, Teaching Your Dog Not to Jump Up on People, Training Your Dog and Teaching Your Dog How to Behave Around Children. If someone in your family has time, consider taking your dog to a group obedience class or hiring a private trainer to show you how to teach the basics in your own home. A well-trained dog will make your first few days, weeks, months and even years with your child much easier! Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to learn how to locate a qualified Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) in your area.
What Was That?!
Baby sounds, especially those that are very loud, may upset and confuse your dog. Most dogs simply learn to ignore them, but some need extra help. If your dog seems distressed when the baby makes noise, associate the sounds with things your dog loves. If the baby squeals or cries, toss a tasty treat to your dog right afterward. After a little repetition, your dog will discover that baby sounds don’t signal anything bad. In fact, they predict the delivery of food!
Before Your Baby Grows Up
A wonderful thing about babies is that they start out not doing much at all and then become more active and mobile as they develop. These slow changes will help your dog get used to your newest family member gradually, setting both of them up for successful interactions. But before you know it, your baby will be a poking, grabbing, crawling machine! Please see our article on Preparing Your Dog for Life with a Toddler to learn about what you can do now to get your dog ready for a toddler’s touch, movements and unpredictable behavior.
If Your Dog Is a Little Nervous About the Baby
Sniff the Baby
Some dogs are nervous about babies or even a bit afraid of them and go out of their way to avoid contact. If your dog seems a little worried about the new member of your family, you can teach her how to touch the baby with her nose on cue. This exercise will give her a safe way to interact with him and get used to his scent, appearance and sounds—without being forced to stay close for more than a few seconds at a time.
To get started, you’ll need to first teach your dog to touch your hand with her nose. Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Hand Target for specific training steps. Once your dog will touch your hand on cue, you can transfer this behavior to the baby.
- Put your hand on the baby, palm facing toward your dog. Say “Touch,” and then reward your dog for approaching and touching your hand.
- After a few repetitions, change the rules a little. First, say “Touch.” Then, right as your dog moves forward to touch your hand with her nose, quickly move your palm a few inches so that your dog inadvertently touches the baby. The instant she does, say “Yes!” Then give her a few extra treats. Repeat this exercise until your dog clearly tries to touch the baby with her nose instead of your hand. (For some dogs, this might take just a few repetitions. Others may need a few training sessions before catching on.)
- At this point, start pointing to your baby instead of presenting your hand after you say your cue.
If your dog enjoys this activity, she might soon start taking the initiative to gently sniff or nose the baby on her own. If this happens, be sure to praise her enthusiastically and give her a treat. Praise may be enough to maintain your dog’s new friendly behavior, but it’s a good idea to keep periodically rewarding her with treats, too. Doing so will help her learn that being close to the baby isn’t scary—it earns her your happy attention and, sometimes, something delicious.
Handouts at the High Chair
Timid dogs often have a hard time when babies start to become more active, more vocal and mobile. Luckily, this period coincides with the time when babies start learning about gravity by throwing Cheerios® and other finger foods from the high chair onto the floor. Allowing your dog to help you clean up these tasty experiments may convince her that having a baby in the house is a very good thing!
What NOT to Do
Never force your dog to interact with your baby. Let her approach him on her own. When she seems nervous, speak softly to her and praise her for bravely investigating.
If Your Dog Responds Aggressively to the Baby
Dogs who show aggression toward a new baby in the home often do so because they have not been well socialized to children and find them foreign and frightening. Some dogs don’t fear babies, but they become aggressive when guarding their food, toys or chew bones. Babies and young children can’t understand that they should leave the dog’s things alone. They may also have difficulty recognizing a dog’s warning signs or find growling and barking amusing. A child’s failure to heed such warnings can have disastrous consequences. A small percentage of dogs seem to react to babies as though they’re squeaky toys, and this response can be extremely dangerous, too. All of these situations put children at great risk of receiving a bite.
What to Do
Get help. If your dog shows aggressive behavior around your baby in any situation—or if you think she might—keep her away from him at all times and immediately contact an animal behavior expert. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) in your area. Make sure that the professional you hire is qualified to help you. It’s important that he or she has extensive experience in successfully treating aggression in dogs.
Should You Correct Your Dog for Aggressive Behavior?
Obviously, it’s important that your dog learn to inhibit her aggressive behavior toward your child. However, the best way to deal with an aggressive dog is not to verbally or physically punish her. Punishment can backfire because it teaches your dog that bad things happen when your child is present—which is yet another reason to dislike him. If your child becomes a signal for punishment, your dog may fear or resent him even more. In particular, it’s important to avoid punishing your dog for growling, snapping, showing teeth or otherwise giving aggressive warnings when she’s upset. If you are fortunate enough to have a dog who warns you before biting, never scold or otherwise punish her for this behavior. If you inhibit her warning system, it may disappear—and you may not have a way to know when your dog is feeling uncomfortable or aggressive. She may just suddenly bite! As long as your dog growls, you have the opportunity to remove your dog or your child from bad situations.
The most effective and humane way to resolve aggression problems is to focus on changing your dog’s motivations for behaving aggressively. If your dog is aggressive toward your baby, you can improve her behavior by teaching her to like being around him. Please see our articles on Desensitization and Counterconditioning and Fear of Children to learn about how you can accomplish this. Again, it’s crucial to seek professional guidance. A qualified behaviorist or trainer can come to your home, thoroughly evaluate your situation and walk you through a systematic, safe behavior modification plan.
- Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families by Colleen Pelar
- Living with Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind by Colleen Pelar
- Raising Puppies & Kids Together: A Guide for Parents by Pia Silvani and Lynn Eckhardt