Dogs and babies

(Just FYI, this is a “Sesame Street” post. Some slightly recycled/rewritten material from other writing I’ve done, some new.)

This is a scary photo.

And not just because Zuzu is wearing two different socks (dang, I am such a bad mom!).

I get the heebs, honestly, seeing MOST pictures of dogs too close to babies, even just sitting there.

People don’t realize that, to a dog, proximity equals ownership. Every mom dog understand this, and won’t let other dogs anywhere near her little babies. No other dogs are allowed near puppies until the puppies are old enough to be integrated into pack life–the mom letting the puppies have contact with other dogs is a statement that the puppies are now allowed to be dominated and corrected. Every dog on earth knows this instinctively. When you smile indulgently as your one-year-old is licked and pawed by the dog, it should be zero shock when that same one-year-old is hit hard with an open mouth and gets teeth marks and a bloody nose when he pinches the same dog on the belly. (But of course no one DOES expect it, and they call the dog aggressive, and put it down, when the dog was doing exactly what you had given it permission to do.)

If you want to act in a way that your dog understands, raising a baby in a way that makes sense to the dog and communicates that he is not allowed to punish or dominate her, the baby should exist in an invisible bubble. No dogs within two feet at least. Sharp correction for the dog if he EVER “forgets” that the baby is there and brushes by or jumps up on the couch too close. Let me be very clear on this: You do not punish the dog for licking the baby or something–you don’t want to associate the baby with negative things. You correct the dog for thinking about coming near the baby. If licking is a 10, you should have re-directed the dog back at level 1 or 2.

And it continues–no “pushing” contact or boistrous behavior near a toddler or young child. This makes sense in the dog’s brain. It’s the way they expect a good mom to behave. Allowing the kind of contact that so many do, then freaking out when the baby gets jumped on or the toddler gets knocked over, seems to the dog to be capricious and chaotic and leads to worse behavior, not better.

So how can you prepare your dog for a baby when there’s no baby there–when you are pregnant, or when you are expecting visitors who have a baby?

First, move the dogs out of the bedroom now, if they sleep on the bed, or institute crates in the bedroom. If you’re going to eventually move the crates to another part of the house to put a co-sleeper or whatever in the room, don’t wait. Do it now. Set up the nursery objects soon, so they get used to the smell and feel of them.

Make sure they are desensitized to having feet, tails, and ears touched. If you are not ONE THOUSAND PERCENT sure that anybody could fall on them, pinch them, hit them, or take food away from them without them getting angry, get them to a behaviorist NOW and start implementing his or her suggestions.

Get them rock-solid on “wait” and “go ahead,” since you’ll be walking them with the added burden of a stroller or sling.

Any rules that you expect to enforce after the baby comes (like no heads in your lap, or no dog bodies on the bed) should be put in place NOW, months before the expected arrival, and should be enforced steadily.

Some people send home a blanket with the scent of the baby on it to get the dogs ready for the new arrival–I am not as convinced of that, since well-trained dogs should be very used to new people coming and going and not be thrown off by a new creature. But it can’t hurt; it’s probably more like packing would get them used to the idea that you’re moving–i.e., the humans are all acting freaky, so something is probably going to happen. Once the new baby is home, just make boundaries VERY clear. No touching, no licking, only sniffing from afar.

The most dangerous time for babies is when they are alone and start crying. That can trigger dogs to do very strange things, because the crying is an odd high pitch that seems to turn on either prey instincts or protective gotta-pick-the-baby-up instincts. So NEVER leave a baby alone in a room with the dogs, no matter what, even if the dogs have never shown the slightest interest in the baby.

How about older infants and toddlers? My dog just loves being crawled on–why should I separate them now?

You MUST understand what is going on here. In a healthy dog pack, very young puppies are given what is called “puppy license.” They’re allowed to be rude and silly and do things that are never permitted in the older puppies. If your kids are crawling on your dog or dogs, your dog isn’t “loving” what your kids are doing–they’re behaving in a very rude way. He’s allowing them to behave like under-age puppies.

The catch here is that the puppy license is always, inevitably, revoked. At some point, as young as two months and pretty much always before four months (in my watching a lot of puppies grow up–this depends very much on the adult, with the dominant adults tolerating crap a lot longer than the middle-rankers), the adults stop smiling indulgently as the puppy bites their ears and they start whipping around and whacking the puppy to the ground with their teeth. The middle-rankers see it as their duty to give the puppy absolute heck until the puppy learns immediate appeasement signals and will drop and roll as soon as an adult enters his or her frame of vision.

Right now in my pack we have two adults, an adolescent, and a baby puppy. Clue, as ranking adult, lets the puppy do all kinds of crazy things to her and in fact “dumbs down” her own play to interact with him. She very gently rolls him and bumps him and then reverses, rolling on her own back to let him pretend to dominate her, and she’s got a relaxed open mouth and smile the whole time. Ginny, second-in-command outside and an agitator for ranking adult inside (most of her time inside is spent trying to dominate Clue) has virtually no play interactions with the puppy. She watches him and leaps to punish him if he makes so much as a feint in her direction. She never puts a mark on him, of course, but she does the doggy equivalent of hand-slapping every time he acts like a big dog (for example, if she sees him walk by with head/tail up). Bronte, who is an adolescent/lower-ranking/the scout and alarm dog, basically ignores the puppy. Her job is patrol and the only ones she plays with are Clue and Sparky (an adolescent visitor, my sister’s dog, who comes over a few times a week; Bronte and Sparky are similar in rank and in role, so they play together well).

