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 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 their baby.
"I was in tears," Stephanie says, "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 not 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 will be good with babies, too. What they don’t realize, say local trainers, is that bringing a baby home flips a dog’s world upside down. But training and preparing a dog for baby’s arrival can prevent parents from having to choose between canine and kid—and their baby from becoming a dog-bite statistic.
According to the American Medical Association, dog bites are the No. 2 reason children are rushed to the emergency room—334,000 visits yearly—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 dog owners with a baby on the way.
Help Rover 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, offers an eight-week course on preparing your dog for a baby. Other 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.
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 teach obedience standards such as "sit," "down" and "stay," along with leash and greeting behaviors. Once dogs master the basics, Boznos focuses on baby-specific skills, such as stroller walking.
The idea, Boznos says, 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 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, as well as ignoring a curious baby who insists on pulling the pup’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. Before their daughter, Norah, was born, the Polonskys worked with Peek to prepare Vasco for Norah’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 ‘firstborn,’ 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 dog training school that offers a Baby & Bowser class similar to Boznos’ course. After eight private sessions with Damato, Hank was "a different dog," Sellers says.
"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."
• Preparing your dog for a baby, Call of the Wild School for Dogs: eight-week session begins Sept. 20. $300. Private classes also available. (773) 539-1088, www.callofthewildschool.com.
• Baby & Bowser, AnimalSense, in conjunction with Northwestern University: two-hour seminar, Oct. 11 and Nov. 8. Private classes also available. (773) 275-3647, www.animalsense.com.
Living with canines and kids
Dogs and kids can coexist peacefully, provided they are properly introduced. Some rules 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 daily. "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 enroll in a training class before the baby comes home. Local dog trainer Jamie Damato 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; this would signal the baby’s presence means that 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 walks with the baby.
• Never leave your dog and baby unattended. No matter how well trained, a dog is still a dog, Boznos says. "These are your children and this is an animal with teeth."
• Create an escape for your dog. When 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, former Chicago Baby editor, is a writer and jewelry artist who lives in Berwyn with her husband. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This is an updated version of a story that originally ran in Chicago Parent.