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How to introduce a new baby to your dogs

  • Story Highlights
  • Experts say to start training dogs before your new baby arrives
  • Bring home blanket with baby's scent for dogs before infant comes home
  • Set up a barrier to create safe place for dog when baby starts crawling
  • Teach toddler to keep hand flat and pet the dog gently
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By Melissa Tarkington
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Before our baby boy came home, our dogs were the objects of our affection. Tilly and Riley had playdates, organic food, regular health checkups and pricey dog toys. Doted on and walked daily, they were the focus of our evenings and weekends.

The writer's son Cris gets friendly with the family dogs, Riley, left, and Tilly.

The writer's son Cris gets friendly with the family dogs, Riley, left, and Tilly.

But once Cris arrived, it was a good day if we remembered to feed them. A late-night conversation often went something like this:

"Did you feed the dogs?"

"No, I thought you did."

"What about this morning?

"Nope, thought you did."

By neglecting the dogs, animal behavior experts say we created more work for ourselves, prolonged the dogs' stress levels and increased the chance one might hurt the baby.

"Everyone is overwhelmed with the presence of a new baby and it is important to tighten the schedule before the baby comes home," says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, professor and animal behavior expert at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

"Always feed them at the same time, go for a walks at a certain times. Get this set up well in advance. Abrupt changes are the most difficult for dogs to adapt to," says Beaver.

Introducing a new infant into a family with a dog takes a lot of preparation, patience and commitment. Our mistake was that we assumed, as many dog-owners might, that our dogs were looking forward to this arrival as much as we were.

"An infant is the ultimate wild-card for a dog," says Jennie Willis Jamtgaard, owner of Animal Behavior Insights and instructor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

"It is a big transition for everyone and preparing ahead of time is really the key -- when a baby comes home, that is not the time to start to work with the dog," Jamtgaard adds.

Beaver and Jamtgaard agree there are not one, but two important transitions that occur when a baby arrives: first, the initial introduction, and, second, when the baby becomes mobile.

While toddlers tend to antagonize their pets out of healthy curiosity and can set the stage for the most severe accidents, more tension tends to be associated with the initial introduction. Experts say it is best to begin training the dog as soon as you know you are expecting.

Make sure you work on the basics, such as sit, stay, not barking or pulling on a leash before the baby comes into the picture, says Jamtgaard. "If the dog is not behaved without the baby, of course it's going to be more difficult once the baby is around," she says.

Colleen McDaniel, owner of the Academy of Canine Behavior in Bothell, Washington, and co-author of "Pooches & Small Fry: Parenting Skills for Dogs (And Kids!)," teaches her clients to make a specific area of the common room a baby-free dog zone long before the infant arrives.

For large dogs, McDaniel recommends creating a barrier out of simple materials, such as lattice fencing, that can be purchased at home and garden stores. For smaller dogs, she recommends creating a "rat hole" in the barrier so that the dog can get in and out easily. The goal of having this space is that when the baby goes on the floor, the dog has a private, stress-free place to spend time with the family.

When arriving home with an infant for the first time, Jamtgaard says it is a good idea to have one person in charge of the dog, and one in charge of baby.

She suggests one person take the animal outside and allow some time for the energy level to come down. While the dog -- or dogs -- are out, the other person can bring the baby inside and get settled.

While outside, Jamtgaard recommends giving the dogs a few of the baby's things to smell so that they learn the baby's scent. She also says that putting the TV on -- something that often settles dogs, as they know people will be in the same place for a while -- can help calm things down.

But even after a few days, tension may continue to escalate in a house with a new baby. So it is important, according to McDaniel, to understand that dogs really do sense this stress, and may wonder: Why is this baby upsetting my people?

In dealing with this, according to Beaver, Jamtgaard and McDaniel, one of the biggest mistakes parents often make is to put the dog away when the baby is in the room. Rather, it can be helpful to give the dog treats when the baby is around, to help create a positive association with the baby. "If the dog learns that it is always banished when the baby appears, the idea forms that the baby is bad news," McDaniel says.

That is where the designated space can come in handy. "You want the dog around when the baby is crying," McDaniel says. "You don't want them to think this is a wounded animal that they need to kill."

One of the biggest problems can occur when the baby becomes mobile and starts crawling around. A baby's natural curiosity, combined with the elation of being able to move means that dogs must adapt to an entirely new, even more stressful environment.

Jamtgaard says parenting is especially important during this developmental period. "Show the child how to keep their hand flat and touch the dog gently, she says, "and then give rewards to the child for being gentle."

If the child does behave aggressively toward the dog, Jamtgaard says the dog should go away until the child learns to be gentle. "It's not a punishment for the dog, but a reward to be taken away from a child that is treating it badly," she says.

Even as children get older, it is never a good idea do leave them unsupervised, says Beaver, who has also written two books, "Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers" and "Feline Behavior."

"People get complacent and if they have a loving dog, they will trust it. But a child pulling on a dog's fur or poking its eyes could cause the dog to snap out of panic or fear," Beaver says. "In these cases, the dog is always the one to lose."

In our case, Cris and the dogs turned out to be fast friends. Now that Cris is 5 years old, it is our cat that ends up being on the run (from Cris, not the dogs!).

Steps you should take:

1) Establish separate daytime and nighttime routines -- and stick with them -- to make things as simple as possible.

2) Create an enclosed, private area within the common room for your dog to hang out in. They want to be with their family.

3) Set up barriers within the house. Metal step-on baby gates work best. Dogs are responsive to these and can be on the other side and still see what is going on. Great for high-stress times such as meals, bathing and bed-time.

4) Desensitize your pet to the baby's things early on. Let them check out the crib, changing table, high chair and other furniture as soon as it is brought into the home.

5) Use food and treats as rewards. If dogs get food when the baby is in the room, this creates a positive association with the baby.

6) Secure the diaper area: Tall canisters with foot-activated lids keep odors contained and soiled diapers out of reach.

Things NOT to do:

1) Leave baby and dog together unsupervised.

2) Ban the dog when baby is in the room.

3) Force dog and baby to interact if the dog seems fearful or nervous.

4) Ignore bad behavior and wait to correct these once the baby is home.

5) Ignore warning signs that the dog is stressed or irritable.

6) Expect dogs to tolerate everything that a child does. Children must learn to behave appropriately with animals.

Melissa Tarkington is a former journalist for CNN.com, MSNBC and The Moscow Times. She is a second-year student in the professional veterinary program at Colorado State University.

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