“You’ll see,” my friends and family warned, “they’ll become ‘just dogs’ after baby comes. It happens to everyone.”
Not me, I thought. Not my dogs. Bean and Willy Wonka had been with me for ten years, travelled with me to a dozen countries, never leaving my side for anything. And I’m different, I imagined. I am an animal advocate. I volunteer with animal rescues, write Op-Eds condemning animal cruelty, attend protests for animal rights. Animals are my world. My dogs are my first babies, my fur babies.
But then baby came, and things did change. Immediately.
After a complicated labor and spending a few days in hospital, I was thrilled to finally be heading home with our new baby girl. All I wanted was to snuggle up with her, my husband and our pups, and drown in all the oxytocin and love. But as I walked into the house, it happened. As Bean ran away shy, it was the sight of my excited Jack Russell/ Chihuahua-mix, Willy, that threw me into an unexpected panic.
In my flurry of protective postpartum hormones, my beloved little companion, a friend to all, abruptly became the enemy. His claws suddenly appeared jagged and huge, his tail wagged far too violently, and his mouth surely teemed with deadly bacteria. I feigned joy as I snapped a picture of the inaugural meeting, but in truth, I was terrified and confused.
Willy Wonka is all of nine pounds and a perfectly clean and gentle dog.
I was the crazy one.
But with the baby blues still lingering, breastfeeding setting me on a 24-hour clock, and my husband often at work, life with dogs seemed genuinely difficult in those first months. Our daily rituals were no longer; our beloved trips to the dog park seemingly impossible. Barely knowing what hour of the day it was, I admit there were times the dogs didn’t get fed. There were days they didn’t get walked. There were moments I barely even noticed they were there, save for their barking waking the baby or their continual need to go outside the moment I sat down to nurse.
I had tunnel vision, as most new moms do.
And the guilt was incredible.
Once the centers of my world, Bean and Willy had somehow been demoted to neglected house pets, the “just dogs” everyone warned me about. How did I let this happen, I would continually ask myself. Will I ever see my sweet Chihuahuas the same way again?
But then, as the fog of early motherhood lifted, and baby and I started getting more sleep, my mind remembered how to think about things beyond this tiny dependant human, and I started seeing my loyal, loving dogs once again. Despite their increasingly needy behavior, I also saw their patience and understanding as they waited for me to come back around.
And I did.
At that time I also discovered the amazing liberation of babywearing, which meant I was able to hold one baby and two dog leashes all at the same time. So we all went for a walk. And then we went to the dog park.
Prior to having a baby I volunteered with an animal rescue group, where we saw pets surrendered and abandoned for a variety of reasons. A common one was the addition of a new baby to the home. While pregnant, I briefly fostered just such a dog: small, seven-year-old Ty, who arrived at my house petrified and confused. It was devastating to see a dog who had been a member of a family for so many years, suddenly replaced and left completely alone in the world.
Helen Lovretin, founder and director of the group, Compassionate Animals Adoption Rescue in Montreal, says, “In many cases, it is extremely stressful for dogs to deal with abandonment and rehoming. We see their pacing, upset stomachs, lack of appetite, the nerves, the fear and the stress.” After a rough transition, Ty did find a new home, where he will hopefully be loved and appreciated for the rest of his life.That experience with Ty solidified my commitment to my dogs, that never would I force them into that same heartbreaking situation, and always would I ensure our lives were doggy-friendly, especially in this next new chapter. And even when reality hit, in those early days of barely coping with caring for pets along with a newborn, never did the idea of giving up my dogs cross my mind.
I knew that if I couldn’t soon find my footing, there was help available. I knew if ever my husband wasn’t available to help pick up the slack, dog walkers could fill in to ensure Bean and Willy received the daily exercise and stimulation they needed and deserved. I knew doggy daycares were available if ever I felt too overwhelmed and needed a break. And I knew professional dog trainers could be sought if behavioral issues ever arose. (Of course the issue of infant allergies was one thing I could not prepare for or solve. It was a legitimate fear I had throughout pregnancy, and am just relieved it turned out to be a non-issue.)
