Having a pet in the family can be a way to help children understand the important life values of responsibility, compassion, and respect for living things. And let’s face it, having a pet when you’re a kid is fun! However, when introducing your two-legged baby to your four-legged “fur baby,” preparation on your part will be necessary to get this relationship off to a good start.
Whether you have a new baby on the way and want to know how to help your pets adjust, or you are thinking about bringing a new pet into the family when you already have young children, here’s how to create tail-wagging family harmony.
Before Bringing Baby Home
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Getting ready to welcome a new baby? In the midst of the anticipation and excitement of pregnancy, make time to start preparing your pet, especially a dog. Dr. Jeff Werber, a veterinarian and pet parenting specialist in the Los Angeles area, recommends parents-to-be approach this transition much the same as they would preparing an older child for the arrival of a new sibling.
According to Werber, “It's important to keep in mind that the ‘resident’ dog has been the center of the couple's attention and focus. Much like an older child in a similar circumstance, from the resident dog's perspective, ‘This new creature is not as cute as everyone thinks, and she is stealing all my alone time!’”
How best then to ease this new arrangement? “As the baby approaches, the goal is to make the dog's life better because of the baby,” says Werber. To do this, the vet recommends strategies such as gradually withholding your dog's favorite treat for his regular good behavior and replacing it with another treat you know he loves just slightly less.
“Take those reserved treats and use them ONLY for rewarding behavior that is related to the new baby,” Werber advises. “For example, as you are setting up the baby's room, encourage the dog to come in and when he does, heap praises on him and give him one of his favorite treats. Make that room feel like he's won the lottery whenever he walks inside. This will help him to associate good things (the new baby) with that room.”
Likewise, give your dog a chance to sniff out clothes and blankets you’ve stocked up on for your baby’s arrival. “Give loads of praise and offer favorite treats for smelling the blanket and pajamas. Help him to realize that whatever is wrapped up in that blanket is a good thing!” says Werber.
Minimizing Attention Temporarily
Elisha Stynchula, CPDT-KA, ANWI, certified dog trainer and general manager of "I Said Sit!” School for Dogs in Los Angeles, as well as a new mom with three dogs at home, has her own favorite tip. “Minimize -- just slightly -- the attention you give your dog during the last week or so of your pregnancy. When the baby comes home, give the dog added attention.” This again underscores the baby’s arrival as a good thing in your pet’s life.
Werber agrees. “You want him or her to be an integral part of welcoming the baby. Shower attention on the dog as well as on the baby, don't shoo him away when giving attention to the baby. Include him in your baby activities and increase attention to the dog when the baby is around.”
The Difference Between Cats & Dogs
Have a cat? Among Werber’s top tips, “Clip the cat's nails at least five days before you bring the baby home so that if the cat reaches out to gently touch the baby, there won't be sharp nails which may unintentionally scratch the baby.”
What about the danger of cats jumping in the baby’s crib? “I've heard the horror stories of cats smothering children, but never in veterinary journals or from colleagues,” says Weber. Still, if you are concerned, taking steps to keep cats out of the baby’s nursery may be a wise idea at nap and bedtime.
Bringing Home a New Pet
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When it’s time to welcome a new furry friend to the family, it’s also time to switch gears to help your kids cope. “When parents bring a new pet into the home some children feel jealous. Most kids are overly excited and risk hurting the pet by squeezing or hugging it too hard. Parents need to teach their child how to be gentle,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a child psychologist in Beverly Hills, California.
Helping pets and kids get along entails “balancing love and nurturing with setting limits,” according to Walfish, who gives the example, “If your toddler tries to eat food out of the dog's food dish, do not allow it. Say to your toddler, ‘No eating dog food, we eat people food.’ Then, give your child his food in a child's plate sitting at the table. The key is to use a tone that is kind, clear, and supportive. Your youngster doesn't know any better. You are there to guide and teach, not to scold nor punish.”
Stynchula recommends that parents provide a new pet with a crate or dog bed that children know is off-limits. “It can be overwhelming for a pet to come into a new home and be constantly petted and cuddled. Pets need their own space and it is the parents’ job to make sure they get that space and that kids understand [to leave that area alone].”