The secret of dogs and cats and babies


Getting your pet ready for your first child story by David Jakubiak• photos by Josh Hawkins

Sofie Pedersen, 6, Liam Brubaker, 1, and Oblina, 4 months, relax in the back yard  

Every night when Alex Schwebl returns to his Lombard home, he's greeted at the door. "He's always so excited to see Daddy," Schwebl says. It's not Schwebl's son or daughter bounding with excitement at the sight of Dad. It's Foster, the 18-month-old Brussels Griffon, a very new "big brother."

Like many young couples, Alex and Courtney Schwebl adopted a family pet before trying for their first baby. She had a dog growing up. He always wanted a dog. Besides, he adds, "it's nice to have a companion around the house."

For a while it was a great situation for Foster. He had two adults-not to mention their friends-fully dedicated to loving him, grooming him and providing some of the most intense games of fetch, like, ever. (At least, that's how Foster sees it.)

But over the winter, things started changing in the Schwebl house. Courtney, who used to go to work, began staying at home all day. A room in the house that no one used to go into became the center of activity. A strange-looking bed was placed in there.

In May, the Schwebls welcomed baby Cameron.

Like many first-time parents they were worried about how their beloved pet would take the arrival of a newborn.

"I'm concerned about Foster losing attention," Alex Schwebl said before Cameron's arrival. "He's obviously the center of attention all the time now. It's just me, my wife and Foster. But when the baby is getting 90 percent of the attention, Foster is really going to be striving for it. It may hurt his feelings. But I want to make a valiant effort to show him that he is part of the situation, which is going to be difficult, especially with the first child."

When a couple prepares for the major changes that will be caused by the arrival of a child, they also should prepare their dog or cat for a major change, says Karen Okura, a behavioral specialist with the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago.

For a dog, she says, the arrival of a child adds a new dynamic in the pack structure of the household. "The dog has to reconfigure where he fits into the line of status," she says. "Anytime you bring a new being, whether it be a baby, another dog or a cat, the dog has to say, ‘OK, now where do they fit in and how do I fit into that?'"

This can be particularly stressful for the dogs of first-time parents, she says. "It's more pronounced in dogs who are meeting the first child. If it's the second or third kid in the family it's, ‘OK, we've done this before.' But if it's the first infant coming into a family and this is possibly a dog who has been a ‘child substitute' until a couple has a real baby, then there can be some real problems."

These problems, Okura says, can range from depression, to competitive behavior, to stress-related behavioral problems such as barking and lapses in house training. "Initially you are going to see anxiety and stress. Some dogs handle it OK and some dogs just can't take it."

With cats, Okura says, there are different issues. "When dogs aren't with other dogs they look at their human owners and say, ‘where do I fit in? Who is the boss here? Who isn't?' Cats don't really look at humans that way. With cats, it's more like, ‘Well, you're fun, I like you, you feed me and that's really great.'"

Both cats and dogs, however, are sensitive to the environmental factors that come with a child-things such as the wailing of an infant and the prying, tugging, poking fingers of a toddler.

These problems can be particularly difficult for cats. "Cats don't have the same sort of life experiences that dogs do," Okura says. "You don't take a cat to obedience training. You don't get a cat well-rounded by taking her outside and exposing her to all kinds of noises and smells, and wheelchairs and baby baskets. A cat's exposure to the world is someone's home, so they don't have the same degree of socialization that a dog would. So, when stress happens to a cat, it's much more difficult for them to deal with it, and it's a lot more difficult to alleviate that problem."

Finally, says Dr. Shelly Rubin of the Blum Animal Hospital on the North Side of Chicago, pets can feel abandoned when a baby arrives. "With all of the excitement directed around the new arrival, frequently our pets will have strange behaviors that indicate that they are left out."

The solution: Start early Jennifer Boznos, owner of Call of the Wild School for Dogs in Chicago, doesn't have children. She has border collies. But she raised her dogs to be good around children.

"I made sure they were around children every day," she says. "Border collies love to play fetch, so every time I saw a kid, I would put a ball in that kid's hand. Now my dogs see kids as fetch machines. They absolutely love them."

