Combining two of the cutest things imaginable—dogs and babies—could be the perfect start to your blossoming family (and Instagram account). People do it all the time. However, surprising your pup with a small, feisty human could be disastrous if handled poorly. Want your dog and your baby to live in harmony? Here’s what you’ve got to know for all stages of the process…and it *is* a process.
1. Shop “Kid-Friendly” Breeds
Some breeds are practically hardwired to enjoy big families and constant kid company. Golden and Labrador retrievers, Pembroke Welsh corgis and Weimaraners are a few examples of breeds that typically get along swimmingly with children. Then, make sure you contact a reputable breeder.
2. Test the Waters with Fostering
On the other hand, as Aimee Gilbreath, executive director at the Michelson Found Animals Foundation, notes, breed doesn’t always determine disposition. “Rather than generalizing about breed, we recommend focusing on the personality of individual dogs,” says Gilbreath.
Fostering a pup for a few days or weeks is an excellent way to test the waters of compatibility. A dog’s reactions to neighborhood kids, strangers and other canines during walks and playtime are better indicators of how the pup will treat a newborn than five minutes at the shelter or a breed profile.
“Remember,” adds Gilbreath, “Shelter dogs who may appear shy at first may be stressed from the shelter environment but become wonderfully friendly pets once they are in a loving home.”
3. Watch Your Dog’s Habits
If you already have a dog, keep a close eye on how he interacts with kids, babies and pretty much anyone who isn’t you. Again, this is a strong indication of how your dog will react to a new baby, which can be a startling experience for a dog who has never seen one before.
The ASPCA also points out elderly dogs may have a harder time getting used to a new kiddo in the mix. As they age, canines lose hearing and sight just like people do. This can make any new experience, let alone a screaming baby, super scary. If this is the case for you, make sure you handle your old pup with extra care, awareness and patience.
Unfortunately, some dogs just don’t like kids. Whether they were mistreated by children in the past or generally can’t handle kid-level energy, make a plan of action if you know you want to start—and continuing to grow—a family. The dog can’t be left out of the equation.
4. Prepare Your Dog in Advance
In an ideal world, your dog considers your newborn a positive addition to the family. The last thing you want is your pup associating the baby with negative experiences.
When in doubt, remember this phrase: “I’m the alpha dog.” You are the alpha dog in your household! This needs to be crystal clear with a baby on the way. Why? Because when your kid is screaming at 2 a.m. and you’re trying to nurse, clean spit-up and soothe at the same time, telling your dog to “sit” needs to be a simple task. Make sure your dog understands and responds obediently to commands. Invest in obedience school or new training methods if necessary.
5. Create a Safe Spot
If you haven’t already, it’s worth establishing a safe spot for your dog to go when she’s stressed. This can be a fluffy bed, a roomy crate or a cozy chair, to name a few options. Basically, your dog needs one area that is her turf where she feels comforted and secure. This will be especially helpful if your dog ends up scared or nervous around the new baby. It will also serve you well when you need her to leave you be. “Go to your spot, Lacey!” should be second nature by the time the baby arrives (without also being a punishment).
6. Make Some Adjustments
At least two months, if not more, before your new bundle of joy is born, start making these and any major adjustments you anticipate in your routine. This will help your dog adjust over time to what will become a—hopefully!—positive new way of life. Other changes can include:
- Not letting your dog sleep in bed with you
- Not letting your dog sleep or play in the future nursery
- Setting up baby furniture (cribs, changing tables, playpens) for your dog to get accustomed to
- Going for a walk with the stroller and your pup
- Forbidding your dog to jump up on people or couches
7. Don’t Overcompensate
Though it might be tempting, don’t go overboard on the love and affection for your dog pre-baby. Some pet parents think because they’ll have less time to devote to their dog after the baby, they must lavish their dog with attention in the weeks leading up to birth. This can be confusing for the dog once the attention diminishes and ultimately may result in negative feelings toward the infant (which is, again, the last thing you want).
8. Go for a Heavy-Handed Introduction
Slow and steady wins the race here, folks! Go above and beyond to ensure your dog’s first experience of baby is positive.
If you have a partner or family member taking care of Lacey while you’re ogling your newborn in the hospital, send said partner or family member home with something that smells like the baby. A blanket, onesie or hat can be a great way to introduce baby’s scent to Lacey before the two ever meet.
Depending on where you have the baby, it might be a good idea to have a few people the dog knows and likes already at the house when you bring the baby home for the first time. This can put the dog at ease.
Scolding in harsh tones is a big no-no. Again, your dog must learn to associate the infant with good things! Positive reinforcement goes a very long way.
Allow your dog to smell this new person without getting too close—especially to baby’s face. The toes and feet are a safe place to start. Don’t force the dog to smell, though. Let Lacey come to you.
Obviously, if Lacey goes nuts or seems stressed out, put her into another room or safe space away from the excitement until she calms down. Retry the introduction in a less hectic environment.
9. Establish a Positive Routine
After the introduction, it becomes all about building a routine that works for you, your baby and your dog. Every aspect of this routine should strengthen the positive relationship between Lacey and her new baby BFF. Activities best suited for building good habits are:
- Walking dog and baby at the same time
- Feeding dog and baby at the same time
- Including dog in fun baby-centric activities
- Rewarding dog with treats for good behavior
10. Lead by Example
Remember, you are the alpha dog! Teach your kiddos the same commands you use and train your dog to respond to them. It shouldn’t matter if a 5-year-old or a 55-year-old says “sit.” The dog needs to sit. And don’t freak out if your dog growls or barks; calmly move away from an agitated dog and tell your kids to do the same. Even a friendly canine can have angry moments.
11. Play Smart
Structured games are much safer than unrestrained rough-housing, as the American Academy of Pediatrics points out. Fetch is fun; wrestling can end in accidental bites no one intended to provoke or do.
12. Keep Your Dog’s Food Sacred
Don’t surprise a dog during mealtime—and don’t let kids get in the way of a pup and his grub. It’s also smart to dissuade children from feeding Lacey people food when you’re not looking. A sick dog is not an enjoyable pet.
13. Talk to a Professional
Bad canine behavior around kids can be dangerous. If your dog doesn’t respond to your training methods or changes drastically once you bring home baby, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of a professional. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB or Associate CAAB) and board-certified veterinary behaviorists (Dip ACVB) can assess the situation with a sharper eye and offer specific tools for problem dogs.