Certified dog trainer and behaviorist, Dr. Renee Will, says the prevalence of dog abandonment due to a new baby coming into the home was one of the main reasons for the creation of Dogs & Storks, and Dogs & Toddlers, workshops she facilities across Central Canada. Available through online webinars or in person in various countries around the world, through Family Paws Parent Education, the programs seek to increase safety and reduce stress in homes with young children and dogs, and decrease the number of dogs surrendered due to preventable behavioral problems and common conflicts.
“A dog’s behavior can create anxiety and tension between family members,” explains Dr. Will, which can lead to anticipatory abandonment before baby, or reactive surrender when the dogs shows signs of unease after baby arrives or later becomes mobile. But with proper preparation, ongoing education, and a committed bond, Dr. Will believes the majority of dogs can adapt and continue on as loving family members.
“The better the dog-human relationship to start, the more responsive the dog is to the owners, and the easier it is to cope with change and training,” she says. “Understanding of body language and appropriate responses to indications of stress can only help, so ultimately these programs can contribute to keeping the dog at home.”A year after bringing baby home, we are now in full swing of mobile toddler life, for which we have all been long preparing with much reading, observing, and training. The dogs know they can trust me to ensure their comfort and security around baby, and thus have minimal fear or reactivity. Additionally, I have been able find that daily rhythm needed to get in those regular dog walks and park adventures (often welcomed breaks during intense momming days). And now, the dogs never go unfed (partial credit to the mess of Baby Led Weaning).
Though Bean and Willy Wonka may have had to give up their place as my nearest and dearest, never will they lose their place as loved members of this family. They may no longer be my babies, but this will always be their forever home.
Many dog parents have found that their fur babies start to get defensive and moody, especially as their human baby starts to become more mobile. Some dogs will get extremely territorial of their food and beds. Some will become noticeably anxious any time the baby touches them or is around them. With these dangerous and scary changes in a dog’s behavior, some parents will separate the dog from the rest of the family, relegating them to the outside, in a certain room, or in their kennel. That is not fair to the family pet, and other measures should be taken to not only protect your children but also ensure that your pet is happy and healthy.
One of the first things to consider is learning your dog’s body language so you can see when they are uncomfortable, frustrated, or angry. If a dog is exhibiting these behaviors around you or your child, it is a good idea to leave them alone- either in a separate room or outside (weather permitting) to give them some space. However, you should not treat their separation as punishment. It should be a safe and loving transition so the dog knows that they aren’t being punished for something.
Some of the behaviors to note include:
- Stiff body posture
- Ears pinned back
- Baring Teeth
- Bites of different intensity (from light snipping to puncturing bites)
It is also important to remember that the only form of communication a dog has with a human is through their behavior and their growling or barking. Your dog might love your toddler and continue to be very protective of your children as they grow older. But dogs, like humans, have things they like and that they don’t like. They have days when they don’t feel well and, in turn, are somewhat grumpy. It is imperative that parents not only teach their dogs appropriate behavior around children but also to teach their children appropriate behavior around dogs. This is key when it comes to dogs and kids.
So many things pet owners do that they think is a cute picture opportunity with baby and the dog just aren’t so cute. Parents should not allow their child to do things like pull on the dog’s ears or tail. They should not allow a squirmy baby to climb on top of or over a dog while they are laying down as this can severely hurt their rib cage and stomach. And parents should teach their child to know that if a dog is exhibiting behaviors such as their ears being back, their tails being tucked between their legs, or is growling, that the child should walk away and leave the dog alone immediately.
Fur parents also must remember that sometimes, a dog will growl or snap at a child or person in order to give them a warning. Since they can’t tell us with words, they use the only form of communication that they have to let us know they don’t like something. Dogs should not be punished when they are trying to communicate that they aren’t happy with something, and parents should recognize and teach their child to leave their pup alone when it gives them a warning to back off.