human parent pushing dog in baby stroller

Safety First

Dogs and babies: Why you shouldn’t train your dog in the way you think

Pet experts offer advice on how you can keep both your pup and children safe.

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New babies are a bundle of joy, as the saying goes. But bringing an infant home can also be a chaotic time for parents — and pups— alike.

Twitter user @misguidedsoul7 shares his experience of coming home with his wife and newborn baby to their energetic golden retriever, Sammy.

“When she came home with our son, she could barely walk, and our pup enthusiastically greeted our son — he was so strong, our son so tiny, and my wife so weak,” he says.

It’s only natural for stressed-out new parents to wonder how to keep their children and canines safe and happy when introducing a new family member to their home, especially as recent reports emerge regarding the uptick in dog bites during the pandemic.

Jennifer Shryock is the founder of Family Paws Parent Education, which provides specialized education for new and expecting families with dogs. She’s well-attuned to the chaos of introducing new family members to old canine ones.

“Those beginning days and weeks home — it can be rather intense for people,” Shryock tells Inverse. “There is no new parent who feels 100 percent comfortable with their dog right next to their brand new baby. And often that leads to stress.”

Whether it’s the science of the relationship between your child and your dog, which dog breeds are best at being around children, or how to make the new relationships work, here’s Inverse’s guide to raising small humans and four-pawed friends together without losing your mind.

How can you help your dog adjust to a new baby?

You should monitor all interactions between your baby and dog. Never allow an infant to remain unsupervised with a pet dog. Courtesy of Family Paws

Bringing a new baby home opens up a world of stress to parents and pups alike, but you can make the homecoming process easier by adjusting your expectations, says Shryock. The homecoming process covers the first few months after the baby has arrived home.

Shryock suggests a few things to make it easier, including:

  • Acclimating dogs to measures like gates and boundary enforcing before the arrival of the baby
  • Not making a big show of introducing the dog to the newborn right away
  • Gradually let the dog adjust to your baby
  • Aim for “inclusion without interaction” with the gates and other boundary enforcing measures
  • Allow vantage points where the dog can view and adjust to the baby without interaction
  • Monitor interactions between your dog and baby at all times, including taking the child with you if you move rooms.
“Invites decrease bites.”

It’s not just because of the potential behavior of the dog — babies, too, are unpredictable, which can sometimes feel threatening to a dog. “Babies grab, they do a lot of things very differently than we adults do,” Shryock says.

Shryock says that dog bites often occur when babies “close the gap” and crawl up to the dog, which Shryock says is a “recipe for a potential accident.”

Babies should not approach a dog. Instead, all interactions with the dog should be through invites where you safely signal to the dog to come over to you.

“Invites decrease bites,” Shryock says.

How can you help children adjust to a new dog?

Getting a new dog to gradually acclimate to your child is the best approach, experts say. Courtesy of Family Paws

Research published in 2018 showed that while both adults and children can have a hard time interpreting dog signals, young children found it especially difficult. According to the study, 53 percent of three-year-olds misinterpreted aggressive dog behavior such as growling or snarling, often mistakenly thinking the dogs were happy.

As a result, children are at significant risk for dog bites. More than 50 percent of dog bite victims are children. In 2020, 33 percent of dog bite fatalities occurred in children who were nine years old or younger.

It’s important to prepare children to safely interact with a new dog. The first thing you should do is temper your child’s expectations. They may want to immediately play with the dog, but the dog needs time to adjust to their new home.

“A dog that is coming from a rescue or shelter, or from any other environment needs to be allowed quiet time to acclimate to the sense and sounds of the house without being approached,” Shryock says.

In the beginning, it may be better to separate the dog using play yards and crates so they can learn to adjust to different parts of the home.

Children should be included in getting the dog acclimated to the home, but they shouldn’t be given too much responsibility with dog care right away, according to the American Medical Veterinarian Association

The slower you can acclimate your dog to the children, the better, Shryock says. The general principle: gently invite your dog to interact with you and your child, but do not approach the new dog head-on.

She adds, that you can invite the dog at their leg to call them over. “If the dog turns their head away [or] licks their lips or opts out, respect that,” Shryock says.

While children should not approach dogs while they’re eating, they can still be involved in feeding the dog. Some options include filling the dog bowl or slow feeder, or creating food puzzles or scavenger hunts for dogs.

Are dogs happy in families with small children?

Dogs provide benefits for families with small children, but pet owners with children often devote less time to their pup’s care and play, studies suggest. Getty

The potential benefits for children when it comes to dogs are clear. Studies and reports show that dogs can benefit young children in many ways, including:

  • Boosting their intellectual development
  • Improving their self-esteem
  • Helping their social skills

However, the science is somewhat less clear when it comes to the benefits for dogs. Studies have shown that they learn and perceive the world in ways similar to toddlers.

