Feeling nervous about your dog being around your baby or toddler? Here's how to recognize early warning signs
World-renowned expert on dog and baby safety weighs in on how to keep your little ones safe
Imagine you've just brought home your beautiful new baby. After months of worry about how your dog will handle such a huge change, you're relieved to find out that he seems to be handling it pretty well.
For the most part, Rover doesn't really want anything to do with the baby (which is sort of perfect, because now you can just get down to the business of parenting). When the baby is on the floor for tummy time, your dog moves into the kitchen. He'll come close, but mostly only when the baby is in the bassinette or when you're breastfeeding.
Time passes and all is well. But then your little one starts to crawl. Now, whenever your dog tries to move away, baby wants to follow. You do your best to manage it by running to grab her when she won't leave him alone, but think, "Honestly, he's never bitten, and he only growls when she pulls his fur or tries to lie on him…"
In no time, baby is pulling up on the edge of the coffee table, the couch, the ottoman. She shimmies herself all the way around the living room that way. Until now, Rover has been able to hide on the couch while she's crawling on the floor, but now his very last hiding place is gone.
One day, when he's fast asleep, your little one tries to pull up on the couch but accidentally grabs his foot. He bites her — hard — resulting in several stitches.
This is a scenario that Jennifer Shryock, founder of Family Paws Parent Education, hears about almost every day. Distraught and traumatized parents regularly call her company's parent hotline for support and advice from her team of educators about what to do next.
If you're worried that this kind of escalation could happen in your own home, it's important to recognize the warning signs. Because the harsh reality is that the average pet parent knows very little about the most common signs of stress in dogs.
YouTube is plastered with cute dog-and-baby videos in which the family dog tolerates pulling, grabbing, squeezing and squealing. These are often loving, engaged parents. They genuinely have no idea how their dog actually feels about these exchanges (and I get it: they really do look adorable). It's so easy to judge from the comfort of our living rooms, but the truth is that any dog can snap or bite, given the right circumstances.
So, what are some of the signs of a stressed out dog? According to Shryock, there are a few commonly missed indicators that parents should start watching out for.
- The tongue flick: When dogs are stressed, they often flick their tongues quickly in and out, like a lizard. This habit is so subtle that it often goes unnoticed. The problem? To a child, it can look like a kiss! While you're standing back filming all those sweet smooches, your dog is desperately trying to get your child to move away from its face.
- Averting eye contact: Dogs will often sharply turn their faces away from a person or another dog when under stress. Other dogs interpret this as a request for distance, but toddlers are hardwired to seek eye contact. When a dog turns his head away, many kids will actually move closer or even circle around him to restore that connection, which can feel threatening.
- Moving away: Dogs are very precise with their body language. If a dog moves away from a baby, it's because it wants distance from the baby. The challenge is that toddlers and crawling babies are fast. They relentlessly follow the dog from room to room, even trying to hug the dog as a way to keep it close.
Now that you know what stress looks like, what can you do to prevent it? Don't panic if you see these warning signs in your own dog. Shryock says that there's actually a lot that you can do to help your dogs feel less overwhelmed and avoid things escalating to a bite.
Introduce baby gates and use them — a lot
Basically, unless you're able to actively supervise your dog and baby, and be totally engaged in their interactions (that means no computer, no dishes, no cell phone), then your dog should be separated by a baby gate.
Many parents worry that this will be too lonely for their dog. What they don't realize is that the separation is usually a huge relief. Don't forget that Rover has likely spent the better part of most days feeling quite anxious. Having a place where he can go that the baby isn't allowed could be life changing for him.
Plan designated dog-and-baby time
After introducing separation, it's important to make sure you include your dog in your baby's life in ways that are fun, intentional and safe. The difference this time around? You'll be directly involved. If you're playing with your child on the floor, situate yourself between the baby and your dog to provide him with a bit of breathing room. Then engage in simple activities that are comfortable for everyone. Family Paws recommends games such as "kibble fetch": where baby throws a piece of kibble, while parent asks the dog to sit or lie down before fetching and repeating.
Remember "invites decrease bites"
Teach your child from an early age not to follow the dog. If your little one wants to say hello, teach him or her to call out to the dog and invite him over (with your supervision, of course). If the dog moves away, explain that he doesn't want to say hi. The amount of security this will give your dog might surprise you.
So, what's the takeaway from all this (often overwhelming) information? When it comes to dogs and babies, knowledge is power. Bites don't usually happen out of the blue; if your dog is trying to communicate his fear, and nobody's listening, then he'll turn up the volume.
The better you are at reading your dog's escalating levels of stress, the safer everyone will be. Parenthood is stressful and exhausting, but implementing a few easy changes will give you one less thing to worry about.
Danielle Hodges is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Licensed Family Paws Parent Educator for Dog, baby, and toddler safety. She is co-owner of Follow the Leader Inc Dog Training School with locations in Toronto and Hamilton.