As you know, I work with dogs and babies, but my expertise and passion for this line of work was really driven home when I found out that we were expecting a baby of our own last year. I immediately set about working with our dog Lara, to get her ready for the soon-to-arrive baby. Now that we have settled in with dog and baby, I'd love to share all the tips and tricks I used with Lara during my pregnancy, and preparations we did for baby K to come home to help both of them adjust to each other.
My first trimester was spent mostly in bed and in the bathroom throwing up. Here I took the opportunity to teach Lara to not get all upset/excited each time I threw up. Her reaction would vary from mild concern to barging into the loo and trying to nudge me to make sure I'm okay. But once I was quick to reassure her that I was fine, she would go back to her wiggly playful self. We have had many a post-throwing up fetch sessions sitting on the bathroom floor! Once the throwing up became more routine, she would raise her head, check that I've got the situation under control, and go back to chilling on her bed. That is exactly what I wanted, so it was great that we accomplished that early on!
Tip: It's important that your dog realise that you're handling stuff and that you've got everything under control. It is only when they perceive that you're not holding it together that they begin to get insecure as well. This insecurity can then play out as attention seeking behaviour, protective behaviour or anxiety.
I teach Lara to stay off the mat while I pretend to change or interact with the baby.
This is when the exhaustion wore off a little bit and I could really get in more training with Lara. During this period, I focussed on revising all her commands, like Leave it, sit, back out, go to bed, leave the room etc. in a non stressful and totally relaxed environment. This really helps get dogs get adjusted to what's coming. If they're already having fun doing this now, they won't mind doing it when the baby is here. Many people make the mistake of trying to enforce these commands after the baby is home, when everyone is stressed out, overtired, the dog is already trying to adjust to this new wailing, gurgling, vibrating little entity. Then when the dog has to make way for the little one, he can start to feel left out or abandoned.
More importantly, I also practiced these commands from various positions, in various rooms, and in varying tones of voice. Imagine that you're generally always talking to your dog in clear firm tones, and then you suddenly have to account for this sleeping baby on your shoulder! Then you'd rather drop dead before you risk waking the baby who took aaaages to fall asleep. So then you try to furtively whisper something to your dog, and all he hears is a bunch of mumbles and has no clue what you want him to do! Better to start training him to understand whispers and hand signs from now. Also, most people generally tend to be seated or standing when asking the dog to do something. Now try doing it lying down to check if your dog follows through with this change in action.
Tip: Keep commands light and fun. Try to think of the times ahead to figure out what commands you'll be using the most, and practice those well.
Lara watches from nearby while K play on her mat, and stays off the mat with a simple 'Off!' command.
By now we were gearing up to make all the changes in the house to incorporate the baby, and we wanted Lara to be a part of that. Our stroller, car seat and other stuff was delivered home, and we brought them out for Lara to investigate immediately. Many dogs have not been around baby equipment (especially ones which play music or have some kind of motion) before and can be quite confused or intrigued by it or scared around it when they first come across it. That's why it's a great idea to have it around, and even role play using it with a doll, so the dog adjusts to it. We even got her used to play mats and toys on the floor, teaching her to 'Leave it' and go for something attractive of her own. (We bought her a squeaky toy that she absolutely loves, and only brought it out for her to play with when baby toys are around.) She was so enamoured by her own new toy that she wasn't particularly interested in the human toys, or on sitting on the play mat. We added to the above by playing baby sounds as well, first at a low volume, gradually increasing the volume as she adjusted to each level of volume. This was an important part of the training, because it gave us an idea about whether Lara would take to the noise in the house easily or not. She did fine, but if she had been uncomfortable with it, we would have put her on to a program to get her accustomed to it.
Tip: Teach your dog what is expected. Try to stop the dog before he reaches for the mat or the toys, rather than trying to get them out his grasp once he already has them! Encourage calm, quiet behaviour around equipment and in general.
PREPARING FOR BRINGING THE BABY HOME
Lara has always been used to greeting us by rushing up to us and getting a thorough rubbing and patting while she prances around our legs (Thank God no jumping!). We realized that her enthusiastic response might spook a newborn who is asleep, and the tail-whipping of her thick Labbie tail was also not a great idea to have around a newborn. So we encouraged her to sit politely while we reach out to pat her and scratch her behind the ears. We also taught her to back away on command, enough to give us space to have baby change hands or laps if required without doggie in the way.
In spite of my dog being a well mannered and polite dog in general, my husband and I put in the effort involved to get her ready for the baby. Even though we believe we're going to be great parents, we still read parenting books to prepare ourselves, so why not prepare Lara as well?
I am glad to see that all the effort has really paid off, because Lara and K have a beautiful relationship that gets better with each milestone that goes by!
Stay tuned for my next article on how we introduced Lara and baby K, and how we got them to settle in together.