Children and Pets: Infants and Dogs

It’s always a great idea to plan ahead to help your dog adjust to your new baby, particularly if he has not been exposed to children before. Most dogs readily accept infants after an initial period of adjustment and curiosity. There have been some rare but highly publicized incidents in which a family dog has inflicted a serious or fatal injury to an infant. If you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior, it is best to discuss them with your veterinarian. Guidelines such as the ones shared in this handout are general and meant to be adapted to suit your personal situation.

Is there any way to predict if a dog will harm an infant or young child?

Every dog must be carefully supervised when a baby is nearby. Even a friendly and experienced dog can injure an infant. All dogs are predators with powerful jaws – they can mistake a tiny human infant for a prey species. A dog can unintentionally injure a baby if he jumps up and accidentally runs into or lands on her. And any dog can be startled and suddenly snap.

Sometimes, prior behavior patterns raise a red flag for concern. For example:

  • Dogs that have already shown aggressive tendencies towards babies or children.
  • Dogs that have demonstrated aggression toward adults.
  • Dogs that startle easily or are generally fearful.
  • Dogs that have a history of predatory behavior (i.e., they chase and kill squirrels, birds, cats, goats, sheep, or other mammals).

If your dog shows any of these behaviors, it is important that you consult with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist for advice. An expert’s assessment will determine whether your dog is likely to be safe around a child, and then you can discuss the best protocol for a successful introduction.

My dog does not show any signs of fear or aggression. What precautions do I need to take?

  • Babies and children should be supervised 100% of the time with dogs. If you must leave the room, bring the baby or the dog with you.
  • Never dangle your baby in front of your dog – the dog could mistake the baby for a toy. Even a dog’s playful attempt to grab part of a baby’s clothing can cause an injury.
  • When you are not able to fully concentrate on watching your dog, use a barrier. You can set up a pen, a crate, or a tether. If your dog is relaxed, no further training may be needed, but if your dog is not used to barriers, then be sure to practice before the baby arrives.

What general preparations can be done before the baby arrives?

There are a few things you can do ahead of time to prepare your dog for the baby's arrival.

Train your dog to respond to verbal cues

It is helpful if your dog has been trained to consistently respond to some important verbal cues. Dogs that are prepared to receive information from their caregivers are much easier to manage than dogs that always make their own decisions in new situations. If your dog has not yet been trained, consult with a trainer who understands how to use positive reinforcement to teach cues. If your dog is already well trained, begin to practice with distractions. Focus on basic cues such as sit, lie down, and stay.

Teach your dog to settle and “go to bed”

Teach your dog to settle on a mat or bed; sometimes, erect a barrier. At times when the baby takes all your attention, it will be helpful if your dog understands how to relax and wait patiently on a mat, with and without the barrier. Tolerance of a barrier is especially important for boisterous dogs – if there is any unusually stimulating activity, you will need to keep the baby protected.

It is also helpful to teach your dog to “go to bed” when asked. That way, if there is a sudden need to have your dog move away – perhaps if something has spilled or your baby is upset – your dog will not be confused or frightened.

Practice future activities

Simulate activities that will occur once the baby is in the house. Practice handling diapers or even changing the diapers on a doll. Ask your dog to settle on his mat while you do these activities. Carry the doll from room to room sometimes – you may either ask your dog to settle or invite him to come along. Encourage him to walk beside you without jumping up and down. If your dog is very excited about the doll, ask your trainer to help you teach him to “walk along” calmly.

During these simulations, if you notice that your dog becomes fearful or aggressive, or if he is very aroused and excited, consult with a veterinary behaviorist who can determine the best protocol to reduce his arousal and keep your baby safe.

Play new sounds

Play downloaded noises of babies crying for your dog. Introduce the baby monitor. Sometimes, ask your dog to settle while the noises are playing; other times, play with him or do some fun training. Watch for over-arousal and fear-based or aggressive behaviors.

If your dog hides, growls, or barks at the noises, he will need a special behavior modification program to desensitize him. Again, it is best to consult with a veterinary behaviorist if you notice that he is concerned. If your dog notices the sounds and readily returns to his previous activity, then you may continue exposing him to the noises on a regular basis.

Introduce new spaces and smells

Set up the nursery and allow your dog to explore or, if you decide he should not enter the room when the baby is there, then teach him to relax on his mat outside the room while you enter. If you plan to use a gate to keep him out of the room, then introduce the gate ahead of time.

After the baby is born, but before bringing her into the house, show your dog an item of her clothing or a blanket she has used. Allow your dog to sniff and become familiar with the baby's scent, as long as he remains calm. Later, when he is no longer interested in the scent, ask your dog to sit, stay, or settle on his mat as you handle these items, carry them into the baby's room, etc.

How should we introduce our dog to the new baby?

The dog should first be allowed to greet the parents without the baby present. Once your dog has finished the greeting and is relaxed, the baby can be introduced. Sometimes, it is best to keep the dog and baby separate for several hours. There is no rush – it is always better to take your time and be certain that your dog is calm. Meanwhile, it is fine to allow your dog to sniff more items of clothing. Even with the baby out of sight, your dog is becoming familiar with her odors and with the sounds that she makes.