In the best case scenario, Boznos says, young couples should consider children-even future children-when considering what dog to adopt.

About two years ago, Julie and Scott Schoshinski of La Grange Park considered children even before they had their first baby when they adopted Solli, the Australian shepherd.

"We wanted a breed that could be a good family dog," Julie says. They selected Solli, she says, because she comes from a very intelligent breed. Almost immediately, Julie enrolled Solli in a 12-week puppy training class. The Schoshinskis' first child was born this spring.

Okura says professional training is probably the most important first step in preparing a dog for life in a human family, which includes life with babies.

"Get the puppy into a class and give him all of the basics of good dog behavior," Okura says. "I don't care if the dog sits crooked. What I care about is that when you say ‘sit' he does, when you say ‘lay down' he does it."

There are a few basic skills that any well-run obedience class should teach a dog owner to teach their dog, Boznos says. These skills include:

• Willing acceptance of confinement in a gated room or a crate.

• Acceptance of people in the dog's space, including things such as toddler-like poking at a chew toy-while it's being chewed.

• Understanding of "drop it," "leave it," "stay" and "come" commands.

• Emotional control-dog won't jump up in excitement or be easily stunned.

Boznos says each of these skills will translate into the making of a good family dog. For example, confining the dog to a gated room or crate is a good tool to use when family members flood a house to see the new arrival.

"All of the skills of a well-trained dog are the same skills we want to see in a good family dog," Boznos says. So, she adds, it is important to begin preparing a dog for family life while it is still a puppy.

But many young people who adopt dogs aren't thinking about being parents. They may not even be thinking about settling down. "Some of my best friends chose their husbands based on the way [the men] interacted with their dogs," Okura jokes.

There are certain things couples can do to prepare their dogs for the arrival of a baby. For example, soon after learning Julie was pregnant, the Schoshinskis took away toys that Solli had that could possibly be confused with baby toys. "Now," Julie says, "she can go into the baby's room and there is a basket full of toys there and she doesn't even look at them."

A trick that can be used immediately before bringing a baby home is rubbing a blanket that the baby has been wrapped in all over the dog or the cat. This, Rubin says, will familiarize an animal with the smell of child. It's particularly effective with cats, which, he says, "live by their noses."

To assuage the stress caused by the environmental changes in a home, Okura recommends purchasing audiotapes of babies crying and exposing animals to wheeled objects that will be similar to strollers. These can be used to desensitize an animal.

Ultimately, Boznos says, animals are most likely to succeed if training begins early and is affirmed throughout an animal's life. "All behavior can be modified," she says. "The question is: By how much?"

Be honest with yourself About two years ago, Jason James of Chicago became smitten with a retriever mix at a Petsmart outside of Indianapolis. A local shelter had brought some of their animals to the retailer in the hope of finding new homes for them. James and his wife, Andrea Jeglum, were looking for a dog to go with their cat, Flo. But James paused when the "shelter lady" told him more about the dog.

"The shelter lady said the lady who had had him before gave him up because he was mauling her kids, which unnerved me a little bit," especially since Jeglum was three months pregnant.

Okura says giving up a pet that could potentially be harmful to a child can be one of the most difficult decisions that a couple can be faced with. "Usually it's people who have tried everything and believe that the animal is a danger to their child, or it is people who have very young animals and say ‘I can't train two beings at the same time.'"

Okura says that while there are cases of people giving up on perfectly good dogs, the Anti-Cruelty society sees "a lot more" throwaway pets from people who are moving than from people who are having children. "Most people do try to make it work."

But, she adds, most people who have a problem dog know they have a problem dog. It is important for expectant couples to talk about their animals with as many knowledgeable people as they can. This list should include partners, family members, veterinarians and dog trainers. The Anti-Cruelty Society offers a behavior hotline that couples can call for an animal consultation. "It might be a situation where they think it's going to be a problem, but once we talk it out, we can give them solutions to help them keep the dog. Sometimes, though, the purpose of the call is for us to say, ‘you know what? It's OK if you don't keep this dog.' Sometimes people just want to know that they're not a bad person if they don't keep a dog."

