Julia Thomas has a Masters of Clinical Animal Behaviour and works with the Auckland SPCA, the Greyhound Adoption Programme Trust, and in clinical practice in Auckland. She’s been studying and working professionally with animals for more than 10 years and primarily works with companion animals.
What are the first things we need to think about when bringing a new baby home (first one or not)?
Bringing a baby home for the first time is a big deal for any animal. Dogs get used to how their family is structured and how things work in their home. Just because we know that a new baby is a precious family member who needs protecting and nurturing, your dog might not understand this, or see things the same way. For both dogs and cats, you must remember that you’re really turning their little world upside down and it’s stressful.
Preparation is the key word I’ll use. Nothing beats it. There are some great websites that spell out some key steps to take to prepare your pet for the arrival of a human baby. Here’s a link to the ASPCA website and also Dr Sophia Yin who’s very experienced in animal behaviour.
If you’ve had your pet since it was little, socialise them with kids and other animals. It’s so important. Cats and dogs have what we call a ‘critical socialisation period’ and in dogs this occurs from about 3 – 14 weeks of age. It’s during this time that you’ll want to be introducing them to children (and many other different people, experiences and animals) in a safe way, as positive associations created during this period can last a lifetime. This ensures that dogs can cope with change and new things much better throughout their lives. If not your own, introduce them to friends’ kids or nieces and nephews. Basic obedience training, especially during the first year of a dog’s life, is good too. This ensures you develop a shared language, so you can direct your dog to behave appropriately when they are presented with new or challenging situations…like when a new baby arrives. For example, it’s much easier if your dog already knows what ‘on your bed’ means before the baby arrives.
Sometimes people bring babies home and there isn’t an issue at all – that’s often a reflection that the pet has been well socialised already. If you’ve picked up an older animal or haven’t socialised your pet with babies before your baby arrives, you’ll want to go through that preparation yourself. Make these experiences positive for them and that’s the learning they’ll bring forward. Professional help can be of use here too.
You’ll also need to think about whether or not you want the pet in the nursery. If you do, then make that a positive experience when you’re setting it up. Sit with a book and read for a bit and encourage your dog with treats to settle down calmly with you. Reward him. Likewise, with cats, put one of those cat towers with treats on it to entice them in (and out of the crib or change mat!). If you don’t want them in there, make it a no-bounds area from the start with a baby gate.
We trained our cat not to go in the bassinet or cot using tinfoil – worked a treat! Would you recommend that to people with cats? Also; would a cat really smother a baby or is that a bit of an old wive’s tale?
To answer the first part of the question; using tinfoil is a form of punishment and although this can be effective, there are other ways to train your cat without the use of punishment – cats are incredibly smart and can be trained too! Provide the cat with a more attractive and desirable place to rest in the room than the cot or bassinet. Cats often like these possies because they are warm, soft and comfortable. As I mentioned before, a cat platform/tower is great. They love to be in high, warm places…in front of a window is often ideal. Use food as a reward. The vet nurses often joke that Whiskas Temptations treats are like crack cocaine for cats!
Secondly, it’s possible that a cat could smother a baby. But it’s just like a child sleeping with an adult and the risk that has. It’s no different. The cat could curl up close to an infant and snuggle into the warm body, inadvertently smothering the baby. Cats don’t have mean streaks in them and intentionally smother babies. If you don’t want the cat in the baby’s room then you need to close it off from the start.
Does it matter how old our pet is?
Geriatric or elderly dogs and cats generally have a reduction in tolerance for anything new. Just like older people too. Most of this is associated with age related deterioration in the brain and deterioration of sight, hearing, and movement. Sometimes pain, such as arthritis, also causes the animal to be more short-tempered than they were previously. Essentially their fuse becomes a lot shorter and the dog is more likely to be reactive towards new situations, children and other animals. They are less flexible in a change in their routines. A lack of predictability increases stress and causes less resilience in older pets. We should try and have the same compassion towards elderly pets as we do towards humans. Therefore, it’s even more important to be thorough with your preparation.
