Six months ago, my family of 5 swelled to include a new baby – of the fur variety! Duke is a Bernese Mountain Dog cross and has brought so much joy, laughter, mess and activity to our family.
Thankfully, we felt prepared to introduce Duke to our family through our conversations with Mel fromCooper and Kids.
Mel studied psychology and zoology and – as an accredited dog trainer specialising in dog and child safety and mother of 3 – is perfectly suited to guide you through the process.
We had an opportunity to pick Mel’s brain about all things babies & pooch…
Dr Golly: Mel, what are some things you think parents need to know to prepare a dog for a new baby’s arrival?
Mel: There is lots we can do to help prepare dogs for life with a new baby. And the more you do ahead of time, the less stressful it will be on you and your dog. Here are just a few suggestions to start thinking about.
Understand how dogs communicate:
- One of the most important messages I hope to get out to parents and expecting parents is that dogs and humans communicate differently. We are different species. We humans show affection with hugs and kisses but to a dog that can actually be quite a scary thing.
- A dog will often show this with subtle signs, like a lick lip, a yawn, turning their head, a closed tense mouth, shaking off or something we call half-moon eyes (which is when they really show the whites of their eyes).
- Or a not so subtle sign like a growl or baring its teeth, although these may seem scary, these are also a forms of communication and we should be thankful for them.
- It is our job as the dog’s owner and the parent to see these signs, before they turn into a bite and point them out to our kids.
- In those moments, step back and give the dog some space and/or some time out from what was happening. If your dog is growling at your baby/toddler/child, please get in touch with myself or another qualified trainer before it escalates.
- Education ahead of time is key.
Learn to understand your dog better, meet their needs:
- Understanding your dog and learning to meet their needs is essential to living with a happy dog and how you will form a great bond between yourself and your dog and (in time) your kids and your dog.
- Dogs don’t only need physical exercise but they need mental enrichment too. Enrichment is literally a way of making your dog’s day more interesting. Mental enrichment is getting them to use their brains. Food enrichment is very helpful when you become a new mum as it helps with the dog guilt. Giving your dog a lovely kong to enjoy, a lickimat, scattering their food in the grass are all great for their minds and help to occupy them and give them an outlet for chewing, licking, sniffing – all things dogs love doing.
Use kind, gentle, positive methods when teaching them:
- Using positive reinforcement when training is key to having a happy dog who has a great bond with both you and (in time) your kids.
- In your early stages of pregnancy, one of the first things I tell parents is to get to work on teaching your dog basic manners using positive reinforcement based training. Have a handful of really sound skills up your sleeve.
- Positive reinforcement training rewards the dog for doing the correct behaviours. Ultimately, making them more likely to occur in the future.
- Punishing a dog or using force or aversive methods, doesn’t actually teach a dog what you want from them and can actually make them become fearful, scared and/or aggressive.
Dr Golly: What are the key skills/manners you recommend parents focus on teaching their pup before the baby arrives?
Mel: The reason I like to teach dogs skills is not to train them to be like robots but rather to be able to help them when they need it. Ultimately, you want to know that if you were holding a screaming baby and your dog was feeling stressed out or trying to jump on you, you could ask them to go to their bed and they would listen and as a result this will help them to settle and relax in that moment. Stressed or overwhelmed dogs often just need direction or reassurance from their trusted adult.
The main skills I suggest you work on teaching your dog is to:
- “on your bed”,
- “leave it” and
- loose leash walking.
You want your dog to be able to do all of these skills no matter where you are and what distractions are around. Holding your baby, sitting, standing, in the kitchen, etc. So start simple and build up to that.
Dr Golly: What changes do I need to make to the home, prior to baby’s arrival?
Mel: Get your dog used to management now. What does that mean?
- Give them aSafe Zone.Make sure your dog knows it has a safe kid-free area in your house.
- A crate, a playpen, an area sectioned off with baby-gates. Think about this now and start getting your dog used to being ok with separation in their safe zone before the baby is here.
- Getting your dog used to separation will be super important to give you a break from Actively supervising 24/7.
- I know it might sound easier said than done but dogs can get very conflicted. They want to be close to their trusted adults but they also need a break from the chaos of the baby/kids. It is important to implement management tools slowly and in a positive way.
- Using a Kong, snuffle mat, a chew toy or a Licki-mat is a lovely way to make this separation a positive one.
Make sure to start slowly and gradually with it. Build up the amount of time your dog is separated and the distance you move away.
Dr Golly: How much time do we need to give a dog to prepare for a baby’s arrival?
Mel: Dogs love routine. I recommend preparing them as soon as possible! The first trimester is the best time to get in touch with myself or another trainer. Address any issues you might be having and then start working on the baby preparation side of things.
