Introducing Family Dog to Baby

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette   


Babies, pets can bond

By Linda Wilson Fuoco – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – The pretty cocker spaniel puppy was welcomed with great enthusiasm into a home where she quickly became the much-loved center of attention. All was well until the new baby arrived, and the dog was banished from the house. Tethered to a dog house in the back yard, she sulked, misbehaved and ultimately ran away.That particular dog is the fictional “Lady” from the 1955 Disney animated movie “Lady and the Tramp.” But the situation is true to life. The arrival of a new baby is a life-altering event for people and for pets, who often fare far worse than Lady.     In hundreds of local households every year, the family dog or cat exits the home shortly before or soon after the new baby arrives.“I’m pregnant” and “the dog (or cat) doesn’t get along with the baby” were the reasons cited by 300 people who surrendered pets last year to the North Side shelter of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.At the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania, the number was 250. “The actual total is probably higher,” said Mark Berton, communications director at the East Liberty shelter, “because not everyone fills in a reason when they sign the papers to give up a pet.”First-time parents can be especially nervous. The joy of pending parenthood is often coupled with angst about potential problems.“People often are terrified and have unrealistic fears” about pets and babies, said Barbara Golden, a trainer at the Animal Rescue League. “Family members often put pressure on the new parents” to get rid of the cat or dog, “especially, perhaps, relatives who have not grown up with dogs.”The worst-case scenario — the dog bites the baby — is blessedly rare and easily preventable. All trainers and animal experts agree that dogs and cats should never be left alone with infants and toddlers.

Some soon-to-be-moms are still told the myth that cats can suck the breath out of a baby’s mouth.

“That doesn’t happen,” said Shelley Caldwell, a registered nurse and a trainer at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. And while cats are generally considered to be less trainable than dogs, cats are not likely to go after an infant with the intent to hurt it.

“They tend to go away from unfamiliar things,” Ms. Caldwell said. “With a cat, it’s best to let the cat come to the baby. Don’t force the baby on the cat.”

Some people worry about the shedding of fur and hair from dogs and cats.

“Fur and hair are no more harmful to babies than dust,” Ms. Caldwell said.

Another concern is allergies.

Most children are not allergic to pets, and recent studies have shown that children raised around pets are actually less likely to develop allergic reactions to dogs and cats than children who have not been around them on a regular basis.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 2002 showed that babies living in homes with more than one pet before their first birthday had half the risk of developing allergies as children without pets. The exposure stimulates their immune systems early so they tend to be hardier against allergens and other environmental exposures.

Advance planning and preparation can put everyone — canine, feline and human — at ease, trainers say.

While the three women interviewed for this article are dog trainers, many of the tips could apply to cats and other pets.

The first tip is make plans, well in advance, for the arrival of the baby and let the dog or cat be in on preparations.

“As you prepare the baby’s room or space, bring in supplies so that the dog can become accustomed to new scents like baby powder” and diaper rash creams, said Ms. Golden.

“Don’t banish the dog from the nursery,” said Ms. Caldwell. She suggests putting a mat in the baby’s room and teaching the dog to “sit” and “stay” there so it won’t be in the way when you are tending to the baby.

Get a baby doll and let the dog see you carrying, cuddling and tending to the doll, said Deborah Miller-Gurchak of Hollybush Dog Training Services in Peters.

Put baby powder and other baby products on the doll, said Ms. Golden. “It really does help,” said Ms. Miller-Gurchak, who had three dogs when she was pregnant with her first child.

Let the dog listen to a tape of a baby crying, all three suggest. Animals can become uneasy about sounds they’ve never heard before. Also, a baby’s cry can sound like the cries of a dying rabbit or other prey animal, which can be stressful, Ms. Caldwell, said.

While the baby is still in the hospital, dad or another family member can bring home a T-shirt that the baby has worn and let the dog smell that, Ms. Miller-Gurchak said, so it comes to “know” the baby before it enters the house. Put the T-shirt on the baby doll, Ms. Golden suggests.

Send one of the baby’s receiving blankets home and put it in the dog’s bed or under the dog’s food dish, Ms. Caldwell said. Dogs like to eat, so the dog will associate the smell of the baby as a positive thing.

When it’s time to bring the baby into the house, let mom come in first without the baby. Mom should make a big fuss over the dog or cat. Let dad or another relative bring the baby in a few minutes later and let the dog see and smell the baby.

“Keep everybody calm and neutral,” Ms. Golden said. “I think people have a tendency to get nervous and overprotective of a baby. Dogs pick up on that” and can become nervous and fearful.

Dogs that snap or bite often do so because they are fearful, not because they are bad or mean.

“A dog that used to get all of your attention becomes the forgotten family member. Some people put the dog in the basement and wonder why the dog deteriorates,” Ms. Golden said. A good dog may start doing “bad” things like barking, whining, growling, or urinating and defecating in the house.

“A baby will change your schedule, and you will have less time for your dog,” but you need to find the time to show pets some attention and affection, Ms. Golden said. A pet that is included is likely to bond with the baby.

“When I had my first baby, the dog and the cat would come and get me when the baby would cry,” Ms. Golden said.

When babies crawl and later walk, they have to be taught not to pull tails and ears.

“When it all gets to be more than you can handle at one time, especially if there are multiple children and you can’t properly supervise everything, you can send the dog to a ‘time out’ in a safe place like a crate” or an area away from the children, Ms. Caldwell said.

Some people contact professional trainers before the baby arrives, “but unfortunately I find that’s the exception, rather than the rule,” Ms. Caldwell said.

Trainers are sometimes called after problems develop.

“I recently had a call where a large dog owned by the grandparents actually bit a baby,” Ms. Miller-Gurchak said. “The parents took the baby into the grandparents’ house” with no advance preparation. “They walked through the door with the baby in their arms, and the dog ran up to them and bit the baby’s foot.”

The parents and the grandparents who own the dog wanted to work things out. Ms. Miller-Gurchak visited the home where the dog lives and determined that the dog was fearful, not mean or aggressive. She’s working with the dog, the parents of the baby and the grandparents. All are optimistic that the situation can be worked out.

Lady and the Tramp had a happy ending. Lady came home, and both she and Tramp were made to feel like part of the family.

Happy endings with babies and dogs usually occur in real life, too, the trainers say. It may take a bit of effort — and sometimes some help from professionals.

(Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at or 412-263-3064. )

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