It might come as no surprise that dogs and children, especially babies, often have a special bond, which originates in the dog’s protective “pack drive” or desire to protect the newborn. @misguidedsoul7 says his dog, Sammy, is “very protective” of their son.

But human parents can significantly shape the happiness of their pups depending on how they raise their family. A 2014 study found that in families with children, dog owners were not as emotionally close to their canines, writing:

This supports previous findings showing that people with children have lower levels of affection for and shared activities with their dog, see their dog less as a friend, and spend less time and money on their dog's care and accessories

Many pet owners worry about their relationship with their dogs changing as a result of having children. After his son was born, @misguidedsoul7 noticed his dog, Sammy, becoming sad, since he couldn’t spend as much time with the pup.

He adopted a second golden retriever — a female named Willow — as a companion for Sammy. Both pups get along great with each other and his son.

“Now they're like siblings. They play together good-naturedly, which is great,” @misguidedsoul7 says, though he concedes that caring for two golden retrievers requires “a ton of vacuuming.”

The same 2014 study also found a positive relationship between multiple dogs and the owner’s closeness to their pets.

However, owning numerous pets is a significant undertaking for parents already busy raising human children, and it’s not something you should take on lightly. A 2007 study found that owners dedicate less time to pet care after having more than one dog.

Pet owners raising multiple dogs during the pandemic can certainly relate.

“The hard part was that soon after getting [my second dog Willow], the pandemic started, and it just became mentally difficult to try to work and take care of a growing toddler and two large dogs,” @misguidedsoul7 says.

Are certain dog breeds better for children?

While there may be certain dog breeds that are well-suited for families, experts say you should focus first on the personality of the individual dog and whether it’s a fit for your family. Getty

If you’re a parent looking to adopt a dog, there’s a fair chance you’ve looked up this question before.

The American Kennel Club offers a list of dog breeds that often work well in families due to their outgoing and patient nature. They also suggest dogs that can specifically adjust to small children. These dogs range from bigger Bernese mountain dogs to smaller corgis.

However, like humans, every dog has its own personality. Going off dog breed may not always be the best approach. Instead, you need to find an individual dog whose personality is right for your family.

“I'm not one to say a breed is one breed is better than the other,” Shryock says. “It really does come down to individual dogs, and, and how their temperament is.”

@misguidedsoul7 agrees that people should be a little flexible on specific breeds: “We started saying ‘must be short-haired [because] of shedding, but ended up with a super cute golden [retriever] — tiny with big paws and a big rump, but precocious and friendly.”

Should you ever rehome your dog?

There are a few steps that pet parents should take before they consider rehoming a dog, experts say. Getty

It’s never an easy decision, but there may come a point when it’s necessary to ask this question for the well-being of your pet and children. Sometimes there is a significant mismatch or difference in “fit” between dogs and humans that can threaten the safety of both.

“I don't feel that it's fair to the dog or the family if the fit isn't right or safe,” Shryock says, adding “this has happened a lot during the pandemic.” (Pet adoption rates skyrocketed in 2020 during the pandemic as more people worked from home)

Shryock encourages owners to pay attention to warning signs or distress signals that dogs may give off.

This behavior isn’t necessarily an indication that you need to rehome your dog. Rather. they’re clues that suggest your dog may not be adjusting well to its new home and could benefit from professional help.

These warning signs include:

  • Signs of fear (i.e., cowering in a corner or running away)
  • Guarding their food
  • Licking their lips or turning away
  • Growling
  • Dog snapping or biting

However, certain warning signs — like dog bites — are more alarming than others.

“If a dog bites, a child, you need to separate them immediately,” Shryock says. She also says you need to provide medical care to the child immediately. In the U.S., you may also have to report the bite to animal control or a health officer depending on the state where you live.

But ultimately, a dog bite can signal bigger communication issues between pet parents and their pups and their pet parents, who may not be properly trained to recognize their dogs’ discomfort.

“Bites don't really happen out of the blue. There's always [something] leading up to it,” Shryock says. “I don't say that to mean that it's someone's fault, but many of us are not familiar with the subtle signals dogs offer.”

If the dog is consistently expressing discomfort around the family, it’s probably time to get professional help — the first step you should take before you consider rehoming the dog.

You can reach out to organizations like Family Paws, which has a toll-free support line at 877-247-3407. Or you can contact professional dog trainers that specialize in positive training methods, which scientists have shown are the best way to train your pup.

If you adopted your dog from a rescue organization or shelter, Shryock also suggests reaching back out to them to see if your dog has expressed these concerning behaviors in a previous household.

The Inverse analysis — By adjusting their expectations, most pet owners can safely prepare the dog and children for the arrival of a new family member. Patience is key.

“Parents and the dog will develop some familiarity after they have observed and— at a distance — been able to habituate to the child,” Shryock says. “But that does take time.”

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