I was lately asked to write a few words on “introducing a new baby to the family dog”. My first thought? More people should read Emily Post.
It may be a point lost on many these days, but one does not in fact introduce a person of higher stature to a person of lower stature. As Emily Post explains,
The correct formal introduction is:
“Mrs. Jones, may I present Mr. Smith?”
“Mr. Distinguished, may I present Mr. Young?”
The younger person is always presented to the older or more distinguished, but a gentleman is always presented to a lady, even though he is an old gentleman of great distinction and the lady a mere slip of a girl.
No lady is ever, except to the President of the United States, a cardinal, or a reigning sovereign, presented to a man.
Thus, when in high school, I introduced each new boyfriend to my father, not the other way around (I may be exaggerating the number of boyfriends here). And when I brought my first baby home from hospital, each dog was introduced to her.
When the reverse is suggested, that one ought to introduce one’s new arrival to the dog, what really comes across? No one may consciously mean to promote the idea of ceremoniously presenting baby to the family dog at nose level for his inspection (“Bruno, may we present our new daughter?”), yet such abuses of protocol still occur.
Most dogs are fully capable of adapting to life with a new baby, bonding with the child as he or she matures, and even providing valuable assistance to parents interested in teaching their children early on to be gentle, kind, and empathetic. But first impressions do count, and sending the wrong message in the beginning may undermine one’s ability to nurture a healthy and mutually respectful relationship going forward.
Here is my advice to new and expectant parents concerned with sending the right message and setting their dog up to succeed.
When orchestrating the introduction, keep in mind that your dog should be relaxed and attentive to both parents whenever baby is present. The goal is to forge positive associations while encouraging good behavior and communicating baby’s status.
If your dog is stir-crazy after days of confinement or lack of exercise while mom was in hospital, postpone the introduction until later on, after Bruno has settled down. If he knows some basic obedience commands, and is capable of, say, holding a sit reliably in distracting situations, then by all means use it! Ask him to sit and reward him with treats, calm petting and/or praise for demonstrating restraint and responsiveness in the baby’s presence. If he has excellent leash manners, take him for a short walk while the other parent carries the baby or pushes the stroller. The idea is to show your dog from day one that it is simple, straightforward, and rewarding to succeed in the presence of the new baby.
Do not ask the impossible of him: do not ask for a sit or any other behavior he has not been well prepared to demonstrate under distracting or moderately stressful conditions. Do not allow him to jump up or behave otherwise inappropriately, only to be corrected for doing the wrong thing. You do not want your dog’s first experience of your new arrival to be frustration or, worse, punishment, because you have either left him too much to his own devices or, worse, set him up to fail.
A calm dog requires a calm owner, so if mom or dad is stressed out, or fearful regarding how the introduction might go, it should potentially be put off until a plan is in place that ensures smooth sailing. I strongly recommend to my clients that they allow their dog to say hello to each parent while the other holds the baby, and to exercise him a bit, before expecting calm behavior in baby’s presence.
An important point is that physical contact between dog and baby is not only unnecessary, but potentially counter-productive. Parents should not feel compelled to hold their breath and cross their fingers while their dog inspects the bundle, nor allow their dog to sniff and lick their newborn, either on the day baby comes home, or any day soon. Photo opportunities are one thing, safety and sending appropriate signals is another; and such introductions may easily give Bruno the wrong impression of baby’s status compared to his own. Remember, it’s not about whether baby meets with Bruno’s approval. It’s about making it clear that baby is a good thing; that she shares equal status with her parents; and that continued inclusion in the goings-on of the household is entirely contingent on the demonstration of obedient behavior in her presence.
It is immensely helpful to put any new rules (not allowed on the bed), boundaries (no entrance into the nursery without invitation), or routines (shorter walks in the morning, longer walks after dad comes home), in place well ahead of baby’s arrival. This will cut down on potential conflicts, resentment and anxiety for all involved after baby arrives.
And if you’re imaging yourself walking or jogging with your dog along with a baby stroller, don’t forget to try a few pre-baby excursions. Many dogs are made anxious by wheeled vehicles like bicycles and shopping carts. Make certain your dog isn’t frightened of the stroller, and that his leash skills are up to par, before it comes time for baby’s maiden voyage.
In a perfect world, Bruno would be prepared well ahead of time to meet these expectations. He would be taught good manners and a suite of practical skills before baby was so much as a glimmer in her father’s eye.
If, however, your dog is less well-schooled, do not despair. It might take less time to prepare your dog for meeting the new baby than it would take to ready you to meet the President of the United States, a cardinal, or a reigning sovereign. Remember, dogs are generally capable of learning fairly quickly, and don’t require an expensive suit or gown to turn heads.
Formal etiquette and formal obedience have something curious in common. Despite sharing a profound utility, they are similarly ignored and discarded by many as old-fashioned and irrelevant. No doubt, on the surface they can both come across as fussy, artificial, and overly strict. But underneath there is in each case a laudable structure, a foundation of basic skills and protocols, within which we may frame and even better comprehend our relationships, communicate more clearly, and interact more comfortably.
© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.