So you are expecting a new baby, congratulations!
Whether you are a list maker or a fly by the seat of your pants kind of a person, preparing your dog as early as possible will take a lot of pressure off you both when baby arrives.
Trust me, the day you bring baby home is not the time to start getting your dog used to all the changes. As a mum of two and someone who is a list maker and planner, I can tell you that however well prepared you are, finding time to have a wash is challenging enough, you won’t have the energy to start teaching your dog a settle!
What does my dog find difficult now?
What will their daily routine look like? Where do they usually sleep?
How much exercise are they used to getting?
Where will baby be sleeping, during the day and at night?
Where do you usually walk? Is it buggy friendly or safe to walk while carrying a baby carrier when your centre of balance has changed?
Are they raw fed? Will you need to reclaim some freezer space? (Think pre-prepared meals, freezing breast milk- yes you can!... and even further ahead, preparing weaning foods). Do you think you will feel differently about preparing raw food? (However pragmatic you think you are, prepare for hormones taking over your brain!)
You might be feeling overwhelmed at this point, don’t panic! I said I was a list person! So here for you, is my list of things for you to consider:
If you don’t have baby gates yet, get a few. Have a think about the spaces where you might need to put baby down when you can’t actively supervise or when you don’t want any ‘help’ from your dog, for example feeding or changing nappies. Baby gates mean you can prevent things you don’t want your dog to do without having to shut them away, such as licking babies face or eating the contents of a full nappy you’ve just removed, yukky to us, yummy to them!
Gates help you gently build resilience to frustration or anxiety about separation from you, being unable to follow you everywhere and having to wait for attention from you because they can still see you.
If your dog jumps up for greetings, baby gates are also a good way of teaching them to keep their paws on the floor (you won’t want them to jump up when you are holding baby). The baby gate helps prevent them from rehearsing jumping while you teach them to stand or sit instead.
Remember you will also have midwives and health visitors visiting your home. If your dog is excitable or worried around visitors, a baby gate means they can focus on you and baby and keeps everyone safe.
However good you think your dog’s impulse control is, impulse control is like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the better it gets. You can start this with your new gates or any other exit point- front door, back door, car boot. Each time you let your dog out of an exit, wait for something you like, for example a ‘sit’ or eye contact, say ‘good’ or ‘yes’ before letting them through. The key is wait for them to offer it not to tell them what to do. Getting them to work out the behaviour that will work exercises their brain and ensures the behaviour comes from within them rather then relying on our proximity. This is the key to preventing unwanted behaviours happening when our back is turned.
If your dog is already a super star at self control, think about items you might be carrying or putting down when baby is here. Dogs are naturally curious and will want to investigate novel items so you want to make sure the baby stuff is not a novel item by the time baby arrives. Soft toys, muslins, nappies, a doll, are all things you can practice with. Carrying them around, putting them down, creating noises with them and rewarding your dog for a behaviour such as a settle on a mat. Never set your dog up to ‘fail’ and grab these items, success depends on the rehearsal of behaviours you want, not the ones you don’t.
Desensitise to Baby Noises
Baby cooing, crying, gurgling, hiccupping, laughing are all sounds your dog might not have heard before and different dogs will react in different ways. Some dogs might be completely unfazed however others might whine, grumble, bark, want to get to the source of the noise or not know what to do with themselves at all. Desensitising your dog to baby noises well in advance while you can control the length and intensity of exposure, will help prevent your dog becoming stressed by it when baby is here.
Look up baby noise clips on YouTube, then while your dog is settled with a chew, start playing them at a very low volume. If your dog gets up, looks worried, stops eating, turn the volume down even further, it is important that they are able to remain calm and relaxed. Try and resist the temptation to scrutinise them, get on with something yourself, such as reading a book or putting the kettle on.
Keep it short to start off with, over time gradually increase the volume. Work on duration of the noise being played to start off with, then very slowly, increase the volume. Do this over days and weeks not in one session. The idea with this exercise is that baby noises become background noise to your dog not a cue that ‘something might be happening’ so don’t be tempted to progress too quickly, it will cost you more time in the long run.
Oh all the stuff! When I was pregnant with our son, my husband said to me “a baby is only this big, how much space can they possibly take up?” Bless him. I know superstition might be holding you back from getting too much, too soon but the more accustomed to the ‘stuff’ your dog is, the more likely they are to be able to ignore it and less likely to be worried by it.
Car seats, changing bags, baby wipes, nappies, baby milk, Moses baskets, changing mats are all things you can have around so your dog is used to them and uninterested by the time baby arrives. Again, nonchalance is key, don’t make a big thing out of asking your dog to investigate, just let them decide but don’t let them play with them. See the mat settle exercise below if this is a problem.
If you haven’t already, teach your dog to go to a mat to settle. This exercise is useful in so many different contexts; when you are feeding baby (this can take as long as 45 minutes and when babies are feeding roughly every 3 hours that is a lot of time when you are incapacitated!), when you are changing nappies, when you go for a walk and stop at a park bench to feed baby, the list goes on.
