The pairing of children and dogs can seem idyllic, but the reality is to ensure the safety of both parties, it’s crucial that all interactions between the two are closely supervised.
Whether you have a new pet or they’ve been part of your family for years, introducing a child into your home environment (or bringing a new pet home to children) changes the dynamic in a way that most parents might not realize. Tragically, this oversight can result in undesired interactions, or even injury to unsuspecting children.
Here’s what parents need to know about safely integrating children, babies and dogs in your household.
Interactions between children and dogs
From a dog’s perspective, there are several nuances about children that will often make them feel uncomfortable. For example, the small stature of most children puts them at eye level with most dogs. In the canine world, frontal approaches and direct eye contact are perceived as threatening. So since a child’s eye line has a higher likelihood of being level with a dog’s, this places them at a higher risk for dog bite or injury. A child’s default greeting may be to wrap their arms around a dog’s neck, grab at their faces or lean in for a kiss, this also places them at a higher risk for a dog bite or injury.
High pitched shrieks, squeals and sudden bursts of movement from children can also function to startle a dog or make them nervous. There are also the curious children, who might pinch, grab and yank at dog ears or tails.
For these reasons, it is imperative to supervise all interactions between children and pets. Additionally, children are more likely to mirror the behaviors they see their caretaker(s) perform toward the dog to then perform themselves. Take the time to talk with your child about the proper ways to greet and handle a dog, while also leading by example:
- When first meeting, kneel down to the side of the dog with shoulders parallel to theirs. Don’t “square off” with a dog by facing her directly with your full body. Avoid direct eye contact and offer soft and slow blinks – this is something dogs perceive as de-escalatory behavior and works as a calming signal.
- If the dog approaches you, gently pet their underneath their chin, on their chest or their back (don’t reach over their head). These are the spots where dogs are most comfortable being touched. Take frequent breaks every 3 strokes and perform a consent check to assess if the dog is still interested in pets.
- Do not go in for a hug or a kiss. Do not grab at or touch the dog’s face. Although these are gestures of endearment for humans, dogs don’t know that, and perceive these behaviors as uncomfortable or threatening.
- Never approach a dog who is sleeping, eating, chewing on a toy or bone or caring for puppies.
- Always ask the pet parent first before petting the dog. Allow the dog to approach you. Read the dog's body language before and during the interaction to ensure you have the dog's permission the entire time.
Introducing your dog and new baby
Welcoming a baby into your world is a momentous change – for both you and your dog. This is why it is crucial to adequately prepare your pup in the months before the arrival of the newest addition to your family.
Here are several things you can do to prepare your pet for the upcoming changes:
- Brush up on your dog’s obedience skills – practice cues such as sit, down, touch, wait, leave it, drop it, go to bed, etc.
- Once your pup is responding to their cues consistently, try practicing them while sitting in a chair or walking around while cradling something in your arms. This will help prepare you and your pup for the real-life scenario.
- Practice short times of separation such as crating or waiting behind a baby gate. Also practice having your pet sleep at night in a separated area away from you like a crate, behind a pet gate or in another room. Your pup may not be able to be with you at all times once the baby comes, so practice in advance and reward your dog with treats when they're calm.
- Accustom your pet to baby-related noises and equipment – play recordings of a baby crying, turn on the mechanical infant swing and use the rocking chair. Make these positive experiences for your pet by offering continuous tiny treats or playtime during exposure.
- Identify what behaviors your dog offers when they want your attention and then decide if these are acceptable behaviors for when a baby comes. For example, barking for your attention, jumping on your lap, pawing or nuzzling your arm or hand for pets.
- Train your pet to remain calmly on the floor beside you until you invite them on your lap, which will soon cradle a newborn.
- Consider enrolling in a training class with your dog and practice training techniques. Register online for San Diego Humane Society’s Level 1: Marvelous Manners class.
- Find a licensed Family Paws Parent Educator in your local area: http://familypaws.com or on San Diego Humane Society's Trainer Directory.
- Finally, plan ahead to make sure your pet gets proper care while you're at the birthing center.
After the baby is born
- When you return from the hospital, have someone else take the baby into another room while you give your pet a warm, but calm, welcome.
- Your pet does not have to directly interact with your baby when you get home. The homecoming process should be calm and done when all are ready.
- Your dog does not need to directly sniff the baby or their blanket in order to be introduced, however, if you would like your dog to sniff the baby, try the foot and avoid the head.
- Including your pet in the bonding process is important however they do not need to be directly in the midst of everything. Baby gates or crates are wonderful ways to safely allow your pet to be part of the experience while keeping them from directly interacting with the baby. Giving your dog an activity such as stuffed kongs or bones will allow them to make a positive association with your baby being in the room. See Success Stations handout.
- Remember, all encounters between dog and baby must be with awake and active adult supervision- this means full attention, not using the phone/computer, reading or interacting with anything else. Never leave your baby unattended with your dog even for a second. Take the dog with you out of the room, shut the door to the baby room or crate them while you are gone.
- When taking pictures, always have an adult hold the baby.
- To prevent anxiety or injury, never force your pet to get near the baby, and always provide active supervision during any interaction.
- Young babies move through developmental stages quickly, be aware of how to manage your home environment to set both your dog and baby up for success through each phase.
Other helpful resources
The website www.familypaws.com is a foundation that is dedicated to offering free education, videos and training services for families looking to successfully integrate babies (or toddlers) with dogs in the household.