From Pet Parent, to Parenthood: 5 tips for preparing for life with dogs and babies

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If you are a dog owner planning for or in the midst of pregnancy or adoption, you are probably eager for this new phase in your life to get off to a great start.  Here are a few quick tips for setting up yourself, your child, and your pets for success:

  1. Expectations Overhaul: Take some time to consider both what your expectations are for life with kids and dogs, and where those expectations may have come from.  Between social media, movies, and even some selective memories of that perfect childhood dog, it can be easy to romanticize our picture of what life will be like. Whatever your expectations, remember that dogs are dogs, and not furry humans. This may seem obvious, but it is critical to being successful.  Dogs think and act like dogs, not humans.  Being respectful of that difference in world view, and providing dog-appropriate support, are the first steps in a harmonious household. Johnson & Johnson had it right with their slogan having a baby changes everything.  While your relationship with your dog will absolutely change during this transition, change can absolutely be good.  Anticipating those changes, even if you cannot know exactly what the future will hold, can also be hugely helpful.  And the other four tips listed below can also help you create healthy expectations.

  2. Learn to Listen: Every dog owner benefits from continuing to learn and practice understanding their dog.  Family Paws Parent Education has coined the phrase Dog Aware™ as a strategy of improving our communication skills with dogs.  Dogs communicate differently than people, and it takes time and practice to have a real fluency.  Brush up on your body language reading skills, learn to spot stress signals, and see if you can start hearing even more of the subtle messages your dog may be sending.  Here is a Body Language resource page.

  3. Practice and Teach Consent: Consent is a hot topic in both the parenting and dog training world at the moment.  Letting our actions demonstrate respect by asking permission benefits everyone.  Invited interactions is a strategy for seeking consent before and during petting/handling/grooming of our pets.  Being consent-seeking provides multiple benefits:  It keeps you safer.  You are less likely to have a conflict with any dog if you’ve sought the dog’s permission before engaging, and respected the dog’s right to choose.  Modeling these behaviors teaches children safe, respectful, and appropriate ways to interact with dogs.  Children are amazing mimics.  If they learn to invite a dog to come to them for petting, rather than approach (or encroach) into the dog’s personal space, then they stay safer as well. Finally, when we listen to and respect our dogs, we keep our pets safer as well.  We are protecting our pets from uncomfortable, scary, or even painful situations.  For more more on invited interactions, see this post.

  4. Making Cake: Dogs and babies are like oil and water.  They have intrinsic properties that prevent them from naturally meshing well on their own.  Normal dog behavior and normal child behavior can easily clash.  Rather than expecting your dog and child to magically bond all on their own, anticipate that you’ll need some extra ingredients and structure to turn your oil and water into cake.  My “Thumbs Up Rule” is a great way to set up everyone for success.  Before kids and dogs enter a space together, ask yourself the following three questions: “Will the dog be comfortable?  Will the child be comfortable? And will the situation be stable?”  If you get a thumbs up on all three questions you can feel confident you’ve got the right ingredients to be making that cake.  But if the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure”, add a barrier to better support everyone. Barriers often make people cringe because we assume they are punishing, isolating, or both.  Barriers should, however, improve comfort (while reducing stress) and allow for inclusion.  While you might not be willing to walk your dog next to a busy road off-leash, adding a barrier (a leash) allows you to feel more comfortable and include your dog in that situation.  Gates, kennels, tethers, furniture, distance, distraction, and adults are just a few examples of types of barriers that might help both dog and child feel safer and do better – and all can actually let you do more together.  Both you and your dog will need time and positive experiences to learn how helpful barriers can be.  Get started now setting up and practicing using new barriers, and be sure to incorporate fun into your training.  A food-filled toy, tossing treats, or playing fetch across a gate, for example, can help your dog enjoy this new tool, and help you feel excitement rather than guilt. Here is a barriers resource page.

  5. Learn More: Now is a great time to dive in and learn a little more.  Take that basic manners class you never got around to or consider a refresher class if you’ve already got a great foundation.  Attend a Dogs & Storks™ prenatal parent education workshop locally (http://www.prettygooddog.com/classesevents/) or watch a webinar through Family Paws (https://www.familypaws.com/).  If you are struggling with a behavior or training issue, know your dog isn’t good with kids, or are feeling nervous or anxious, consider a private consult with a specialist.  Take time to develop a list of general parenting resources as well.  A support network that includes parent, child, and dog related resources can reduce stress and help you feel prepared for all the exciting (and maybe a little scary) adventures that await you in this new chapter of your life.

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Kate Anders, CDBC, CBCC, CPDT-KSA, is a duly certified dog behavior consultant with over a decade of experience specializing in child-dog conflicts.  She is the Midwest’s expert on kids and dogs, and serves new, expecting, and growing families and their pets through her business, Pretty Good Dog, LLC.  Kate is a published researcher, contributor to the APDT Chronicle of the Dog magazine, licensed Family Paws Parent Educator, proud mother, and pet parent.