While I’ve wanted to be a mom for quite some time, I have to admit I’ve actually been one most of my life—to my dogs. Yet, as I looked at those two pink lines on the pregnancy test, I didn’t fully grasp how my dog mom role was about to take a big turn.
My two long-coat Chihuahuas are a big part of my life. They were there for me when I was alone. They licked my face when I cried of a broken heart and rejoiced with me when I finally met and married my husband. They’re my best friends and I want to make sure they still feel as important to me and to our “pack” as they’ve always been when our baby arrives.
In the rush of excitement, emotions and preparations for the new life that will join our family later this summer, those two pairs of big brown eyes watched me with an almost knowing glint. They could sense a change, or perhaps even smell it as the hormone levels changed in my body. I realized I would need to give as much attention to preparing the four-legged part of my family for the change as much as us bipeds. But how on Earth do I do that?
Pregnancy magazines and books both tout and peddle CDs and tapes of babies crying to help “acclimate your pets to your future arrival.” Having spent my whole life with animals, and the last 10 with the extremely intelligent Chihuahuas, I was curious how this would really help. Other than drive me completely nuts, how would noises from a baby the dogs will never meet help them? I called Seattle dog behaviorist and author Steve Duno for some advice.
“The dogs will wonder where the noise is coming from for a while, but after time, they’ll just think of it as background noise,” Duno says. “It probably doesn’t hurt, but if you really want to prepare your pets, you need to focus on their main sense—smell. They’ll get the most information and respond the best if you work with them through scent.”
With that advice, Duno suggested I let the dogs smell me throughout my pregnancy and avoid the urge to push them away, even if their curiosity is a bit embarrassing given where they’ll sniff. “They probably already know something is up,” he says. “Let them explore the scent and be positive with them when they do through petting and praise. By consistently treating these changes as a positive thing for the dogs, you’ll be paving the way for them to accept this new creature into their pack.”
Another thing Duno suggests I do with the dogs before the baby comes is refresh their training, such as having them sit to greet people, practice not jumping up, and reinforce “stay” and “wait” commands, all important skills that will help them, and me, after the baby arrives.
Duno came by the house to give me a few pointers on how to work on these skills. While my oldest, Jack, was quick to respond to commands and treats, my youngest, Daggett, was showing his stubborn streak. He’d need work with “wait” as he tends to nose his way in for attention. This, Duno says, can cause problems after the baby comes. The dogs need to know to wait their turn and not try to take attention from the baby.
Duno demonstrated the “wait” command by holding up his hand to one dog and saying the word, then giving the other attention. Once he was finished with the first dog, he reached for the waiting one, which was the dog’s cue to come forward for his attention. I’ve been practicing this ever since and am not only impressed with how quick the boys are picking it up, but also how much better Daggett is behaving as a result. It will be easy now to tell them to wait when I’m doing something with my daughter.
In addition to refresher behavior courses, Duno also suggests changing any habits now that won’t work with the baby, such as bed sharing. I have to admit, this is hard for me. Jack has been sleeping with me since I brought him home as a puppy. Daggett always preferred his carrier to our bed. I hesitated to kick Jack out of the bed when I got married; concerned he’d relate that action to competing with my husband. However, as we’d just completed an addition to our house about the time Duno gave me the advice, I bit the bullet and the day we moved into our new master bedroom, Jack began sleeping with Daggett in a new sheepskin-lined crate. As it turned out, he reluctantly accepted the new arrangements and we never faced the night of heartbreaking yaps and whines I feared.
When it comes to the big day—introduction—Duno says there are a couple of things you can do to prepare your dog. One is to have a family member bring home a blanket or piece of clothing the newborn just used in the hospital before bringing the baby home. Let the dog sniff it and leave it in her bed or on the floor so he can become accustomed to the scent.
Then, on the day you bring your new family member home, use the “wait” command as you enter and sit with your baby, then allow the dog to approach. Carefully monitor the dog’s first visit, allowing him to sniff the baby gently.
“It’s important to help the dog associate good things with the baby so they see it as a good addition to the pack,” Duno says. “If the dog is sniffing carefully and obviously being gentle, give lots of praise and petting, or even a treat. Keep this up every time the dog is behaving well around the baby as this is helping strengthen the bond. The dog will see that protecting and caring for this new member of the pack will always bring good things.”
Another bonding technique Duno recommends is going for walks as a “pack.” Take baby for walks in the stroller and bring the dog along. By including your pet, you’re strengthening the pack dynamic while also showing your pet he’s still an important part of the family.
Rachel and Tom Lazar took many of these steps with their Lab/sharpei mix Winston before their new daughter Samantha came home last October. The results, as well as Winston’s already calm temperament, resulted in a beautiful friendship.
“When we brought Sam home, he was very gentle with her right away,” Rachel recalls. “We’d set up all her baby gear well ahead of time so he could get used to it and then brought home her baby blanket after she was born but before she came home to help him get comfortable with her scent. The hardest part for him in the beginning I think was when she’d cry. It would really stress him out. But after a few days, he started coming to me to let me know she was crying. And within a couple of weeks, he realized it was his job to protect her.”
Within a few months, Winston became a pro at helping resolve his own source of stress when it came to Sam. Rachel and Tom started supervising “play” with Winston and Sam almost immediately, laying Sam next to Winston on the floor. Winston remained calm and Sam seemed to love the company. As her motor skills increased, she started “petting” Winston by making a fist in his hair. Close supervision kept Winton from having too many hair pulls and soon they were best buddies. “Now when Sam’s fussy, I can just put her down with Winston and she calms very quick as he nuzzles her and she plays with his fur,” Rachel said.
However, the key to this success has been close monitoring by the Lazars. Just as they watch out for Sam’s wellbeing, they’re also watching for signs of Winston’s stress. He gives the couple a look when he’s had enough hair and ear tugging but can’t get away. “We never leave them alone together so that we can assure their relationship is a positive one,” Rachel says. “We watch for Winston to show he’s had enough and we move Sam so he can go find some peace.”
The Lazars also credit their overall positive experience to socializing Winston well in advance. The couple took their dog on walks where kids could be found, training him to sit to greet youngsters and allowing kids to pet him. “We really worked to assure he was well socialized around kids,” Tom said.
But the work isn’t over once the baby is home and the pets seem to be adjusted. Duno emphasizes the importance of continuing to carve out time for your fur kids. The Lazars have kept to this philosophy, making sure Winston continues to feel like an important part of the family through his own playtime with the couple as well as cuddle time with Sam.
So how will Jack and Daggett respond to their new pack member? Time will tell, but with regular “wait” training, as well as lots of love and treats, I think we have a great chance for a very tight family, two- and four-legged alike.