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Dogs & Babies

On keeping everyone safe. Most bites are preventable! This is an important topic even if you have a dog OR a child - but not both. "There was no warning!" How often have you heard that old chestnut? It is so rarely true. There is always a warning; it's just usually ignored because the people involved didn't know enough about body language.

By Sam The Doula (Blooming Miracle)Published 7 months ago 7 min read
Dogs & Babies
Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Dogs are my other passion, aside from all things pregnancy and birth. This topic is one where my interests meet.

Please do read on - even if you have a dog or a child... but not both!

Your dog is existing in a world where he is definitely going to meet children. You have a moral obligation to keep those children safe from your dog, and to keep your dog safe from those kids. Advocate for him - make sure he is not pestered or teased, and protect him from a bite history.

Your kid exists in a world where she's definitely going to meet dogs. There are twelve million dogs in the UK. (That figure sky-rocketed by a third since 2020 - gee, can't imagine why. Don't get me started.) You have a moral obligation to protect your child in the short and long term. Know what an unsafe situation looks like before it escalates, even if you never plan on having a dog yourself. If you're nervous around dogs, this knowledge will also give you confidence, and help you raise your children the same.

New arrivals

If you have a little one on the way, and you already have a dog, you might be concerned with how s/he will react to this new arrival. Maybe you have young children and you are considering getting a dog or a puppy.

Maybe your dog adjusted quite well to the new baby, but that baby isn't so new anymore! Becoming more mobile, more grabby, less predictable.

It's so important to keep both dogs and children safe through proper teaching, supervision, containment, and understanding of body language.

Important Note:

Most of the time, when a dog bites a child, the bite is to the face. This is the natural way for a dog to discipline an unruly puppy, but when they do it to a child, the injuries can be serious, even life changing.

I can't say it enough: Protect your child. Protect your dog.

Segregate

This might not be popular, but here goes: Your dog and baby don't have to be best buddies. It's fine to segregate them some of the time, or even most of the time. They should only have access to each other when you are truly present, giving eyes-on, hands-on supervision. Not half on your phone, or cooking, or "just nipping out of the room for a sec", or multitasking a million other things.

Of course I don't advocate ostracising your dog all the time to keep the baby safe. They're a part of the family, and that approach is more likely to cause problems. But there do need to be firm boundaries.

Make good use of gates. Crate train. When you are not actually holding your baby, be physically in between baby and dog. You can use an arm or a leg as a barrier. On a related note - do not let your dog put himself between you and your child. This is the thin end of a wedge called "resource guarding". Create good habits from the moment you bring a baby into your dog's life - these are the building blocks that will ensure a solid foundation of trust and safety. One day, they will be able to set their friendship on that.

Noise

Babies are usually noisy. This can be difficult for dogs to adjust to. They have sensitive hearing, and some can be especially sensitive to loud noises.

A place of their own

I already mentioned crate training. This is such a useful tool! Never use the crate as a punishment. Make sure it is a child-free zone. Give meals, and high value treats and toys in there. This approach will build a positive association. It'll also give your dog a bolt-hole to retreat to when he feels uncomfortable around the baby. When it comes to fight or flight, make sure he never feels he has to choose the first one.

Be prepared!

During pregnancy, you have months to prepare your dog for the arrival of your baby. Here's some suggestions:

  • Crate train if you haven't already.
  • Desensitise them to loud noises, especially crying. You can get pre-recorded noises to help them with this, and start at a low volume.
  • Get them used to smells.
  • Teach them to walk well beside a pram
  • Train them to leave baby toys alone.
  • Get them accustomed to spending an a little time daily relaxing by themselves.

Train the Baby!

As they grow, teach them to respect animals. I know this should be obvious. Look around, though. Tiktok is an absolute cesspit of terrible parents also being terrible dog owners.

How often do you hear, "oh our dog is amazing with our kids, they can do anything to her and she doesn't turn a hair!"

When I hear this, I think, "wow, poor dog".

Teach "gentle hands". Be present. Put down the phone so you're able to pay full attention (some signals are subtle) and act promptly and calmly if needed.

