Pets and kids: How to prep a dog for life with a newborn

Bringing a baby home for the first time can be daunting. Even for your dog. Here's how to prepare your pet for life with a new human.
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I am one of those pet owners. I call myself mom (often!) to my dog Carter, an 11-year-old miniature pinscher, who has been in my life since he was six weeks old. I've also called him my son, fur-kid, baby, etc.

But now that I am expecting a real human baby, I am nervous as to how my pooch will react when she comes home. After all, he has had most of my attention for more than a decade.

So I reached out to Andria Gordon of the North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic to help me, well us, with the transition.

What is the best way to prep an older dog for life with a newborn before the baby arrives?
"Set up a safe haven for him which can be a quiet corner, or den area, a physical crate," Gordon recommends. "Give him lots of delicious rewards and give him lots of enriching toys when he's in that area. Teach him to go there on a cue, and always reward him for doing so. Having a verbal cue to send a dog to a specific place can be huge, especially when when baby starts crawling, and then walking!" Gordon says it's best to train our pooch to love this safe haven, and, even better, if it can be a portable spot, we can be mobile as a family.

She also notes: "The first few weeks with a new baby will likely be overwhelming enough with your sleep schedule off and baby settling in, but there may also be many visitors coming to meet the baby!" So making sure that Carter has a place he can retreat to where he feels safe and will not be disturbed, is very important, as he won't feel overwhelmed and can go there when he needs some comfort.

Furthermore, Gordon recommends that we set up the nursery and introduce all the new furniture and baby gear into the home well before baby arrives. This will allow our pooch to check out and acclimatize to the new set up.

Do you recommend having someone bring one of the baby's blankets home from the hospital (before baby comes home) so the pooch can get used to baby's scent?
"[This is a] great idea to introduce the baby's scent on a blanket, or towel," says Gordon.  "Just let him have sniff and investigate. Some dogs may be aroused, excited and curious, while others may not seem interested. It depends on the dog." But regardless of their reaction, it's important to expose them to baby's scent, so when she finally does come home, he is already familiar.

I have read to set limits re: the dog and allowing them to enter the nursery. Do you agree with this philosophy?
This one of more personal preference, believes Gordon, based on a few factors. These include your dog's size, age, temperament, activity level, and their training background. And only you know your pooch's personality quirks. "Ideally, I'd want to have taught my dog some foundation behaviours, like going to his place and settling, and have them reliably on cue," she says. "If I didn't have that, I might use barriers such as baby gates so that I could have some guaranteed dog-free areas." Mat training or knowing that your animal will lay down on command is great as well, because that way you can hang out in the same room for an extended period of time, like when you're breast feeding your newborn. And for dog's who love couch time, mat training is a good way to transition them to the floor, which will be more ideal once baby arrives.

And don't forget: "Your set-up will change as the baby starts to become mobile," notes Gordon. "Close supervision will then be required and you'll need baby gates likely at some point, somewhere, as baby becomes more exploratory. Barriers are not just to keep dog away from baby, but also to keep baby away from dog!" That means training your baby early on to be gentle with your dog, as well, meaning no grabbing, hitting or pushing.

Our dog sleeps on his bed in our room and we're planning on having baby in there with us for the first few months. Should we move him out into living room?
"I would move him into the living room or to his safe haven, or an area where he already naps, and feels comfortable relaxing in," she recommends. If baby is up all night crying, a very likely reality in the first few weeks, the dog is likely going to be happy to be out of there, in his safe haven, instead. "If you have large bedroom, a well behaved and well settled dog, and a quiet, sleep-through-the-night baby, then it might make sense for the whole family to stay together." Generally speaking, though, once baby comes home, the dog will be getting less attention than he's used to, so Gordon thinks it makes sense to get him used to spending periods of time away from me and my husband. She did say to distract or occupy the dog with some fun stuff in his new environment, such as kongs with frozen peanut butter or canned food.

Any tips on how to properly introduce baby and dog? We are planning on having our parents watch our dog while we're at the hospital and possibly for a few days after. Is this good or bad?
"I love this idea!" she says. "There's a lot going on with a new baby in the home, and sending the dog on a little vacation during that hectic time is great." This allows for our new family to get settled and we can introduce the scent of baby to our pooch while he's at our parents just prior to introducing the dog to his new family member. "You can pair delicious food rewards with the presence of the baby to help your dog learn his/her presence means great things," she advises.  If you have an overactive pooch, make sure he or she is on a short leash for the first introduction and ask for and reinforce calm behaviours from your dog such as lie down, or settle in the presence of the baby.

Another key point is to make sure to incorporate your dog into your new routine with baby. A few tips from Gordon: Teach him to walk beside the stroller by going on short walks a few times daily. Know how to read your dog, and always watch your dog's body language for signs that he is worried, stressed or upset. These might include lip licking, yawning, shaking off, staring, tense body language. "And if you're worried your dog is having a hard time adjusting to your new baby or seems nervous, or upset I definitely suggest consulting with a professional dog trainer who uses positive, reward-based training methods," she concludes.

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