Is Baby Part of the Pack?

One of the questions that seems to be on many expecting parents’ minds is whether or not their baby will be seen by the dog as part of the family pack. How do we make sure our dog understands they have a new little brother or sister?

Although it’s great to value your dog as a family member, this question is best answered from the viewpoint that dogs are dogs and not small people in furry zip-up suits.

So what is the answer?

How do we make sure our dog understands they have a new little brother or sister?

Setting realistic expectations

It’s normal to see your dog as your baby’s big brother or sister because it’s our human way of putting the special bond we have with dogs in the context of our own family relationships.  But, you aren’t going to be able to make your dog understand anything.  So please, don’t try to push him into a situation he isn’t prepared for just because you want to have a family moment.  For example, if your dog acts anxious or over-excited about your new baby, Instead of trying to convince him to come “make friends” by approaching or touching the baby, give him a chewy on the floor, and praise him for lying down quietly.  This will build his comfort level and reinforce calm behavior.

Eventually, your dog may build a relationship with your child.   I can’t emphasize enough, though, that you can’t rush this – it has to develop over time, and I mean years, not months.  Some dogs don’t care to interact with children at all, and that is just fine too.  Don’t put unfair expectations on your dog just because you want him to act like a doggy big brother.

Delay your introductions

Some parents insist upon forcing an introduction with the family dog – walking in the door with the brand new baby and then calling the dog over to the baby in a moment of great excitement, or even thrusting a bundle of tiny human into the dog’s face.  Don’t try that at home! Let everyone settle in for a few days (yes, I said days), allow the dog to be in the same room as baby and mom and get used to the new family dynamics and routines, and wait for a calm, quiet moment to allow the dog’s first interaction with your baby.

Only let calm dogs interact with baby

If “calm, quiet” does not describe your dog’s current state, then he does not need to be anywhere near the baby, and it’s not a negative judgment on the dog; even happy, friendly Ranger poses a safety hazard when he is flailing his legs around getting tummy rubs.

Invite a calm dog come over with a quiet “c’mere, puppy!” while the baby is in-arms, and let him decide whether or not he is interested. If he would like to see baby, let him have a quick sniff of baby’s toes, pet your dog and praise him, then have your dog lie down, or move away yourself so your dog does not become over-excited by your attention.

Respect your dog’s comfort level

As for showing off your baby to the dog, you never want to (literally) push your baby into your dog’s personal space.  First, it’s rude, even to a happy, friendly dog. Second, if he isn’t comfortable with the interaction, you’ve now associated the presence of the baby with an increase in your dog’s stress levels, and put your baby at risk.

Don’t expect your dog to understand that the baby is his sibling and he should “be nice” to it.  If your dog is stressed out by your baby, he may react defensively, and that is perfectly normal.  So, we as parents should be actively working to make babies sources of positive emotions, and to prevent situations that could stress the dog.  Luckily, there are simple ways to do that!

Build positive associations

Your dog will never really understand that the baby is his tiny human sibling.  However, he will learn some type of association with your baby.  And you’re in luck – you can have complete control over these associations! Start by ensuring that any interactions of your dog with your baby involve the baby in-arms – a three way interaction with caretaker, baby, and dog.

Any child and dog interactions should only include positive attention to the dog.  If you are constantly scolding your dog for looking at the baby or sniffing the baby, you are building negative associations and hurting rather than building a future relationship.

Instead, reduce unwanted attention by having your dog lie down next to the glider or couch and pet your dog on his shoulder.  Give him calm praise or even toss him a treat when the baby cries.  Your dog should not interact with a newborn beyond a quick sniff to the toes, but if he does go for nudge, don’t overreact.  Ask your dog to sit or lie down instead, and then praise him.

As your baby develops new abilities, continue to make sure that any interactions with baby and dog involve the caretaker as well.  Pick up a crawling baby well before he makes it to your pup, especially a sleeping dog that will not be able to prepare himself.  If you are holding your baby near your dog, never allow your baby to yank on the dog or treat the dog in a way that makes him uncomfortable,  Keep little hands out of reach of your pup until your child is old enough to start learning gentle touches.

Never punish

Misguided advice may tell you that you need to teach your dog that the baby is “under” him socially by punishing the dog if he ever shows a sign that the baby is making him uncomfortable, like growling. Unfortunately, this advice is very dangerous because it is really just punishing the dog for trying desperately to communicate with you.

Instead, a growl means you need to completely re-assess your home environment and set up a much higher degree of separation, then start re-building positive associations from a distance, or from across a barrier like a baby gate.

Seek assistance

If you are uncomfortable with your dog’s behavior,  contact a qualified trainer or behaviorist who has experience working with integrating babies and dogs.  He or she will help you set appropriate expectations, build a safe home for your baby and dog, and teach your dog better behavioral choices.

Let’s rephrase the question!

Looking back, let’s re-think what we are asking.  Okay, so we can’t expect our dogs to automatically accept a new baby as a pack member or sibling.  But what can we do?  We can build a history of safe, supervised, positive interactions and set appropriate expectations for our dogs as dogs, not people.  Then, let the relationship between your child and dog blossom over time.  Trust me, it will be worth it.