When Baby Makes Four: Dogs and Newborns
By Jim Giza
They’re man and woman’s best friend, but when we introduce a new baby, it’s important to remember that they are dogs.
Congratulations, you’re going to have a baby! But there is a nagging doubt in your mind, or at least there should be, about how your other “baby,” namely the dog, is going to react to the new addition to the family. Or, from your dog’s perspective, to the pack.
Animal behaviorists advise that even if a dog is previously introduced into a family with children and behaves without incident, parents-to-be shouldn’t assume the same behavior will carry over to a baby. Without preparing your dog for the blessed event, your dog may react with typical sibling rivalry akin to that felt by human siblings and act out in negative ways with regard to the new addition, possibly reverting to the good ole puppy days by chewing everything in sight or deciding that the living room rug is a good place to urinate/defecate.
But far worse than exhibiting jealousy is for your dog not to view the baby as human. To a dog, a baby doesn’t smell, look, or sound like the other family members, and the baby certainly isn’t another dog. As noted in the article, “Dogs and Babies,” co-authored by certified animal behaviorists Dr. Victoria Voith, D.V.M., and Dr. Peter Borchelt, Ph.D., your dog may very well regard the baby as prey, something to attack and eat.
While you may flinch at such a thought regarding your dog, a very dangerous myth that the literature on the subject notes is that too many dog owners in this country subscribe to the belief that in some mystifying way our dog(s) will inevitably “love” the baby. Too often, dog owners, myself included, anthropomorphize our dogs a tad too much.
As highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, many dog owners have a parenting mindset regarding the family dog, a belief that the dog is without question a family member who isn’t “owned” but is family, comparable to a child. For a number of couples, their dog may literally be their first “child,” and so the parenting mindset is established. Consequently, they may overlook bad habits in the name of not hurting the dog’s feelings.
Canine homicides involving children less than 1 year of age are rare in the U.S., with about 10 per year, according to Drs. Voith and Borchelt. And a study on fatal dog attacks published in the journal Pediatrics notes that almost 80 percent of fatal attacks occur on the dog owners’ property.
Historically, the most common dog breeds that attack infants are pit bulls, Rottweilers, and German shepherds. But don’t get too complacent. As recently reported, a 3-year-old neutered Doberman killed an 8-month-old, a rare attack by a Jack Russell terrier killed a 6-week-old, and, I assume, an equally rare attack by a Pomeranian killed another 6-week-old. These dogs were family pets with no prior history of aggression. In each case, the caretaker left the dog alone with the baby for a very brief period of time.
The point of this litany of horrors is that any breed, mutts included, can do the unthinkable if provoked. Two killings by dogs in Maryland involved babies in mobile infant swings, and it is thought that for some unknown reason the swings themselves triggered a predatory response in the dogs. In both cases, the babies were briefly left alone with the family dog, which had not shown any previous aggression. In one case in South Carolina, the family dog attacked the child in the swing in the mother’s presence.
Before the Homecoming
So, how do you prepare for bringing your baby home? As recommended by Cesar Millan, aka The Dog Whisperer, if you have not already established yourself as the pack leader, the alpha big dog, now is the time to do so. Your dog will be happier to know its place in the home, especially when you introduce the new member.
Begin the process of working through any behavioral problems ASAP—for Millan, “ASAP” is as soon as you know you are pregnant. At a minimum, Voith and Borchelt state your dog should reliably respond to commands of sit, stay, lie down, and come when called. If not, and you are not capable of doing the training yourself, get some professional help, practice, and practice some more.
And spay or neuter your dog. While it is not an ironclad assurance, according to the Humane Society of the United States, dogs are less apt to be aggressive toward anyone—baby or adult—or bite if they have been spayed or neutered. BC
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© Baltimore’s Child Inc. August 2008