Dogs, Young Children and Babies

Introducing babies (young children and puppies) into a home with an established dog can lead to unwanted behaviour such as biting. Pet behaviourist and dog trainer Colin Tennant offers practical advice to help prepare the family for the newcomer.

Over the decades and specifically over the past twenty or more years, one finds that society undergoes change. Nowadays, young married couples or partners living together have altered the traditional patterns of child rearing and social attitudes. And, strangely, I have noticed, especially since the 1980’s – a new trend in household pets keeping connected to these same trends which presents new dog behaviour problems.

There has been an increase in the number of clients with a particular problem – aggression by their pet dog towards their new born child (or perhaps I should add a larger number of people presenting such problematic behaviour to Canine behaviour practitioners).

I wondered why this should be so and then I realised that I had noticed some common denominators. The parents were usually in their late twenties to early thirties. The dog had normally been with the people concerned for at least five years and often longer and that the man and wife had a fully established home, financial stability and had decided to postpone having children. In the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s women tended to traditionally have children sooner and this social change has affected my work in the area of children and dogs.

Dogs Love Children – No they don’t!

Or perhaps I should say, more constructively, the child dog relationship is more of a myth perpetuated by Disney and Television as a whole. For the purpose of this article I would define children as babies and toddlers under the age of about five years. From five years onwards to about the age of twelve, is easier but the child is still too much for many dogs to cope with. No doubt many readers will wish to acquaint me with stories of beautiful child dog relationships but I too have seen many of these and they are mostly a sign of a tolerant dog perhaps combined with a very well disciplined child who has been taught good pet rules.

Very young children do not behave like older children or adults, being animated, impulsive and erratic. Also their small stature levels them nearer the dogs mouth. The sudden movements and high pitched screaming are not too dissimilar to the natural prey of dogs (their Wolf ancestors) and that is why we have such an unacceptable bite count in Britain today. Many thousands of people a year are bitten by pet dogs and children account for a high number of those bitten.

Pack Position

Of course, if you notice the language that dog owners use to their pets it helps us to understand how we perceive our dogs. “Baby, darling, cuddles, naughty boy/girl, my baby. Other terms used to describe the qualities they feel their pets have are “loyal, affectionate, always there for me, non judgmental, makes me feel loved, and so on. If so many people feel this genuine closeness to another species and then go onto describe that their dog as nearly human, it is no wonder, when the new born baby arrives, that the parents feel a responsibility to both their real child and their established substitute one that has got four legs and rather different attitudes to new pack arrivals than the adoring parents.

When jealously, or more accurately, pack position, is at stake from the dog’s point of view, parents are now faced with a situation which they alone unwittingly created.

Nevertheless, choices have to be made. They are, in fact, emotionally torn between the dog and the child. Now to non doggy people this may seem crazy. But to the dog owner the relationship is very real and true. Remember what I described previously about what people perceive dogs give them in friendship.

This brings me back to the couples who are now postponing having a child and more often than not supplanting the delayed period of child birth with a pet dog. The dog is a gregarious creature that in a positive light is probably the most adaptable companion pet of all and it is very personal. Most of the six million or so do give immense pleasure to so many different types of people and they are here to stay. The big problem is how we view dogs and, if we are to stop/prevent any behavioural problems that we encounter like aggression, how we should learn to understand what makes dogs tick in order to facilitate good dog child relationships. It is also worth mentioning that dogs which are high ranking by nature and nurture may never tolerate a baby and if that is the case the dog may have to be rehomed. However I hope to add advice to prevent such human emotional turmoil.

If you are deciding to have a child then this is how the dogs will view it:
Child to be Born

A dog or dogs in a comfortably established household for several years will already, in dog years, be very well embedded and may feel a touch spoilt and in may cases virtually treated like a surrogate child, and why not? Dogs manage to trigger many of our natural childcare instincts in people whether we have children or not. When the puppy bundle arrives it is already programmed and visually designed to appeal to our deepest care instincts. The first canine behaviour trigger has registered in our emotions. The fact that this human trigger has developed for child rearing is irrelevant – it has registered and we react accordingly.

The bond progressively is built and the dog instinctively follows its prevailing wolf instinct, which is an order of rank based on who dominates whom or who leads if you wish. When this order is challenged by any lower pack member the challenger is disciplined and warned off by body language signals or when that fails or is ignored the interloper of lesser rank may be physically attacked.

