Dogs and new babies: preventing problems

In the wake of a baby in California being killed by a family dog, Pete has been discussing the issue of the safety of dogs around young children.

He wrote his weekly piece in the Daily Telegraph on this, and the subject was the focus of his vet spot on the Pat Kenny Show this week.

Can pets be trusted around children?

The answer to this is “not completely, ever”. Young children – especially babies – are completely defenceless, and animals are not rational beings, so they cannot be expected to behave rationally.

While it’s true that many dogs and cats seem to have a sense of what is “baby” and what is “a toy” (for example), it’d be foolish to trust this. Young children should never be left unsupervised with animals, and with large animals – that are potentially very dangerous, as in any large dog, regardless of breed – should not be allowed close to children unless you are watching the situation very carefully indeed. To some extent, you do learn about an individual animal, but no animal is 100% trustworthy. I would not allow my 5kg terrier Kiko, who has never even growled at a human – to sit on the bed right beside a 3 day old baby, within easy reach of the child. You can never be completely sure. You may get away with it 99% of the time, but it’s that small percentage of unpredictability that you need to be cautious about.

I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with having a dog on the bed, or on the sofa, or whatever, but many people prefer to have boundaries in the home that their pets do not cross, and being on the furniture is one of those. Certainly, it’s important to have good obedience training, so that your dog doesn’t jump up, and will sit and stay, leave things alone etc, and so that they respond to commands reliablyl. If your dog does not have these obedience skills, work on them before the baby arrives.

Cats are obviously less dangerous than dogs, but they can give a nasty scratch, so make sure that they are supervised too. Be aware of the risk of cats sleeping on babies’ faces: this is a real risk, so never leave a cat in the same room as a sleeping baby, and as a double safety precaution, place a protective net over the baby’s crib.
Finally, remember that pets are good for children: the presence of pets can be associated with a lower risk of asthma (as long as the mother does not have asthma), and pets are good at teaching children body language, so that children who group up with pets are more self assured and socially adept compared to petless children.

Introducing dogs to babies

While many dogs seem to have nanny-like sensitivity and tenderness around babies, this is not “automatic” by any means. Dogs that are not familiar with babies do not necessarily see them as little people, and they may be frightened, nervous or excited by them when they first see them.

For this reason, during a first pregnancy, if there is a dog in the house, you should introduce your dog to other people’s babies so that they are familiar with the idea. You might also use a recording of baby noises (crying etc) to play in the background sometimes so that your dog is used to this. Some people even use life-like baby dolls to get the dog used to the concept of you carrying something around. You might also use some of the baby’s lotions,powders etc on yourself so that the dog gets used to the new scents. And when the baby has been born, bring back some of the baby’s blankets/ clothing before the baby comes back so that the dog becomes familiar with the scent before meeting.

Also, be aware that your dog’s daily routine will inevitably change dramatically when the baby arrives, which can be stressful for the animal. So pre-empt that several months in advance, changing the routine to a new one that you will be able to continue once the baby has arrived. If you cannot commit to walking your dog for at least half an hour twice a day, organise doggy day care or a walker to make sure that they have plenty of exercise.

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