Prior to having my son, I was a certified “dog mum” to two goofy, semi-chunky Labradors. I was fairly confident before he was born that they would make excellent older siblings for our firstborn; they’re friendly, loving, and spent plenty of time around kids.
The childless phase of my maternity leave was largely spent on the couch watching TV with the younger dog, Sadie, attached to my burgeoning belly like a limpet (as she did at any given opportunity). The older dog, Lola, is a gentle giant.
So it came as an enormous wake up call when, two months ago, Lola bit my 8 month old in the face.
I want to preface this by saying that I immediately took full responsibility for the incident and in hindsight, I hadn’t been a very good dog owner. They were spoiled and untrained. Bored. And – for less than five minutes – unsupervised with a baby.
The correction snap, which only left a very light mark on his face and did not break the skin, was a final warning I had not heeded nor paid attention to since my son had started crawling.
As the parent, and the owner, the onus fell squarely on me. This was my colossal stuff up, and my job to fix it.
Taking to Google, I was presented with two options. I’d either have to rehome Lola, since she’d done it once she was likely to do it again (and worse) or seek the help of a behaviorist.
Life with dogs before the baby, and life with a newborn
Lola has been my companion since I was just shy of 23, and for all intents and purposes she was my practice baby. I was devoted to her, and still love her fiercely. I lived a very dog-oriented existence outside of work and went to either the park or beach with her daily.
I did actually train her as a puppy – not training was a mistake I didn’t make until Sadie – and recently she re-learned how to sit, stay, lie down, roll over and shake.
Although at that time I trusted my dogs wholeheartedly, when I was pregnant I researched how to introduce a dog to a new baby and implemented some of the ideas I found. We carried around a baby doll, played baby crying sounds from my phone, taught them a “down” command while I swayed back and forth in my rocking chair. My mum brought home clothes and a blanket from the hospital for them to sniff.
I cried to the midwife on my third day in the hospital postpartum and confessed to her that I wanted to go home because I missed my dogs.
And when we did, in the late afternoon on that 38 degree day – with the sun still beating down at 5:30 pm – I rushed inside to greet them alone, as the books had recommended. The girls reverently sniffed Ollie when finally introduced. I was so flustered after the car ride home and the undulating heat that I don’t remember much else about what they did that day.
I do, however, remember that in a split second the way I felt about the dogs changed forever. Suddenly they presented problems and not much else. Their fur was everywhere and I obsessively cleaned while my stitches throbbed and my boobs ached. I was terrified of them stepping on him during tummy time. I didn’t have time for them anymore. It was a heartbreak remarkably close to a break up.
My partner became the designated dog walker as I was no longer able to. There just wasn’t enough hours in the day, between the cluster feeding and the contact naps and my own postpartum exhaustion. In my old life, walking the dogs was my daily ritual.
Life with dogs and a crawler
I continued to follow the advice I had read and didn’t leave Ollie with the dogs unsupervised, ever. They came with me into the bathroom if I needed to pee and Ollie was in his swing. And we did eventually settle back into a good routine, although I couldn’t shake that feeling that everything had changed. I even occasionally got to walk them alone.
The books and online articles tend to only focus on bringing home the baby and that initial newborn stage. It didn’t cover the phase when my baby would start crawling and become an object of absolute terror to the dogs.
I didn’t read until it was too late that you should get dogs used to a mobile baby by subjecting them to toddler pokes, prods and pulls – done by you – before it gets to that stage. And that the sight of a crawling baby scares dogs.
I got complacent, and it only took a moment.
After the incident, I quickly separated the dogs from the baby into a gated off section of the house and made certain Ollie was okay. Then I had to find out what to do.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and you can’t teach a baby to leave a dog alone
What was certain was that I couldn’t rehome Lola unless I was out of other options. It was no-brainer; I had made a commitment to her for life.
So instead, I threw myself into what my next steps were, and how to train them. I explained to my partner that this was my job, that I’d quickly realised that my dog ownership had been subpar for the last 4 years and it was something I would fix.
So I implemented new rules:
- The dogs had to sit and stay before their leashes were put on and taken off
- They had to come when called
- I take treats to the park for training recall, sitting and staying
- Training them to do tricks and doing other enrichment activities
- One slow “sniffari” a day at the park – no ball chasing
- Dogs outside for meals
- No tidbits off my plate
- Teaching them a “go away” command if Ollie went up to them
- Keeping them in a separate area of the house when Ollie was playing and I wasn’t nearby, and this was set up as a safe place for them to go when overwhelmed
It was imperative I started treating them as dogs, not as other children. They still have a very lucky, lovely life with long walks and healthy meals. In fact, they’re actually in the best shape they’ve ever been.
Now I know I missed warning signs that my dog was about to snap and they both appear to be more relaxed around our baby with these rules in place. Nevertheless, I don’t leave them unsupervised with him.
Warning signs a dog is about to bite
Sometimes we personify our dogs and ascribe human emotions to them. Appeasement licks aren’t a sign they adore your baby. They don’t know if biting your child is right or wrong, they act on instinct. Aside from the obvious signs (growling and baring teeth), you need to look out for:
- Lip licking and yawning
- Whale eye (sclera/whites of eye are visible)
- Ears back, tensed
- Hackles raised
- Wagging tail
VetWest have a section on their website that covers dogs and babies in the initial period and long term. My recommendation is to plan ahead and do your research.
Most importantly, if you were a “fur baby” haver like me, be prepared for your relationship with your dogs to change in many ways after you have a baby. But maybe that change will be for the better, for you and for your pup.