by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
One of the most exciting stages of life involves starting a family. This excitement may be tempered a bit for the young couple who will be introducing a 'bundle of joy' into a home where a pet arrived first. There is always concern about how the pet will respond to this new member in the family.
Balancing these anxieties, however, with the realization that growing up with a pet can add a special dimension to a child's life, must be kept in mind. There are some rather simple steps that should be taken to help ensure that this special relationship with the child can develop. This will include socializing and training a puppy early in its life, adequately preparing the pet for the new baby's arrival and ensuring safe interactions between the pet and the young child.
For anyone thinking of starting a family, there are some simple measures to immediately begin ' the socializing to children' process. The puppy should be enrolled in puppy classes when 2 1/2 to 3 months old. Often some of the puppies in such classes have children in their family. This will begin your puppy's exposure to youngsters. Once a puppy has learned some of the basics, ask some of the children you know to ask your pup to sit and get a treat. This shows the puppy that being around children is a positive experience. Teach the puppy to be relaxed while eating. Talk with it, pat it gently, and sit beside it, while it eats. Be sure the puppy is comfortable with all parts of its body being touched - ears, paws, tail, collar and so on - while offering it a small treat.
Before the baby arrives, be sure your pet is healthy, up to date with vaccines and feeling well. If in the pet's past there has been fear or unease ever shown with babies or children, perhaps consider a referral from your veterinarian to a behaviourist. It might be a good time to have a refresher course in obedience training. At a minimum, practice some basic obedience commands with your dog in order to have the control you need. Try to establish a regular routine with your pet, a schedule that allows it to know when predictable times for play and attention will occur. It may be a good idea to plan to have a dog walker for a bit after the baby first arrives. It may also ease the adjustment for your pet if it sees you carrying a doll around, placing it in a crib or sitting on the sofa with it, before the real baby arrives. There are even recordings of baby sounds, if they are needed. If your dog approaches or responds positively to the doll or the recording, reward it appropriately.
Your pet is likely to be quite excited when mom and new baby arrive home. It's an exciting time for everyone. Delay the introduction of the pet to the baby until things have returned to a more calm status. You can allow the dog to approach and sniff the baby (wrapped in a blanket), but it's usually best for two adults to be present, one who is in charge of the dog who is leashed or in a head halter. Whenever, the dog responds calmly to the baby's presence or vocalizations, praise the dog, and possibly reward with a treat. Try to have a food-stuffed toy or favourite chew to distract and satisfy the dog at those times when the baby requires your undivided attention.
A baby, of course, is always growing and changing, it will be moving more, making new sounds and becoming more independent and interactive with your pet. You will need to be sure that at each new stage of its development, your dog remains calm and understanding of the change.
Remember, babies and young children should never be left alone with any dog and need to be closely supervised when a dog is present. It is not possible to predict how even friendly dogs or family dogs will react to new situations or different circumstances with children. As soon as possible, children need to be taught safe behaviour around dogs. This teaching needs to happen, by example, as well as by words, from their parents. Never be afraid to discuss behaviour issues or ask your veterinarian for advice when dealing with issues like this one concerning your pet. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca