Figures from the RSPCA reveal that of the 63 per cent of Australians who own pets, 38 per cent of those are dogs that typically live in a home where the primary carer is female and married with kids.
As a result, it would be fair to conclude there are a lot of dogs out there who have been witness to a new family member joining their ‘pack’. This will have resulted in many changes happening in their lives – most significantly, it will have resulted in them having to move down in the home’s pecking order.
According to Dr Lewis Kirkham, a veterinarian with further qualifications in animal behaviour, and author of Tell Your Dog You're Pregnant: An essential guide for dog owners who are expecting a baby, there are many things you can do to help the transition. The key is to do them early.
“The biggest problem for the dog is the number of changes that occur when a new baby 'suddenly' arrives home,” says Kirkham. “All changes should ideally occur as early as possible to give both the owners and the dog time to assess how these changes will affect the household.” This will mean owners can see and overcome any anxiety issues the dog may develop in response to the changes, and will prevent the changes from being associated with the new baby’s arrival.
Cassie Dangerfield, a mum of one, can relate, saying that her dog Rummy, a mastiff-cross Dane, was her 'baby' before her son Dexter arrived.
“[Rummy] has never had any real restrictions and always tended to come in and out of the house as she pleased, but we knew we had to prepare her for Dexter’s arrival as soon as possible,” she says. “We did this by setting the boundary early on that Rummy was not to enter the nursery.”
When the new mum came home from hospital she waited until Dexter was asleep in his bassinet before she introduced Rummy to him through the bars, all the time patting her and telling her how good she was.
“I didn't want her to fear him,” says Dangerfield. “I think when there is fear, anxiety, jealousy or resentment towards the baby, that’s when bad things can happen.”
Kirkham recommends introductions happen sooner rather than later, to help avoid the dog becoming overly inquisitive or anxious over the new ‘item’.
“Ideally the introduction should occur when the baby first comes home from the hospital,” he says. “The dog should be reasonably calm and responsive to the owners’ requests, and sometimes having a friend or neighbour walk the dog beforehand is helpful in tiring the dog out slightly.”
Kirkham explains that it can also be really helpful to have a third party on hand to nurse the baby outside while you go in, giving you the opportunity to greet your dog alone, and, as a result, take the edge off the initial excitement he has at you return.
“After this greeting, and when the dog is calmer, then the baby can be brought inside,” says Kirkham. “One owner should control the dog and the other nurse the baby seated at a table, so the dog only has access from the side and can’t leap up onto the owner.”
Kirkham stresses the importance of parents remaining calm and confident, and the baby being settled.
“Remember to take it slow during this period. If the dog, parents or baby become too distressed, delay this introduction to another time when things are calmer. They have a lifetime to be friends!”
Christine Harper*, a mum and dog owner who works in the animal care industry, sadly sees many dogs who are given up each year as a new baby arrives.
“There are so many things that can be successfully managed when a baby is introduced into a dog’s environment,” she says. “But people have to be able to read their dog’s behaviour and understand when their dog might not be comfortable with a certain situation.”
Harper encourages expectant parents to contact their local RSPCA or animal care centre, as they regularly run workshops that offer advice and tips on how to manage pets around a new baby.
From her own experience, Harper says that creating harmony between her dogs and son has been all about preventing undesirable scenarios.
“We never have the dogs around when Charlie is eating, and we’ve created a separate and safe play area for him that’s totally away from the dogs. Likewise, the dogs have their own separate space too.”
On the flipside, what should be avoided?
Kirkham reinforces that owners need to understand their dogs’ subtle body language and behavioural cues. He highlights that one of the worst things you can do is punish a dog for what you believe to be ‘naughty’ or ‘wrong’ behaviour.
“The relationship should ideally be harmonious from the start – as much as possible – and only good things should occur for the dog when the baby is around,” he says.
Kirkham says that concerning behaviours include persistent anxiety, barking, avoidance, or destructive behaviours that don’t settle over a few days.
“In instances where there are more aggressive behaviours, such as growling, barking, and snapping, advice should be sought immediately from a veterinarian with a professional interest in animal behaviour.”
In a nutshell
Kirkham offers the following tips to help settle the new family unit.
BEFORE BABY IS BORN
1. Start preparations early.
2. Play different types of baby sounds to your dog.
3. Set up realistic routines.
4. Create a safe, secure area for your dog.
5. Make sure your dog knows basic commands (sit, stay, come, drop it, go to your mat/bed).
6. Seek professional help if needed.
AFTER BABY IS BORN
1. Take first introductions slowly.
2. Make fun things happen for your dog when your baby is present.
3. Supervise and separate.
4. Stick to your routines.
*Name has been changed