So, in my group, Clue still grants puppy license. Ginny has revoked it.

If this were applied to kids, Clue would tolerate them rolling on her, Ginny quite definitely would NOT (and this is in fact true) and Bronte would look at whatever dominant person or dog was around for a signal of what to do.

None of these dogs are unsound or unstable or poorly trained or “bad with kids.” They are acting in ways that make sense in a pack and neither choice is worse or better. In the same way, some dogs grant kids a license that is quite broad, but that does not mean that the license stays there forever. It is NEVER a good idea to let kids interact with a dog unsupervised; all it takes is one action (adding a nose poke to the body pressure, or kicking, or whatever) for the adult dog to decide that this rude little puppy needs some license removed. I would also say that it’s important to teach kids that crawling all over a dog is exactly like crawling all over a human–it’s actually rude, an invasion of personal space and an inappropriate contact, and there are better and more polite ways of interacting with the dog.

My Danes were always extremely tolerant of pressure too, and of course I smiled as they would roll over and let whoever the baby was at the time put her head on them. But I knew I was pushing it, and now, years later, I am not sure I’d tolerate it.

So what’s up with the photo, then? I brought Zuzu, who was then maybe four or five months old, upstairs to my older girls’ room to ask them to watch her while I went downstairs to make coffee. Ginny (again, social climber, disciplinarian, very intolerant of puppies), who sleeps with them, was up there. She saw me put the baby down on one of our low bed/futons. She immediately jumped off her bed, trotted over, jumped up on the futon, crept on her belly to about six inches away from the baby, carefully rolled over to expose her belly to the baby, and squeezed her eyes shut. I let the baby touch her chest and foot, snapped a couple of pictures, and then said “good girl, Ginny.” Ginny immediately rolled back over, stood up, jumped off that bed, and ran back to her own bed.

If you’re not careful, you could interpret that as “Oh, Ginny loves the baby!” Ginny is actually constantly worried that a kid will hurt her, because she’s so tiny, and does NOT love the baby. It was a very ritualistic contact that showed something about Ginny’s relationship with ME, not her relationship with the baby. I am big bad leader bitch; I proudly show off my unweaned milk-smelling puppy, everyone in the pack must show obeisance to me and their tolerance of my unweaned puppy.

When she’s weaned, though, or if I relaxed my leader-bitch stance, fuggetit. Ginny does not tolerate rough kids; she yelps and tries to run and if prevented from doing so she will whack with her teeth. After MONTHS of consistent training she will tolerate Tabitha, who is four, doing just about anything, but make no mistake. She is tolerating it because she knows that I expect it of her, not because she enjoys it. I still never, ever leave them alone together.

The most common thing people say to me when I describe what I do with dogs and babies is say “But that’s so mean!” It is far less mean, trust me, than putting a dog down because it bit a baby. And in the dog’s mind is it not mean at all. It is exactly what they expect and understand, and will make them feel MORE secure in your pack, not less.


7 thoughts on “Dogs and babies

  1. Thank you! This is the info I came here looking for. Can I ask you to elaborate on the baby bubble a little? My 2 month old is almost always on me. I also have a velcro dog; 90% of her time is spent right next to me. Since she is 30″ tall her proximity puts her in the baby’s bubble by default. She has never tried to interact with baby other than sniffing. Your thoughts?

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  3. I learn so much every time I read something you’ve written! Brava, BRAVA!!! I’m clapping in my head right now. Can you come train ME?!?!?

    And on a sad note, did you see about that “Almost Heaven” Kennel in PA? ::shudder::

  4. Very thought provoking. Your knowledge of pack behavior far exceeds mine, and makes me think a lot about how I let the kids and dogs interact. I was very upset one day when I found that my 3 year old daughter had locked my 1 year old girl dog in her room with her so that she could “read” to her. I was outside, husband was watching the kids. Said 3 year old was very upset when I came to let out the worried dog…without her superiors around (the older male dog and myself), I don’t think she knew what was expected of her. Thankfully, my daughter is gentle with the dogs…but NO, I do not trust her to stay that way without supervision.

    Food for thought, especially as my son is now adding to the mix as he enters toddler stage.

  5. Just thought you’d enjoy this little tidbit. As you know, Austin has been away at his breeder’s for a couple of months now. Before he left, he was a typical young male, kind of goofy, and not particularly careful around Shelby (my 4 month old)….but while he was at Lin’s, she whelped a litter of pups (13! And so beautiful!). They and their mother have their own bedroom, gated off from the rest of the house and with a doggie door to a private yard.

    One day recently, Austin was cavorting around her house and vaulted that gate into the puppy room. I’m told he got 3 feet on the ground before Kirby was on him. They said they had never seen such acrobatics as Austin pirouetted in midair and RE vaulted back over the gate.

    So. Last night he came home. This morning he came up to me while I was still in bed, nursing Shelby. His eyes actually widened like a cartoon when he saw her. He ducked his head, turned around, and laid down on the floor with his back to us! Just out of curiosity, I called him over again to see if what I suspected was true. He came back over, but when Shelby reached for him, he stopped looking at us, ducked his head again, and again retreated to his bed in the corner, with his back to us.

    Crazy!! She’s swinging right now, and when she makes her little baby screeches and laughs, he raises his head, looks at her, then immediately looks at me and twists his head away as if to say…nope, I’m not looking at that puppy right there. I would NEVER dream of such a thing. Nope, not me. Please don’t hurt me. LOL.

    It’s all so fascinating.

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