Pets & Babies (Part 2) How to avoid “Second Child Syndrome
Last month I shared some of the ways you can prepare your family’s companion animals for the arrival of a new baby. (If you missed it you could find it on my FB page or my website’s blog)
This month I describe some of the techniques you can use to create harmony among your 4-legged animals and your new baby.
If your dog is overly exuberant with new things or in a new situation, put him on a leash and command him to sit/stay or down/stay. If your dog is a jumper or leaper, use a head halter or harness (This should be a tool with which the dog is already familiar.) When the dog is calm and more relaxed, it’s time for the dog to meet the baby.
Step 1: While mom sits relaxed with the dog (on leash), someone else should come into the room with the baby and sit down at a distance – where the dog can’t make contact, at least 10 feet or more. Mom should maintain a relaxed leash, and reward the dog with small soft chewable treats, while the dog sits calmly and looks at the baby. If the dog can remain calm with the baby at this distance, mom can begin to move confidently and slowly toward the baby, or the caretaker can move slowly toward the dog. If the dog starts to get anxious, pauses or freezes, do not move ahead, wait again until the dog is calm before continuing this process. Do not rush this process.
Step 2: If the dog remains calm, allow the dog to smell the baby. Every dog’s threshold is different, so if your dog starts to get excited, stop, have the dog re-focus (using the sit/stay command) until calm, and then begin again. You should not rush this process. It is better to wait – days, if necessary – to allow the dog to sniff the baby, rather than to risk putting anyone in harm’s way. Think about having a trainer or behaviorist with you if you are at all unsure about how to handle the situation.
Step 3: If the dog seems anxious or fearful, begins to slink down, snarl, or growl, wait before moving ahead with this step. It is better to go back to Step 1 (above) until the dog is relaxed. PLEASE DO NOT PANIC; this is NOT a reason to “get rid of the dog.” With your patience and positive reinforcement, along with tolerance during this learning curve, your dog will most likely learn to relax around the baby. You should go at a pace with which the dog is comfortable. Try stroking him with long soothing motions on his body (not tapping on the head). Talk to him softly and confidently. Do not say, “Don’t worry, it’s okay,” because it is not okay if he is snarling or growling, and this communicates the wrong association for the dog.
Step 4: At first, while you are holding the baby within view of the dog or cat, be sure to adjust the baby, so the feet do not dangle; dangling feet might look like you are playing, and this could encourage the dog to lunge or jump up. Likewise, cats love to play with dangling, moving objects, so the way you position the baby is essential. Animals are instinctively curious beings, and sometimes they need to sniff or lick or get close to the object that is moving. New movements can be daunting, but again this is not a reason to panic. Animals are sensitive to our body language so if you can remain calm; chances are your animals will as well. Once the animals are comfortable and some time has passed, they should get used to the baby’s movements.
Step 5: Be prepared with some tools that will abruptly startle or distract your dog or cat. (Whistle, ball, wand toy, and small blanket (to throw over the animal if necessary) but also be prepared to reinforce the behavior that is wanted. If the dog or cat is fearful, don’t use a loud noise. Try and abort any bad behavior before it becomes a full-blown problem. For example, if the hair on your cat or dog’s back is up, if their pupils enlarge, or if they get into a fixed stare, this is the moment to change their focus. (Sometimes merely tossing a squeaky toy, or making a smooching sound, is enough to divert their attention.) Do not wait until they pounce. On the other hand, you must be careful not to terrify the animal by screaming, hitting or dragging them away as this will have the opposite effect, and the animals will begin to associate the baby with bad things happening. The desired result is for your animal to feel secure and happy around the new family member, and it is your task to behave in a way that will best facilitate this reaction.
Schedule Private Time with the Animals
Private time can include cuddle time, grooming, playtime, exercise, (indoor and outdoor), and continued training, as warranted. Treat this time as you would an after-school activity with your child, giving 100% of your attention. The dog and cat were there first, and as with first-born children, you don’t want them to feel neglected. “Second Child Syndrome,” as I like to call it, can be avoided if you schedule uninterrupted time for your animals, reinforcing their unique place in the family. Try not to allow anything to interrupt this playtime. Try and have someone else available to deal with the baby’s needs. You don’t want the animals to associate the baby’s crying with the end of their playtime.
Taking Off the Leash
If, after a few weeks, the animals accept the baby and you feel confident that you are in control, it is okay to take the leash off, but only when you can supervise. NEVER leave the baby unattended when the dog or cat is around, NOT EVEN for a second. Take a moment and put the baby in his or her playpen or crib, or pit the dog and cat in another room or crate with something to keep them occupied and content.
If you are observant and committed to a scheduled program, good things will most certainly result. Try not to sweat the small stuff. Most animals will adjust well if you help them in a gradual transition. Remember to make learning fun, so your animal has the best opportunity to accept the new family structure.