Humans actually execute similar behaviours throughout their lives at work, socially and in their relationships and when threatened by others of their own species they often reprimand attack verbally and or physically. That is considered normal in human society and oddly enough, that is how we get on – we endlessly bicker for personal advantage. Wolves and their dog cousins also behave naturally and through innate instincts. Unfortunately, for dogs, we bring them into our world without choice and they are often expected to act like or understand human behaviour, which of course, is impossible. That still doesn’t stop us from endlessly trying to impose our human standards on dogs, causing many problems like expecting dogs to understand the value of our possessions and not to damage them and to treat our new baby family member as a special innocent bundle.

So the established dog may not take too kindly, to a new puppy or adult dog entering its territory nor to the new pack entrant being offered endless attention, care and softly spoken words because here is an Alfa (Mum/Dad) treating a non pack member in a privileged manner contrary to the pack rules which the dog operates on.

What often compounds a jealous occurrence is the way the resident dog will have been spoilt or allowed to develop a dominant position in the family unit. My minds eye here relates to dogs which already display mild aggressive displays to its current owners in certain situations like growling possessively over food or toy type items. If this type of dog deems the new baby a threat then at some point a confrontation will take place. Fortunately, in most cases this initial dog jealousy exhibits itself as a sulk or grumble.

Conversely, a low ranking dog can become over excited and execute displacement behaviours like jumping up, running around at speed and generally not really knowing what to do – the pack has been disrupted and it does not really know strategically how to behave. These dogs are rarely aggressive, but need reassurance and combined with strict rules. They are more likely to hurt the baby by accident in their turmoil of excitement and confusion than aggression.

New Puppy

Many people have contacted the C&FB Centre to us that their new little puppy has been attacked by their resident dog, to their shock and horror. I mention puppies because like babies innocent people place then in the similar category to a new born baby “He’s growling at a tiny defenceless puppy” is the frequent comment. People, again, transposing their human feelings into another species as opposed to trying to understand that dogs do not view the world as we do.

The dog is instinctively protecting its position and territory, as is normal for any dog. Even the most passive dogs like some Labrador Retrievers display this attitude though most will become upset and boisterous and excitedly push their way to the owner who now has this bundle of puppy ensconced on their knee. These dogs again use push and shove without aggression, it can simply be keen interest in the bundle that ignites the wolf in your dog towards puppies for the right reasons, scent is critical to dog baby interest and the new aromas stimulate the dog immensely – our modification of the domestic dog has produced a plethora of complex behaviours that vary from breed to breed and type of breed lines making assessment by an expert more difficult. The Wolf is much easier to predict than the domestic dog because its behaviours are more constant.

The New Baby Arrives

Now when a new baby arrives in the two-person-one-dog household the ‘substitute child’ -the dog – is generally removed from the centre of attention to second place and the endless stream of baby admirers arrive using all the endearing voice tones and intonation with the baby and the dog is again often given a cursory pat and told to get out of the way. By default human on dog time is reduced despite hundreds of clients reassuring me that they are making up for the dogs lack of normal attention regimes. Dogs notice minute routine changes and many take badly to those same changes – again its complex and just as many dogs adapt to the new regime within a few weeks as those who don’t or take much longer. Our work is about facilitating those changes as smoothly as possible because the dogs that’s has been neglected pre baby arrival behaviour changes may growl/ nip/ bite and that’s sets in the human dog distrust that would not have occurred in most cases had the owners been wiser as to how to introduce a new baby to a dog.

The dog does not understand the new ranking (preference) structure as it is sudden and he may quickly decide that the new bundle is an upstart and needs putting in its place, naturally. It is not personal, nor is it a bad dog, in fact; it is a normal dog and a normal child. That is why the dog loving dog child myth is so wrong.

So how does that account for all the millions of dogs that do enjoy and live safely with children? When a new wolf enters a pack it does so very cautiously and hangs around the pack exterior for days or weeks and slowly the resident wolves get to know it. In time it may be accepted and move in – that is how genetically, we get Wolf out crossing. But sometimes the wolf is not accepted and violence can and does erupt. A dog can treat a new baby with the same suspicion and some what moderated wolf behaviour patterns. Domestication has definitely worked well in this department.