Don’t stress if you are passed your first trimester, you are not too late! Of course the more time the better, but getting educated at any stage and knowing how to help your dog is better than never at all. So even if you’ve had your baby, there is still heaps we can do to help your dog.
Before the baby arrives, start to think about some of the changes that might occur to your dog’s world and start to introduce them now.
We want your dog to form a positive association with the baby. So don’t wait till the baby comes to make all the big changes.
- Where will the dog be allowed, in the bedrooms, on the couches?
- Where does your dog sleep overnight? Are they in your room or on your bed?
- Do you think this will be safe when the baby is here?I recommend thinking about the transition now.Another example, if you don’t want the dog going into the baby’s room, you could put the baby gate up now.
- Get your dog used to it so it’snot new when the baby arrives.
- If you don’t think you will be able to walk your dog at 8am every day like you do now, start mixing it up.
Start to drip feed the changes to your dog a little bit at a time, in a slow and positive way rather than making all the changes at once which can be a lot for the dog to handle. If you do this before the baby arrives, your dog will be more relaxed and prepared when the baby comes home.
I could keep going here as there really is so much we can do to prepare dogs ahead of time. To find out more on this topic, see the full article here or reach out:My tips to help prepare families with dogs for life with a new baby
Dr Golly: What are the positives of owning a dog?
Mel: There are SO many positives that come with owning a dog for both parents and kids.
- It is a proven fact that dogs make people happier.
- They teach you how to care for something other than yourself,
- they keep you fit and healthy,
- they always get excited when you come home,
- they keep us company and they give us unconditional love.
In saying that, the timing of when you decide to get a dog is incredibly important in helping to set everyone up for success.
Dr Golly: So if you already have children, when should you get a dog?
Mel: My advice, ideally any family looking to get a dog should wait until your youngest child is around 4-5 years old. The older your kids the better… Why?
- Because they listen,
- follow instructions,
- take directions, and
- can actually get involved with the training,
- daily activities and fun games that come with owning a new puppy/dog!
Plus a child of this age is more predictable and able to engage safely with the new puppy/dog.
Yes puppies are adorable but having a puppy is like having a toddler. They need to be sleep trained, toilet trained, they teeth and get sore gums.
The older your children, the more you will get to enjoy your new puppy and be able to invest the time in them. For more on this topic have a read of the full article –When is the right time to get your family dog?
Dr Golly: What are some of the benefits to children, of having a dog in the house?
Mel: Studies have shown that children with dogshave:
- higher self-esteem,
- improved social skills
- are more likely to be physically active, and
- less likely to be overweight or obese
Your child’s development can even benefit from owning a dog, having a relationship with a dog can help develop such skills as:
- nurturing skills and a
- caring attitude.
Whilst there are SO many benefits for children, we must also think about the dog. Make sure the dog is happy day to day and enjoys living and interacting with children. Some dogs can be incredibly fearful of young kids. Some young kids can smother dogs and annoy them as this can be incredibly dangerous. So by learning to understand dog body language, giving your dog choices and ensuring they enjoy their interaction rather than just tolerate them, it should be a win-win!
Mel’s business,Cooper and Kids specialises in creating safe, happy and positive relationships between babies, kids and dogs.
Mel Ritterman is an IAABC accredited dog trainer, a Family Paws® Parent Educator and a busy mum to three young children and her Golden retriever, Cooper. So she absolutely understands the chaos and the juggle that comes with running a busy house with kids and dogs together.
Mel is passionate about helping expecting families prepare their dogs for life with a baby or toddler, she also offers help to families wanting to introduce a new puppy or dog into the home as well as support to families who are struggling with the child and dog dynamic. Mel uses force-free, positive, science-based training and loves helping to educate families on this too.
You can find more information about Mel on her website Cooper and Kids, or follow her on Instagram or Facebook.
Important Articles from Mel:
- Does my dog know I’m pregnant?
- My tips to help prepare families with dogs for life with a new baby
- Introducing your dog to your new baby – or as I like to call it – the Homecoming Phase!
- Five tips for dealing with that ‘dog guilt’ after having a baby
- Is it Safe to Sleep with your Dog and Newborn Baby in the Same Room?
- How do I prepare my dog for when my baby starts to move?
- When is the right time to get your family dog?
- Our Dogs Are Always Communicating Let’s Learn To Understand Them And Help Prevent Dog Bites To Children
- Good Intentions Aren’t Enough. We Want Dogs To Enjoy Their Encounters With Children Rather Than Just Tolerating Them.
- Helping You To Understand Your Dog Better
- ….And so much more on her blog.
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