As someone who began her animal welfare career in a large, inner city animal shelter, I have come to realize and understand some of the difficulties (both mentally and emotionally) that pet owners go through when they are thinking about surrendering a pet. Two of the most frequent reasons that owners come to this conclusion are (a) because they are either expecting a baby and won’t have time to care for their pet, or (b) they recently had a baby and they are afraid of unsafe interactions between pet and baby. While surrendering a pet is by no means an easy choice, there are many ways owners can prevent having to face this decision when there is a baby on the way! By prepping yourselves and your pets early on, you pave the way for smooth introductions and a happy, cohesive family!
It is important to understand that a very small percentage of pets has prior baby experience – which means that if you adopt a pet, or purchase one from a breeder, there is a pretty high likelihood they have no idea what human babies are! Therefore, if you bring a furry child into your home, and know it will soon be followed by a human child, start your prep ASAP! There are a couple of super simple ways to do this:
- Start training your pet early on – teach them basic manners and build a strong, trusting relationship. This is applicable to cats and dogs. Train with positive rewards, and work on the foundation of an obedient pet. For dogs, begin with sit, stay, come, etc. For cats, set house ground rules, if possible! For all pets, give them a “happy place” that is all their own and quiet, whether it be a crate, dog bed, or an entire room! Work with high praise and treats to create a confident and secure pet while also instilling structure in their daily lives.
- Once you have the basics down, start with some more “invasive” training. Use positive training tactics (praise and treats) to teach your pet that it’s A-OK to have their paws, ears, and tails touched. Work on “invasive” handling such as bending over them, gently tugging on them, and patting them all over. Essentially mimic what a child would likely do, but pair it with a calm demeanor, high praise, and lots of yummy treats!
- If possible, introduce your pets to real infants in a safe, secure setting. If you have friends/family members with young children, invite them over! Start in small doses, and be sure to always supervise! Keep a close eye on your pet’s body language – if they appear uncomfortable in any way (tails down, whale eye, whiskers spread, pupils dilated, ears back, etc.) remove them from the situation in a positive way. Avoid any admonishments or punishments – it is a new, scary situation, and they’re doing their best!
- Change your pet’s environment slowly – begin by introducing the new baby’s belongings to your pet. Let them smell the crib, clothes, toys, etc. all over, which is basically their equivalent of reading a new person’s Facebook profile! Introduce baby sounds at various times of the day, so your pet won’t be too freaked out by crying in the middle of the night! Again, be sure to pair all new experiences with treats and so much praise.
- Finally, it’s time to make the introduction! I would recommend keeping a dog on a dropped leash when first introducing them to baby, and supervising all interactions. Let your pet sniff baby, and get a couple of licks in if necessary! Always be sure to start with short introductions, and pair with something positive (food, playtime, belly rubs, etc.)
This plan may seem like a lot of work when you sit down and think about it, but these small, conscious and repetitive changes will set the tone for a positive life-long relationship. It is so important that pets feel safe and comfortable in their own homes, and that new parents have one less thing to stress about.
With a little bit of luck and a lot of planned preparation, pet and baby will be best friends in no time! If you’re interested in a bit more information, and a live tutorial, the Animal Welfare League of Arlington holds “Baby Ready” classes every few months! Click the link below to sign up for the next one, and congratulations on the new baby!