In an ideal world, pets and babies would always get along. In reality, there’s no telling how your animal companion will react to the new member of the family. Sometimes, pet owners have reported being delighted with the reaction, as their pet not only welcomes the newcomer, but actually undertakes responsibility for its protection. In other cases, pets appear indifferent, but at least show no intent to harm the child so long as it stays on its side of the fence.
Then there’s the worst case scenario, where the incumbent actually views the newcomer as a threat. It’s not hard to see how something resembling sibling rivalry could arise between pets and babies; as your pet, who has been the center of your love and attention until now, suddenly finds itself relegated to the bench.
With the right approach, however, you can prevent a family tragedy and ensure your pet and baby get off to a good start. You probably feel you have enough on your plate with an infant on the way, or possibly already in residence; but taking steps to ensure that pets and babies live in peace and harmony should be a priority when planning for a baby.
How to prepare pets for a new baby
If the arrival of the baby is still pending, then you’ve got some time to lay solid foundations for the future of pet-baby relations. The Humane Society recommends taking the following preparatory measures:
- Arrange a routine health exam for your pet, just as a safety measure.
- If you have not had your pet spayed or neutered, now may be the time. Sterilized pets have fewer health issues than intact pets, and are less prone to sudden bouts of anger or anxiety.
- Areas that will be off-limits to your pet, such as the baby’s room, should be established well in advance by setting up barriers (baby gates).
- Any behavioral issues that you may have observed should now be addressed with the assistance of a professional animal behaviorist. It’s important to deal with problems now so they don’t complicate pet-baby relations later on.
- If you’ve never trained your dog, start now. Training has long-term benefits for good manners and self-control. Accredited trainers are invaluable sources of advice when it comes to dogs and babies.
- Get your pet accustomed to the sounds and smells of a baby. For example, sprinkle baby powder on your skin, play recordings of babies crying, and carry a baby-sized doll in your arms.
Introducing pets and babies
The key to fostering good relations between pets and babies is to ensure your dog or cat associates the newcomer with positive emotions. That includes positive reactions from you. If your initial response when you see your pet investigating the new arrival is panic or anger, then that’s already a bad start, as your pet immediately begins to associate the baby with rejection.
Instead, try employing the following methods, recommended by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA):
- Give your pet lots of attention when the baby is awake and less attention when the baby is asleep. That way, they associate the baby with care rather than neglect.
- Reward pets with treats when baby is around, so they associate the baby with reward. This is especially useful when you introduce pets to baby, as it ensures they get a good first impression of the new resident. It’s also a handy way to distract your pets when you need them to get out from underfoot.
- Make sure your pet has a quiet, peaceful spot he can retreat to when baby-related activity gets too much.
- Don’t force pets to interact with the baby. Instead, reward any gentle curiosity towards the newcomer with treats and positive attention.
What if your dog is iffy around the baby?
Parents feel a great deal of internal conflict if their pets react negatively towards their baby. Obviously they want to protect their baby, but punishment worsens the situation, as pets associate the baby with nastiness.
It’s especially important not to scold or punish your dog for growling at the baby. Your pet is at least giving you a warning sign that they’re getting agitated. If they’re punished for doing so they will simply stop giving any warnings and any sudden reaction will look like it ‘came out of nowhere’.
So what can you do in this situation? Condition your dog’s behavior by training them to associate the baby with pleasure rather than pain. In a situation where the dog already has negative feelings towards the baby, consult a certified animal trainer or behaviorist. These professionals work with your pet using methods not too dissimilar to those employed a therapist helping a patient adjust their emotional responses to a situation.
Always choose a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT), or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB). And follow your gut. If you don’t feel comfortable with the methods proposed, look around for someone else.