Expectant parents who want to foster a loving relationship between their pet and the newest member of the family may want to consider these 10 expert suggestions.
1. Acclimate early. When the pet’s domain begins to change, start preparing him to share his space, says Pat Hoffman, 30-year veteran dog trainer. “As you paint the nursery and bring furniture or other items into the house, invite your pet into the baby’s room to sniff around. Keep the atmosphere positive by stroking him and using a loving tone of voice.”
That’s what Abby Drobinski did. “Tank had been around babies before so I wasn’t so concerned about his behavior; I was more worried he’d feel displaced,” she says of her then 6-year-old Labrador Retriever. “When we began to set up the nursery, I encouraged Tank to go in and sniff the baby’s clothes, toys and other things so he would feel included.”
2. Introduce the audible. If there is a mobile or baby monitor, turn it on before the baby comes home so your pet can get familiar with nursery noises, says Ilana Reisner, DVM, Ph.D., DACVB, behavioral medicine specialist. “Commercial CD’s with baby sounds such as crying, laughing and playing may be helpful too [www.soundtherapy4pets.com]. Have your pet lie on a mat with a chew toy or treat while these sounds play so he associates them with calm, positive feelings.”
Elizabeth Warren didn’t purchase a CD to replicate infant sounds but she did use a baby doll. “I found one that made crying noises so Cali could hear somewhat lifelike sounds and get used to seeing something in my arms,” says the mother of her then 2 ½-year-old pup. “Also several times when we were resting together, the baby kicked in my belly and it startled Cali. So I pointed to my tummy, patted Cali and calmly said, “‘That’s Abby, she’s our new baby.’”
3. Set forth smells. “While your baby is still at the hospital, bring home a clothing item or blanket he used and let your pet sniff it,” says Reisner. “A wet diaper is a good idea too. Some parents even use baby powder and lotions beforehand, though that’s not necessary.”
4. Build in boundaries. If you don’t want your pet to have unsupervised access to the nursery or other room, start prohibiting that space before the child arrives, says Hoffman. “Place a baby gate across the doorway so your pet knows the area is off limits. When the baby does come home and you go into those rooms, let your pet to accompany you so he doesn’t feel left out.”
Reisner agrees. “Likewise, create a safe space where your dog or cat can retreat to if the noise becomes bothersome or he wants to be left alone. Make it an inviting environment with bedding, food, water and chew toys. If you have a cat, include a litter box and an area to hide,” she says.
5. Offer lap alternatives. If your pet likes to sit on or snuggle next to you, create a substitute location for times you and the baby need space, says Reisner. “Place a comfortable bed with chew toys in each primary room where your pet can lie without being right on top of you. Teach him to go to that space on cue. Do it well in advance of the baby’s arrival.”
6. Reinforce rules. Make sure your dog knows and obeys basic commands such as ‘Sit,’ ‘Lie down,’ ‘Come’ and ‘Get off the furniture,’” says Reisner. “If you are unsuccessful, find a trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques to help you.”
7. Allow introductions. “When the baby is brought home, put your dog on a leash and take him outside on neutral territory to meet the newest family member,” says Hoffman. “Hold the infant securely and let your dog sniff him while you make verbal introductions. Then go into the house together.”
When the Drobinski baby was born, Tank stayed with relatives until the infant had settled in. “When Tank did come home, my husband took the two of them into the nursery and held Sebastien while he got down on the dog’s level and made introductions,” she says. “Almost immediately Tank could tell the baby was special to us; whenever Sebastien would cry, Tank made a beeline for the nursery to find out what was wrong.”
8. Provide positive reinforcement. Hoffman says when you hold, feed or diaper your newborn, use positive words and a loving tone with your pet. “Praise positive behaviors. You don’t have to continually pet during these times; stroke with your voice,” she says. “You may not always have access to food, so save treats for times your baby is in the stroller or a high chair and you have a free hand.”
9. Spend quality time. “After the baby comes home, carve out one-on-one time with your pet for grooming, training, exercising, relaxing or playing,” says Hoffman.
Warren did this. “I was careful to maintain—and not increase—the level of attention I gave Cali before the baby was born so she didn’t experience a decrease in attention afterward,” she says. “That said, whenever Abby went down for a nap, Cali and I would sit, play or roughhouse together.”
10. Provide supervision. Hoffman says no matter how well behaved your pet is, it should never be left alone with a small child. “Always provide constant supervision. If the baby cries or starts to scream, it can invoke an animal’s prey drive,” she says.
-Denise Morrison Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.