In my Bowser and the Baby seminars, I cover how to introduce baby to Bowser on that first day home. At the end of that part of the presentation, I always say, “Don’t insist that your dog and your baby become best friends today. Let the relationship develop over time.” Well, this still holds true, and I just saw the results of this approach the other day.
My son is now 4 ½ – I can’t believe it. It seems just yesterday that he was beginning to pull up to stand in front of the couch and my normally loving pooch who was seated on the couch gave him an air snap as to say, “Don’t get into my space!” Finlay, the dog, is nervous around things he doesn’t understand (join the club, who understands a toddler?) and there’s no use rushing him into feeling comfortable.
I immediately got the gates in place so that Finlay had a place he could go when Tommy made him uncomfortable, and in turn, Tommy couldn’t invade his space doing what toddlers do – explore.
This is what I mean when I tell expectant parents to set both the dog, the baby, and themselves up for success.
It’s imperative to set the environment up so all interactions between child and dog are able to be supervised and positive.
By doing this, Finlay got used to Tommy and his erratic movements over time, while also getting consistent encouragement from me to walk away when he needed to have some space. Simultaneously, Tommy got to be a toddler and explore, fall, pull up etc. without an increasing fear of dogs. Most importantly, he got to grow up a little into someone who could understand in simple terms when I talked to him about how to behave around dogs.
My rules are as follows:
- Don’t bother a sleeping dog.
- Don’t mess with a dog that’s eating.
- Don’t approach a dog on his bed resting.
- Don’t mess with a dog that’s chewing a bone or toy.
These may seem strict, but dogs, no matter how tolerant, are still dogs and we would be remiss to forget that. There is a trainer who writes about the curse of the “bomb proof” dog. To paraphrase: a child that grows up with a dog who is unendingly tolerant of toddler behavior, may go out into the world without a healthy respect for dogs.
I’m actually glad that my kids will grow up with Finlay and his idiosyncrasies. Ideally, they will go to friends’ homes and apply the dog rules there as well. (I might have to remind them as they head out the door, of course!)
So, three years from that initial air-snap, through prevention and management, little successes over time through positive reinforcement and a little maturity on both of their parts, their bond has been forming. The other day, I was putting our little one down for a nap and when I came downstairs, I found Tommy and Finlay, snuggled up together watching TV. Finlay had sought him out and Tommy was slowly stroking him on the back.
I’ll never forget that Finlay has limitations, and I’m always teaching Tommy to read his body language for nervousness or discomfort, but we have come a long way. The slow build of trust was well worth the wait.
The moral of the story? The idea of Lassie and Timmy is a long-standing and common hope for many parents. I mean, if our dog could just do this we’d cut our baby sitting fees a great deal.
The mistake we make is forcing the relationship to build too quickly and before the child or dog is ready, rather than letting it happen slowly and build on blocks of positive association moments. (Parents, seriously, have we ever been able to make things happen the way we want since our kids appeared?)