Baby Introduction rules I advise

At least six months before a baby is due to be born follow the client should follow these rules. By implementing the routines in advance the dog will have time to adjust slowly and when the child arrives, little will change with regard to his rank within the pack. Moreover, slowly altering the geography of your home that corresponds with the baby’s needs is critical for a smooth behavioural transition in your dogs mind. I have yet to meet a woman who did not, herself, change immensely when a baby arrived and with the new work load, did not relegate her pet dog rapidly despite assurance to me of the contrary. This is not because of choice but because of her new responsibilities. Therefore, make the changes before and not after the birth.

  • The husband or male partner should take over all or most of the dog duties like feeding, grooming and exercising, gradually, if possible. This teaches the dog to accept that the woman is no longer a provider of these fun routines or to be more accurate time.
  • If the dog has the run of the house use a baby gate (more than one if necessary) to prevent the dog from going upstairs, as a baby room will normally be made. It will prevent the dog being constantly told off for being inquisitive and will prevent observational jealously building up in the dogs mind.
  • Stop the dog from coming into the main lounge as a right but only by invitation once or twice daily for perhaps a couple of hours. There will be times when baby and mum need time alone downstairs and perhaps with visitors. If the dog is used to pushing in on visitors or dominating the arrival of others this again can cause unnecessary disputes and confusion for all. Once the new programmes are implemented, well in advance of baby’s birth, the dog will have adjusted to the new system and that’s the critical learning curve that’s prevents most problems.
  • Reduce most cuddling of the dog on furniture/couches, make up for this by playing more interactive games with the dog on walks. The dog has to learn that he can no longer fling himself onto chairs at will for your attention. All attention is when he is on 4 legs only or sat.
  • When the baby arrives home, using a lead and collar allow the dog to calmly sniff the child whilst it is on your knee. Simultaneously have some very tasty treats aside to give the dog each time the baby arrives in its presence for the first couple of weeks – herby allowing the dog to learn that the baby’s arrival triggers treat time always controlled and calmly given. Try to behave as naturally as possible and do not leave the baby unattended in a room with a dog under any circumstances, no matter how pleasant a nature the dog may possess.

Many clients tell me that their dog was not a problem when the baby arrived at all. In fact it was indifferent until the baby began to crawl an investigate the dog.

When I examine and temperament test these dogs many are very much aloof and believe themselves to be high ranking but their aggressive behaviour mostly growling commenced with the baby crawling. The dogs do warn the baby of but babies crawling have no sense of danger, warnings or otherwise. Most bites take place in these situations. It’s handy therefore to be watchful, and allow the dog escape routes from the baby’s attentions.

Some of these dogs also fall into a group I describe as fearful of the babies attention.

They are definitely not dominant in nature and only growl when they appear cornered. Again with time, training and good aforethought by the dog’s owners much of what I describe can be avoided.

However, I have to advise sometimes that dogs are re-homed because of the size of dog, level of aggression displayed; owner circumstances i.e. a mother alone with many children who simply cannot manage all the advice and child/dog care and therefore is not in a position to safely own the dog. As emotionally distressing as it is for the current children who the dog has never shown aggression to the should go.

The majority of dogs I deal with that show aggression to children cease the behaviour with the various programmes I offer and I have decades of experience and evidence for such claims.

The bottom line for you as a behaviour practitioner advisor is difficult at times. The magic question often arises by people who find themselves in the predicament of a dog that has growled or nipped a child can you guarantee my dog will not bite my child again if I follow your advice. The answer is always No. I can advise that the problem will reduce or go away completely but only time will tell and that involves risk and that’s their decision not mine. If I thought the dog was seriously dangerous my advice would have been to rehomed or euthanasia the dog.

All dogs which I believe are malleable to change are given only four weeks to rapidly change for the better before a second assessment.

As toddlers grow and are placed in various cots, high chairs and the like, resulting in copious amounts of discarded food from the babies plate onto the floor, the dog soon begins to associate this new baby as a rewarding experience who delivers tasty treats. The dog will now look forward to baby’s feeding time. Again an obedient dog can learn this through controlled obedience as well as treats.

If you are unsure as to how your dog will react to a new child, have it assessed by a canine behaviour practitioner. We do about thirty a year at this centre.

On the whole, dogs and people do get along, but I believe that the majority of bites on young children are so easily avoided by preventative measures that it is simply a case of people working ahead and educating themselves on the consequences of owning a dog. Remember, neither the dog nor the baby had any say in arriving in you home and being placed together, so do give them the best chance of becoming amiable pack members.

Colin Tennant MA Canine Behaviour & Psychology