Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Your dog is not a monster, it is a dog
Dogs can reasonably be expected to do any of the following in the presence of a small child (all in my opinion of course):
* Place an open mouth on their skin
* Wag their tail way too high
* Have their hair stand on end
* Excessively lick their lips
* Refusal to make eye contact
Guess what? These are normal communication skills for dogs. They are used in place of the English language since dogs have yet to master it. Now, what do these warnings tell us? That we as the human protectors of our dogs and our human babies need to step it up in the boundaries department. I find from speaking to fellow dog/baby moms these occur most often when the baby is newly mobile. If you stop to think logically and rationally about these behaviors, they are all what an older and wiser dog might do to a small puppy or in the presence of a perceived threat. Sure, you thought by bringing home baby that your dog automatically put two and two together and realized it was a small human. I think quite the opposite. I think a lot of dogs see a newly mobile baby and think it's the world's strangest looking puppy.
So, how can you teach your dog that your baby is in fact not a puppy and therefore not for them to correct them as they would a puppy? Boundaries, lots and lots of boundaries. We have them with co workers, lovers, in laws, so why is it when we become parents so many of us forget how important they are in the lives of our dogs and babies? I know all too well it is easy to fall into the trap of being a little too comfortable when letting dog and baby interact. How? Mack snapped at a newly mobile Becks and got him on the face with an open mouth. Ack. And yes, he left a small mark when in the heat of the moment I stupidly snatched my baby up and grazed him against Mack's teeth. No people, this was not a bite. There was no pressure applied and therefore no puncture wounds. Given that Mack pops regulation sized basketballs for fun, I knew this was not Mack aggressively going after Becks. It's been one of my dirty little parenting secrets because I know 99% of the population would be screaming for Mack to be immediately killed for something that was 100% my fault.
What I learned that day and in the following 24 hours of soul searching and a visit to our trainer, I saw the error of my ways. Mack had never been around a baby before and definitely not a small crawling one. Even though I was 2 steps behind Becks as he scooted along the floor, why did I think Mack's constant shadowing was a good thing? In hindsight I allowed too much interaction to the point that Mack thought Becks was a puppy. When Beckett approached some tennis shoes I wore frequently to volunteer at the animal shelter, Mack let him know he did not approve. Why he felt the need to guard them I will never know. Maybe he was in some weird way protecting Beck from them? From then on Mack and Bell were not allowed to share the space Becks was crawling/cruising/pulling up on/practicing walking in. I created dog free zones using baby gates so they could observe safely from a distance. When I did allow them to interact it was seated with them laying down and lots of treat for me to dole out. When Becks needed more room to roam, the dogs were put into their safe spaces, either crates or a closed bedroom, along with a special treat or toy. This reinforced this was in fact not punishment, but a reward. Many times they looked at me with appreciation for the break from the baby. A frozen peanut butter stuffed Kong and or a Buster Cube was our choice of reward.
Was it a huge pain in the ass? You bet. Was it worth it? You bet. Once Becks became a stable walking magic treat dispenser they got it. He was a mini me and was the bearer of good things. Not only does his treat them daily, he also helps with their meals. It's given me lots of time to also teach him when and when not to approach a dog and how to ask for mommy's help. I'd like to say we have had no incidents of growling or snapping since then, but accidents do happen, especially when your toddler accidentally falls on your severely dysplastic (hips) senior dog. Trust me, Becks now knows how to give her a wide berth and she returns the favor when he is in the mood to go balls to the walls. It's how you navigate these challenges and grow from them that matters most, not to mention the foundation of some very important life lessons for your human.