How can we make the transition easier for the dog?
As above, preparation is the most important thing. Remember, a dog needs to learn how to behave with children and that a baby is something that needs to be protected and nurtured, not something that’s feared. If you’re at the point where your dog is showing signs of aggression, I recommend seeking professional help. If you do the wrong thing at this point, you can inadvertently make things worse – you can get an escalation in unwanted behaviour that can be harder to change. Most of the time, we tend to be a lot less patient with our dogs than our children! It’s about persistence and consistency. You wouldn’t expect potty training your toddler to be over and done within a week would you? Try to take the same approach with your pets.
How do we overcome any overprotective behaviour (of us the adults/owners) and get the dog to accept the new family member?
If you are struggling with undesirable behaviour I recommend you seek professional help. Rather than punishing the dog for not behaving how you want them to, you should be guided to direct the dog to behave appropriately when he is around the baby. We need to help the dog make the association that when the baby is present, and he behaves in a certain way, it’s a really good thing for him. He needs to learn that the baby is part of the family, and good things happen when the baby is around. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the dog is lavished with attention when the baby is asleep (because we often feel guilty for not spending as much time with them) and is ignored or constantly told off or put outside when the baby is awake. It is easy to see how your dog could learn to resent the newcomer. You’ll want to give your dog lots of attention, treats and encourage safe interaction between the dog and the baby when the baby is awake. You’re trying to tell him that when the baby is awake, his life is much better. And you’re also reinforcing positive experiences with the child. When the baby’s asleep or away, you should not lavish your dog with attention.
If your dog is growling at the baby it is a pretty clear indication that the dog does not know how to behave appropriately in that situation, this is actually a gift. This is telling you that you need to do something here to mitigate this behaviour. A growl is a warning, if you do not respond appropriately to the warning signs; the dog’s next step is to bite, which is very sad. You’ve ignored the warning signs he’s given or told him off for warning you/the baby, and now someone’s hurt and he’s the one in trouble.
Do dogs need to have safe spaces that babies know they’re not allowed to go? Would you recommend crating? We have a constant battle at home when Sam is in his bed chewing his chewy and Emerson wants it!
It’s a good idea for the dog to have a safe place, especially older animals, but if the baby can access the dog, then it’s not really a safe space! Having an elevated platform, away from a crawling child, can be helpful. Or, in a crate, provided the child cannot harass the dog there.
Is it a bad thing to think of rehoming your dog if the situation feels overwhelming and the dog is constantly being shouted at, reprimanded or thrown outside? Or is it actually kinder to the dog to try and place it where it will be in a happier environment. How much time should we give ourselves to see whether things will work out?
This dilemma is something that’s down to each individual situation. Again, I’d recommend seeking professional help before you make this decision. But make sure the professional you engage is qualified to help with this situation. In New Zealand you don’t need to meet any set standards before you can call yourself an animal behaviourist or trainer. Overseas in some countries there are minimum requirements, such as a Masters qualification, or certification/registration with a professional body that ensures certain standards are met…much the same way as we have registered health professionals here in NZ. There are some terrific trainer/behaviourists that do not have any formal qualifications, but if you are unsure about someone, I recommend you ask your veterinarian for their advice, or look specifically for a qualified behaviourist or vet behaviourist.
A professional behaviourist/trainer should not tell you what you should do, because each family and situation is different. They should counsel you and help you come to the decision that is right for you and your family. How much time have you already invested in this animal? How big a part of the family is he? How much time do you realistically have to spend each day on modifying his behaviour? Is it just one thing that is a problem, or are there many problems that impact your relationship with this pet?
Then it’s about evaluating the options…. rehoming, euthanasia, behaviour modification, dog walkers etc. There are pros and cons for each option. These are tough decisions but at the end of the day you must make the decision that you feel is best for your family, including your pet.