Boznos agrees. "I love dogs," she says. "There is no way I would be doing this if I didn't love dogs. But there is nothing-nothing-anyone should do if it could endanger a child."

Boznos' Web site has a tip sheet for expectant parents on how to prepare their dog. Her school also offers private lessons for owners and their dogs as well as doggie daycare classes just for the dog where handlers help set the stage for the big event.

By the way, James spent a little more with the dog from the Indiana shelter and through discussions with the people at the shelter determined the animal likely hadn't mauled any children.

About six months after James and Jeglum adopted Moe, to go with their cat, Flo, Marie was born. The couple introduced Marie to Moe and Flo slowly. In addition to using the blanket trick, they allowed Moe to lick the bottoms of Marie's feet.

Now, Jeglum says, Marie, the toddler, and Moe, the dog, hang out all the time. "I think that dog is her best friend in the whole world."

Finally, Courtney reports Foster and Cameron are getting along well. "You can tell Foster gets a little bit jealous when you're talking to the baby. But, he has been so gentle!"

What about exotic pets when the baby is on its way?

Not every expectant couple with an animal companion has a dog or a cat -many have beloved birds, reptiles or other nontraditional pets.

Dr. Richard Nye, of the Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital in Westchester, says these couples face some unique challenges in preparing their homes for a baby.

But, he says, overcoming these challenges requires mostly "common sense." "If you have a reptile in your house and you do not have good hygiene, you are going to get sick," he says." So you need to do the common sense things like wash your hands after handling the animal. But also, you need to think, ‘What do kids want to do? They want to poke and stick their fingers places. Is that a good idea with my pet?'" he says. "A bird can snap at a finger. With a big bird and a baby, that finger could get snapped right off."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that expectant parents get rid of reptiles. But Nye disagrees. It is possible for people to have pet birds and reptiles if they have babies, he says. In 17 years of practice he has never had a client infected with salmonella. He says, "That is what [federal officials] are worried about." But, Nye stresses, adult supervision is imperative when dealing with children and nontraditional pets. Parents should not allow children to get in a position where a bird has the opportunity to snap at a finger, or a baby can use a small red-eared slider turtle as a chew toy.

If a couple decides they want to get rid of a reptile or a bird before they have a child, Nye says, they need to do research.

"You can not call the zoo. The zoo does not need any more animals. And you should never just let the pet go in the wild. They have not been prepared to live on their own, so that is the most inhumane thing to do."

There are rescue organizations for almost all types of pets. "If you decide you want to get rid of a 10-foot snake, the reptile rescue will take that snake," says Nye. "They will do all they can to make sure they place it in a home where it will be taken care of and won't be given up again in a few weeks."

Resources Anti-Cruelty Society Behavior Hotline (312) 644-8338, ext. 315 or 343.

Call of the Wild School for Dogs (773) 539-1088, click on "Training tips."

The American Animal Hospital Association

The American Veterinary Medical Association

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and scroll down to "Pets, Infectious Diseases Related to."

Humane Society of the United States Advice for introducing your pet to your new baby

Dog school checklist Most experts urge dog owners to get professional dog training. But they warn-there are a wide range of training styles and success rates available. Here is a checklist to help make your dog training experience as positive as possible.

Get references. Most people with dogs know people with dogs. Talk with your friends and your veterinarian about trainers who may be right for you and your dog.

Check out a class. Anyone can say they use positive reinforcement. Go to a class and make sure you're comfortable with a trainer's tactics.

People skills are important. The trainer will be training you how to train your dog. Be sure you're comfortable with your trainer.

Private lessons. Check on the availability of a trainer for private lessons that may be needed to help your dog through a tricky issue.

Check the trainer's history. Your relationship with a trainer can last long after the conclusion of a 12-week obedience class. Make sure your trainer will be around if an issue comes up a few years down the road

David Jakubiak is a freelance writer living in Oak Park.

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