Before the arrival of a baby, many couples practice parenting with a beloved pet. So how do you introduce a new baby into the mix? Experts agree that parents can ensure the safety of both baby and animal by following basic rules of animal behavior.
Denise Stringfellow, a Certified Pet Dog Trainer and owner of Issaquah-based Riverdog Canine Coaching, said that "almost all dogs will naturally treat young children as littermates, and will at some point attempt to mouth them, chase them, play-bite them and all the other social games that young puppies play."
"Good parents make sure they have a way to set and communicate to both the children and the dog what the boundaries are for safe interactions with each other, and will be there to monitor and gently enforce those boundaries," she added.
The addition of a new baby can be stressful for dogs, Stringfellow said, if "the household rules are not communicated to the pet, either prior to the baby's arrival, or after. Sadly, many great family dogs make grievous errors with young children because they don't understand the new family rules, and have not been given appropriate direction by their owners."
Kay Joubert, director of companion animal services for the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), said that "dogs and cats often react like any other sibling to a new baby, which means they can feel left out or ignored if the family fails to pay attention to their needs. Ideally, families should build in some one-on-one time with the dog or cat where that important bond can be reinforced and the pet can relish the individual attention," she advised.
"Most cats and dogs can be safely welcomed into the nursery provided they are always overseen by an adult," she added. "By allowing them access to the space, they can become familiar and comfortable with the new smells, sounds and activities that occur when there is a human infant present."
Joubert also had this advice for soon-to-be parents with pets: "If possible, introduce the cat or dog to other babies and children who are comfortable around animals prior to the baby's arrival. This way, some of their natural curiosity and anxiety can be diminished as they've already had the opportunity to have positive experiences that involve infants."
Leslie Wise, past Seattle Humane staffer, taught a class on safely introducing existing pets to a new baby. "It is natural animal behavior for pets, especially dogs, to want to explore this new family member," Wise said. "In preparing for this, we always encourage folks to get their animals up to date on all vaccinations prior to baby's arrival and even consider a dental cleaning. Additionally, folks should take the time to regularly trim their pets' toenails."
Wise encouraged parents to set up "safe zones" for their pets. "This is a place where the pet can retreat if it no longer wants to be part of the activity around the baby. And it needs to be a place that the baby can't access, especially as baby turns into a mobile toddler," she added.
Some pets, Wise noted, do not bond with the new family member to the extent that parents hope. "If a pet chooses to steer clear of the baby, we encourage folks to let him do that," she said. "It is likely that, in time, the pet will come around on his own, but even if he doesn't, he shouldn't be forced to interact with the baby."
Thinking about getting a new dog before the baby arrives? Most parents look for a particular breed based on its "child-friendly reputation," but Wise said that there are other factors to consider. "Pit bulls, rottweilers and Dobermans tend to get a bad reputation due to how they're seen in the media," she said. "But most often, it is how animals are treated and trained that determines their personalities."
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2006, and updated in 2022.