I remember the day I brought my first dog home. She was a rescue pup with a sad history. Bitsy was a 7lb chihuahua mix with sad eyes and a fear of just about everything. I remember how bonded I felt to her. It was my job to show her a better life and love her to pieces. I was a 25-year-old dog mom and I couldn’t imagine loving something more than her.
5 years later, I was pregnant with my son and Bitsy could definitely tell something was up. She stuck to me like glue through my pregnancy. When my son was born and went to the NICU, I had lots of time to sit and think, and it struck me that I never considered how a new baby would affect my fur baby.
Going down the kid/dog article rabbit hole was scary. The stories of babies and children being harmed by dogs frightened me. But I was able to pull a few suggestions from my reading. I left the NICU that night with my son’s hospital blanket stuffed into my bag. This is probably the most basic step most parents take. I took it home and put it in her dog bed. She didn’t seem interested in it, but I kept bringing his blankets home so she would be used to his scent.
I felt like a superb parent. I had done the thing I was supposed to do. So why didn’t I feel like this was enough? I decided to call my vet one afternoon while on a NICU break. My instincts were spot on. The myth of “bringing home a baby’s blanket” was simply not enough. I had a lot of learning to do before my son came home.
When he was finally discharged, I had a solid plan in place. I made it a point to come into the home and greet Bitsy myself, without my son. I was calm. I made sure I greeted her the same way I always had, so nothing felt unusual or heightened. Our dogs can read our feelings like a book. They sense our anxiety and respond in kind. Once I had greeted Bitsy, I brought her into the backyard, on her leash, where my husband was waiting with our son. I sat down, holding a baby, and allowed her to sniff our son from a distance. She was interested but kept her distance.
Once I brought a baby into the house, she was very curious about this little human. I held him in “our” chair, where she always sat next to me. I only let her in the chair when my son was asleep on my chest, or not with me. His activity could have startled her, so I sought to make sure her experiences near him were calm and happy ones. As time went by, she became our nursing buddy, curled up under my arm.
But, there were times where his existence scared her. Some dogs respond to fear with aggression. Some respond by hiding or retreating. Bitsy was the latter. He would squeal or cry and she would run and hide behind the toilet, shaking. It broke my heart. But consistency is so important, so I always responded calmly, giving her the space she needed by placing my son in his pack and play so she could come out of her hiding spot and sniff around again.
I learned some things in those days that helped when we brought home baby #2. Dogs get stressed. And when they get stressed, their behavior can be unpredictable. Knowing what those triggers are for your dog and heading them off before they happen can ease the anxiety for your dog. My son was LOUD during meals. He would cry and pull off the breast, cry while burping, cry because he was tired…he was loud. Over time I figured out that as much as I loved having Bitsy with us while he ate, the noise was not making her feel calm. So, before I fed him, I would put her in her crate with a treat and a bone to chew on. This helped her create good associations with his cries. He cried, she got treats and a bone. After 3 days, she would see me carrying him with a burp cloth, and she would go wait in her crate. She was a fairly calm dog and very easy going. I was very lucky that she was so tolerant and loving.
When it came to dog # 2 and baby #2, we had a much bigger job to tackle. I knew this dog, a high-strung poodle mix named Daisy, was going to need a lot more structure and interventions. She had come onto the scene just as my son started walking, and the first time he pulled up on the sofa, she was on guard. Panting and avoiding eye contact, I knew immediately changes would have to be made before baby #2 came.
Daisy met our daughter in the same way Bitsy met our son. I brought her outside onto the sidewalk in neutral territory, and I sat on the concrete and cradled my sleeping, 2-day old baby. I spoke softly to Daisy and let her sniff my baby’s feet. I kept treats in my pocket and the moment she sat down in front of me, I treated her. We didn’t do as much “trial and error” with Daisy. If children were eating or nursing, she was in her crate. When my daughter was playing on the floor, the dog went outside for playtime or into her crate to rest. With time and patience, she grew to love and protect the tiny humans in her house, but it was definitely a lot more effort than simply bringing home a blanket or walking around with a baby doll on my shoulder!
Bringing home baby? Here are the quick tips you need to know!
- Keep calm. Your dog feeds off your emotions
- Yes, you can bring the blanket home! But keep reading!
- Greet your dog before bringing a baby into your space, or consider introducing them in a more neutral space
- Treat your dog for calm, polite manners around your baby
- Consider what stressors your pet has in regards to their new sibling, and think about giving them some outside playtime or quiet crate time with a treat and a toy or bone when those times occur.
- Make time for your pet! This is new and strange for them. Make sure you are still giving them the love and attention they need and deserve!