During my 7 week old boy’s “wakey time” earlier today, I watched as both my little boy and my dogs (7 yr old, spayed female, border collie mix, and 2 yr old neutered male, Labrador) were thoroughly interacting and enjoying one another. Little Austin was completely enthralled with the mere presence of the two dogs, while the dogs were wholly intrigued by the the happy baby talk coming from the infant, as well as the random blissful movements of his arms and legs. The circumstances were ideal for baby and dogs alike, providing fulfilling stimulation for baby and dogs. It filled me with a sense of joy that my dogs, who have been with my wife and I long before Austin was ever conceived, could be part of the miracle of our new addition and not have to sit on the sidelines or take a back seat as we raise the boy through his most fragile and formative years. We have begun our life with our new addition as a family, and that includes the dogs and the cats (all that comprised our pre-Austin family for years) as well.
As fun as this interaction has continued to be, I have been a vet long enough to have been made aware of many occasions when this sort of pet inclusion has gone bad -in some cases, very bad. And while there are some animals that have a demeanor that does not make them candidates to be near small children under any circumstances, the majority of animal/small children cases that I have been made aware of, were very preventable.
The first mistake people make with small children and animals, is not understanding the inner workings of the animal’s character. Dogs that are fearful or aggressive toward strangers, other dogs, or act territorial or exhibit dominance, are dogs that people need to be very careful with. Dogs like this may view small children as new pack members, ones that need to understand their place in the hierarchy of the canine pack dynamic. As such, dogs like this may exhibit aggression toward a small child when in close proximity, aggression that could have dangerous consequences to a fragile toddler or infant. For these types of animals, one should avoid interaction between the pet and the small child for months, as the animal adjusts to the presence of the child and all the changes associated with that (crying, Mommy’s and Daddy’s doting, feeding, etc.). Only after a significant adjustment period, should the child be allowed near the dog, but even then, this should be done under the most concentrated supervision. Of course, if the dog has a history of chronic and/or severe fear, dominance, or other types of aggression, then the dog should not be allowed any access to the child. For the safety of the child, it is sometimes best if a dog i found a new home, one without children or the possibility of children, such as with seniors or others not planning to have a family.
Whether or not a dog has a history of fear, dominance, or other types of aggression, one must look out for the telltale signs of canine anxiety, such as ears pinned back, showing of teeth, growling, or crying. If any signs of these signs arise in the animal, the interaction should be aborted immediately. Even in the absence of obvious problem postures, licking and close sniffing should be avoided before many safe distance encounters have passed without incident, and interactions always should occur under close supervision.
For my own dogs, the 6 pound Yorkie is not allowed access to the infant at all. In his youth and middle age, he had been known to show dog aggression even to canine members of his own household. Even though in his geriatric years, he has not shown dog aggression for years now, and despite the fact that he never once in his life ever showed aggression toward people, my wife and I are not prepared to take the chance. Besides, the Yorkie does not seem put out by our decision, as he really wants nothing to do with the boy anyway, preferring to curl up in his little bed most of the day.
The yellow lab never once showed aggression toward anyone or anything, even when dogs have shown aggression toward him. When dogs have snapped or growled at him, he has always simply back up and looked to me with confusion, not even seeming to understand aggression from the other dog or even perceiving the danger to himself. The border collie mix is also a very peaceful dog, choosing to expose her belly in a submissive posture when aggression is directed toward her.
Even given the gentle temperament of my big dogs, however, I still practiced what I preach, being every bit as careful as I have described in this post. However, even though my dogs are big gentle goof balls, it does not mean that they are not capable of accidentally harming little Austin. Smacks with excited tails, knocking over the infant chair with baby in it, tripping Mommy or Daddy while carrying the baby, etc., are all very dangerous potential incidents that could still occur with no ill intentions from the dogs. For this reason, it is important to train the dogs to act appropriately when the baby is in these positions, discouraging over-rambunctiousness or obstructive behavior in the presence of the baby. Thankfully, my wife and I have over 2 1/2 decades of small animal care experience between the two of, so we have been quite capable to handle the transition ourselves. However, for those with little canine experience or who lack of confidence in their canine training skills, do not be shy about asking your vet to suggest an animal behaviorist to help.
For those who are planning to adopt a dog for a family with small children, there are certain breeds to consider that are known to be gentle with small children, and many breeds that should be avoided. Having dedicated an entire chapter of my book, “Canine and Feline 101,” to this topic, I leave pet owners to get the information from there rather the reiterate the chapter, or seek the guidance of a vet or animal behavioral specialist. However, no matter how a family selects the appropriate animal, aforementioned precaution must still always be taken, with determined supervision still essential.
With regard to cats and small children, most cats, even when outright agitated by a child’s presence, will simply avoid the child. However, some may approach out of curiosity and if annoyed, could swat at the child with little warning. Again, concerted supervision can easily prevent a dangerous incident, but if a cat is known to have little tolerance, then contact should be avoided and discouraged until an age that the child can understand to be trained as well (child training is a whole other topic, to be addressed in a later post).
Sometimes cats can be very sweet to the point that they would happily crawl into the crib with an infant and sleep. While this may seem very adorable, let me caution that this is something that must be discouraged and avoided. The sweet cat intending no harm, could inadvertently lay across the infant and smother the little one. For this reason, leading up to the birth of our son, my wife and I layed scat mats in the crib, bassinet, infant seats, and stroller. The scat mats emit a static shock when a feline steps on or comes in contact with. The mats are gentle enough that they are acceptably humane (my wife and I tested them on ourselves), but just strong enough to get the point across. In addition, the cats are never allowed access to a room where the baby is sleeping.
A household with both animals and children is mutually beneficial when approached with the proper prudence. Children an animals stimulate one another, provide entertainment for one another, while providing amusement for the adults that supervise them. The animal/child interaction enables children expand their imagination and to grow up with a sense of animals as part of their families, ingraining a sense of respect, comradry, and love of animals that they can take into adulthood.