"There is no rush – it is always better to take your time and be certain that your dog is calm."

Dogs that are easily excited may do best if they begin to adjust to the baby with a barrier in place. The barrier can be a gate and/or a leash held by a familiar adult. There should always be a person on your dog’s side of the gate to keep him as comfortable as possible. This is a great time to practice settling/lying down on the mat, using treats. This is where the barrier pre-training comes in handy. The barrier keeps your baby safe and it can remain in place for hours or even days as your dog adjusts to the new sounds and scents.

Steps to introduce the baby

The best time to introduce a baby to a dog is when the dog is calm and the baby is quiet. There is no rush for your dog to physically investigate the baby. Remember, he has already become familiar with many scents and sounds from a distance.

Ideally, at least two people should help with the introduction: one to hold the baby and the other to reward the dog for relaxing and being patient.

  1. To begin, have your dog sitting on his leash while being held by his person. The second person should hold the baby well out of the dog’s reach. The baby should be far away enough that the dog cannot accidentally access her. Some dogs become very frustrated when restrained on a leash. If you have seen evidence of frustration in other situations – perhaps your dog barks or lunges impatiently to access a friend – you will need to help your dog work through this emotion without the baby nearby. Consult with your trainer or veterinary behaviorist. A variation on this training could be to use a gate rather than a leash. In this case, the helper would remain with your dog and use treats to encourage your dog to sit calmly, as though there were no gate at all.
  2. During the introduction sessions, whether you use a leash or gate, reward your dog with treats, quiet praise, and some pets, if he likes to be petted. Gradually, the person holding the baby can move closer, giving the dog time to readjust and making sure that he remains curious but not overly excited. Sometimes it is helpful for the person holding the baby to sit on one side of the room while the person holding the dog sits a few feet away. Repeat these introductions a few times every day. As long as both dog and baby are quiet, the sessions can continue. Be prepared to end a session if your dog becomes excited or if the baby fusses or needs your attention.

Eventually, your dog may be brought closer, but not close enough to be able to bite or scratch. In general, two to three feet of space should be maintained between dog and baby. Do not be tempted to allow even the friendliest dog to lick or come in direct contact with a baby during these first few interactions. Injuries can occur incredibly fast, so it is better to use caution and proceed slowly during the first few days.

Use your discretion as to when it is appropriate to let your dog sniff the baby more closely. If your dog is not overly excited after several introductions, and if your dog consistently responds when asked to “go to bed” or “lie down and settle”, you can repeat the process without a leash but under strict supervision.

When can I allow my dog freedom to move throughout the house?

Once your dog is consistently relaxed during the off-leash introductory sessions, you may allow him to wander freely while you are holding the baby. Never allow your dog to access your baby without direct, close supervision.

A baby gate can be used to block your dog from entering the baby's room when you are not present. Or, you may confine your dog to an area of the house that does not allow him unsupervised access to the baby. Be sure to provide your dog with plenty of positive interactive time with household adults. If you are unable to give him enough quality time, consider engaging a pet sitter to provide an extra play or walk session.

As you and your dog settle into the new routine, and once your dog is fully relaxed with the baby nearby, arrange for some of your dog’s playtime to occur when the baby is present. Also, when playing with the baby, be sure to include the dog, even if the dog is behind a barrier. For example, you can ask the dog to do some tricks for treats.

Will I always need to supervise my dog?

At some point, dogs figure out that the infant is part of the family and not an animal. For about 3 months after birth, babies continue to resemble prey and must be protected; until then, any dog can suddenly turn into a hunter – he may whine and/or circle the baby. If you observe this behavior in the presence of an infant, you must ensure that your dog has no opportunity to physically access your baby. In extreme cases, you may need to remove your dog from the home until your baby is a little older and, from the dog’s perspective, more resembles a human.

With time, your dog should become familiar with your child's sounds and movements, and will not show any evidence of concern. Direct supervision is still needed. Continue to use gates to ensure your dog does not accidentally gain access to the baby. As your baby becomes more mobile, supervision is still needed to be sure she does not crawl on your dog or disturb your dog when the dog is resting comfortably or eating dinner.

"As babies grow into toddlers, they get bolder and often attempt to interact in ways that dogs find physically or emotionally uncomfortable."

Though some children have great animal skills even when they are young, in general, children less than 10 years old should not be left unattended with a dog. As babies grow into toddlers, they get bolder and often attempt to interact in ways that dogs find physically or emotionally uncomfortable. An unsupervised child may grab a dog’s ear or tail or may poke a dog with a hard object such as a pencil. Children may be bitten when they try to take a dog’s toys or when they attempt to pet or hug a dog that is eating or waiting for food.

Fortunately, there are many fun activities that dogs and children can share – supervision is just part of the deal. With close supervision and patience, most social dogs bond with their new baby in a way that benefits them both. There is nothing more rewarding than watching your two- and four-legged family members playing and growing together!