Later, teach them how to safely approach and pet dogs. There's no need to shove a hand in a dog's face to "let them smell you". Those noses are elite, dog can probably smell your whole family from the opposite side of the room and know what each of you had for breakfast. Most dogs don't like this approach. They don't usually like to be hugged, either, particularly not by a child or someone they don't know. Most don't like being patted on top of the head by strangers very much - which is what most parents seem to encourage their little darlings to do! Chest scratches or shoulder rubs are usually a better option.

Following on from this...

"Excuse me, miss, can I pet your dog?"

I can't tell you how happy I am to hear these words from a child. Those parents are doing it right!

Teach your kids never to approach dogs they don't know, and to always ask before petting one.

They need to ask three times: first they need to ask you. As I already mentioned, a lot of owners know squat about canine body language, so the kids needs to ask both adults. Let's hope at least one of them has a clue, eh? You also don't want them wandering up to random weirdos without your knowledge. If the dog is a service dog, ignore him, and teach your children to do the same.

Second, the dog's owner. They might say no because they know their pet is uncomfortable with strangers, or with children, or because he is in training.

Third, the actual dog. Even very young children can learn, if he moves away, it means he doesn't want to say hello today. The older they get, the more subtle signals they can learn that also mean "no, I don't want to be petted". It is can be a useful moment for teaching children about consent - don't skimp on it!

Body language!

Most dog owners I know know very little about body language. Here's an example. How often do you hear, "it's fine, he's wagging his tail, he's friendly!"

It means willing to interact, and that is not quite the same thing at all. He could be willing to interact by biting you. It depends on the position of the tail and the speed of the wag, and what the rest of the body is doing.

As a very general rule: the happier he is, the faster it wags. The more confident he is, the higher is wags. This often translates to "friendly", but not always. Watch out! And of course, don't pass on "wagging=friendly" to children. It could lead to them misreading signals and getting bitten.

There was no warning!

How often have you heard that old chestnut? It is so rarely true. There is always a warning; it's just usually ignored because the people involved didn't know enough about body language to keep everyone safe. Even when the animal escalates quickly in a given situation, there were many situations prior to that where his cues were repeatedly ignored and he has learned not to bother with them because they don't work.

Here are some signs that your dog is uncomfortable or stressed:

  • Displacement activity (randomly starting licking or scratching themselves, for example)
  • Lip licking
  • Yawning
  • Leaning away (look at the cover photo again!)
  • "Whale eye"
  • Ears back
  • Tense body
  • A good shake, as if he is shaking water from his fur (you might see this after he has moved away, or after you've created space between them).
  • This is not an exhaustive list! These are some of the ways your dog is coping with stress, or actively trying to tell you (or your child) "calm down/stop that/I don't like it". Keep in mind that you need to read the whole body for context.

Growling, nipping or worse are late signs that your pet is uncomfortable. Depending on breed, personality, and training, some dogs might skip growling or nipping (for instance, if they have been punished for doing it in the past).

Listen to your dog. If you step in when you see these early signs of discomfort, he will relax more. He will trust that you're on the case, you're actively listening to him and you'll intervene for him, so that he never has to take things into his own paws.

More resources:

Sounds Scary booklet - (There is a lot of help out there for dogs with fireworks, but not so much with newborn babies. Odd, really! That said, many of the skills and principles are transferable.)

Calming Signals (I highly recommend this book!)

how totrainingdog

About the Creator

Sam The Doula (Blooming Miracle)

Childbirth Eductator since 2011

Building a resource for mothers-to-be to feel informed and confident about their choices

You can find me on Facebook or book classes with me

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Comments (1)

  • Hannah Moore7 months ago

    Our last dog, a rescue at 9 years old, did nip when we first got her, AND was incredibly attractive to children wanting to pet her. It used to terrify me, I'd let them pet her rump whilst holding her head, but she never nipped a child, or made too, it was like she knew to be gentle with little people. In time, she grew less anxious and the nipping stopped. By the time my son was born it had been a good 5 or 6 years since she'd so much as curled a lip, but I still did not leave them alone together!

Sam The Doula (Blooming Miracle)Written by Sam The Doula (Blooming Miracle)

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