If you get yourself a bit of vet bed or an old bath mat to practice this on, it will give you a kind of portable ‘anchor’ for your dog which you can roll up and stuff in the bottom of the pram to take on walks with you.
Pop the mat on the floor, chances are your dog will want to check it out. As soon as they put any part of their body on the mat say ‘good’ or ‘yes’ then put a treat on the mat. Encourage them away and then back to the mat, continuing to reward for body parts being on the mat. Start waiting it out and seeing if they will offer a sit- you can help them if you want by asking them but try and fade this out, so that the mat is the cue for sitting or lying down, rather then you needing to tell them (good for brain exercise and impulse control). Then as they get better at this start delaying your ‘good’ or ‘yes’ so they are sitting or lying for longer before getting paid. Add in distance gradually by moving away from the mat one step at a time.
After this start adding in a bit of distraction, you could do it holding a doll or a changing bag. Try to relax your attention on them. Instead of: fixing them with a steely look, saying in your best school-ma’am voice “Staaaay!” while holding your hand out in the manner of someone stopping traffic (!) - Don’t say anything. Just ask them to go to the mat then take a step away, look over the top of their head or look away, try turning your back. I can guarantee when baby is here you will be distracted so you might as well practice now!
Walks and Exercise
Remembering that in the early days, baby will be feeding roughly every 3 hours (might be more, might be less), birth also takes time to recover from especially if you’ve had a c-section. Long walks will be off the menu as will any kind of reliable routine. If your dog is the type that is itching to get out the door from the minute they wake, they may get frustrated when they have to wait longer. Trust me, getting out the door with a baby is a mission in itself. There is all the stuff (again!), you can guarantee at some point, there will be a filled nappy or projectile vomiting incident just as you are about to leave, then there are the mornings when you haven’t slept a wink and the idea of getting dressed is a challenge, never mind going for a walk. (I promise I’m not trying to scare you!).
Start changing your walks now. Walk at different times if you can. Dogs are extremely observant and adept at interpreting cues and anything can become a cue. This is most often seen when leads or harnesses only appear just before a walk, the dog sees the harness and starts getting excited. If you go for your walk at the same time every morning, other things can be a cue, the sound of your alarm going off, outside sounds, your preparations for going out like looking for your phone. Desensitising your dog to the cues that have historically predicted their walk will help keep them settled until you are ready to walk.
Think about where you usually walk. Is it buggy friendly? Is it safe underfoot when your centre of balance is changed by carrying a baby either in your arms or in a carrier? If you need to change where you walk, check out potential routes now, don’t try it on your first outing with baby!
Less running, more sniffing. Sniffing exercises their brain and brain exercise tires dogs out more productively then running and ball chasing. Trying to tire dogs out physically is an exercise in futility, they just get fitter! High adrenaline activities also take time to recover from and often dogs find it harder to settle when they get home because they are still ‘fizzing’. It also makes it harder for them to access behaviours that rely on impulse control such as keeping paws on the floor or being able to wait calmly for things they want. Reduce the length of time you are out and get their brains working by hiding food or toys for them to find and doing a bit of training rather then lots of free running.
Work on loose lead and recall if your dog struggles with these. Now is the time to ask for help if this is something you struggle with! Borrow a buggy if you really don’t want to buy one yet and practice walking with one. Practice walking with a sling with a doll in it.
Introduce games and training you can do at home for those times when you can’t get out. Scent games are fantastic for tiring dogs out, this can be as simple as hiding their breakfast around the garden. You could also teach them to find a specific scent such as peppermint (contact me if you would like me to teach you how to do this). Simple tricks such as a ‘paws up’ onto a kitchen step or ‘bow’ can be started and practiced at times when you are boiling the kettle.
Understand body language
If you’re not sure what signs of stress look like in a dog, now is the time to read up on it. The internet is full of supposedly ‘cute’ photos of children and dogs that make dog behaviourists’ blood run cold. Spend time observing your dog in different situations. Watch for tongue flicks, yawning, tight mouths, furrowed brows, looking away, going still. These are some of the early signals that your dog isn’t comfortable with a situation. This is when you need to advocate for your dog and give them the space they are asking for. If they know they can ask quietly for help, they won’t need to ‘raise their voice’.
When Baby Comes Home
Greet your dog first before you introduce them to baby. Your dog will be excited to see you and you want them to be calm before allowing them to check baby out. If you are not discharged straight away, you could give something to your partner that smells of baby, to take home to introduce your dog to the scent first. Keep baby in your arms while you allow them to sniff, let them make the choice and keep it short. When your dog moves away, calmly praise and reward them.
Don’t make your dog pose for photos until they are ready (see above regarding body language) and don’t force proximity by putting your baby next to or on your dog. Dogs can have very special relationships with children, but relationships take time to develop, rushing them strains them. So give your dog lots of breaks. Short, positive experiences are the foundation for the relationship you want them to have.