When Stephanie and Craig Sellers brought their newborn daughter, Katie Jane, home from the hospital, their first “child”—an 80-pound Rottweiler named Hank—had an identity crisis that transformed their “gentle giant” into a Tasmanian devil.
“His paws were going so quickly,” Stephanie says, remembering the terrifying moment when she put Katie Jane’s car seat on the floor to let Hank sniff her. She thought his snapping jaws and prancing paws would land on the baby’s face.
That night, Craig slept on their pull-out couch, clutching Hank’s leash to keep him from scratching at the master bedroom door, where Stephanie spent a fitful first night with her baby.
“I was in tears,” Stephanie remembers, “because I was so emotional from having a baby, and I thought we were going to have to get rid of our dog.”
The Sellers’ story is far from unique. Many couples waiting to have kids choose to get a dog first. If that dog is good with people, parents-to-be often assume the dog also will be good with babies. What they don’t realize, say local trainers, is that bringing a baby home flips a dog’s world upside down. But if a dog is properly trained and prepared for the baby’s arrival, they say, parents can avoid being forced to choose between their canine and their kid—and prevent their baby from becoming a dog bite statistic.
The American Medical Association says dog bites are the No. 2 reason children are rushed to the emergency room each year—334,000 visits each year—behind only baseball/softball injuries. And 77 percent of the time, the biting dog belongs to the victim’s family or friend—scary statistics for owners with a baby on the way.
Help dog adjust
Hoping to reduce those statistics and keep families and their dogs together, Jennifer Boznos, owner of Call of the Wild School for Dogs in Chicago, has created an eight-week “preparing your dog for a baby” course starting April 14. Other dog training schools, such as the Oak Park-based AnimalSense, offer similar group and private instruction.
“If we can, in our small way, reduce that statistic and keep dogs in their original homes, then we’re able to do some good,” says Boznos, who has worked one-on-one with expectant dog owners in the past.
The key, agree Boznos and senior trainer Shawn Peek, is training your dog before your baby comes home. “Things that work pre-baby may not work post-baby,” Boznos explains. “We want to make those changes before the baby comes.”
In the course, Boznos and Peek will teach obedience standards such as “sit,” “down” and “stay,” along with leash and greeting behaviors. Once dogs master the basics, Boznos says they will focus on baby-specific skills, such as stroller walking.
The idea, Boznos explains, is to familiarize your dog with all the sights, smells and sounds that accompany a baby. The goal is that “when Mom comes in carrying a bundle that starts shrieking, the dog knows what to do.”
To ensure that familiarity, dogs and their owners need to practice with realistic props and positive reinforcement—treats—Peek says, both in the classroom and at home. To help their dogs adjust, clients practice walking their dog while pushing a stroller and play a CD of a baby crying during dinner time.
And that’s just the beginning. Peek and Boznos also help teach dogs to resist licking, jumping and picking up pacifiers from the floor, as well as ignoring a curious baby who insists on pulling the dog’s tail.
Peek, who lives with her two toddlers and a rambunctious Australian shepherd, says training makes all the difference. “It made my life so much easier,” she says. “I don’t know how people who don’t prepare their dogs do it.”
Neither do Buffalo Grove residents Dana and Randy Polonsky, owners of a Portuguese water dog, Vasco de Gama, and parents of 18-month-old Norah. Before Norah was born, the Polonskys worked with Peek to prepare their dog for the baby’s arrival. Dana says she didn’t want to risk either her relationship with Vasco or her daughter’s safety.
“[Vasco is] a member of our family. He’s our first born, and we wanted to make it work,” she says. “Because we had this kind of training, we found things that would continue to allow us to have success with our dog.”
‘A different dog’
After her nightmarish first night at home with Katie Jane, Stephanie Sellers wasn’t sure whether she and Craig could safely keep their Rottweiler, Hank.
But the next day, she called Jamie Damato, owner of AnimalSense, an Oak Park-based dog training school that offers a Bowser & Baby class similar to Boznos’ course. After eight private training sessions with Damato, Hank was “a different dog,” Sellers says. She now sees a future that includes both her canine and her child.
“Our daughter loves our dog,” Sellers says. “Our hope is that they’re going to grow up to be best friends. And that’s what we see happening now.” Lorien Menhennett is associate editor of Chicago Parent.
Dogs and kids can coexist peacefully, provided they are properly introduced. There are certain rules that make it easier, whether baby comes first or doggie comes first.
When baby comes first
• Choose your dog carefully. Rather than pick a certain breed, look for a dog that isn’t easily aroused and avoid dogs that are jumpy or afraid of strangers, dog trainer Jennifer Boznos says.
• Expose your puppy to kids. Eighty percent of a dog’s brain development is complete by the time the dog is 16 weeks old, Boznos says. If you want your dog to be good around kids, it should have pleasurable experiences with young kids every day. “You’re stacking the deck in your favor when you do that,” she explains.
When doggie comes first
• Be prepared. Read a book on how to prepare your dog or sign up for a training class before the baby comes home. Jamie Damato, another local dog trainer, recommends Your Dog and Your Baby: A Practical Guide, by Silvia Hartmann-Kent. Practice walking with a stroller and play sounds of a baby crying. After your baby is born, send her baby blanket home so the dog can adjust to her smell.
• Make baby time playtime. Don’t wait to play fetch until the baby is napping, says dog trainer Shawn Peek. That signals that your baby’s presence means the fun stops. Instead, play fetch or give your dog a special chew toy while you nurse the baby, and make sure the dog comes along on all of your walks with the baby.
• Never leave your dog and baby unattended. No matter how well trained, a dog is still a dog, and parents need to prevent possible dangerous situations, Boznos says. “These are your children and this is an animal with teeth,” she adds.
• Create an escape for your dog. When lots of guests come over, send your dog to his crate with a treat. This will make things easier for both you and your dog, Boznos says.
• Hire a dog walker. As much as you try, there will be days when you simply don’t have time to play with your dog, Damato says. Lorien Menhennett