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Building a Relationship Between Pet and Baby

Getting your pet and your baby off to a good start takes work, but it's well worth the effort. Pets have been shown to provide many positive health and emotional benefits for adults and children alike, so it's no surprise that dog ownership is twice as high in families with children, says Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond and professor of animal ecology at the School of Veterinary Medicine of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

You may have a pet now, or you may be thinking of getting one for your child. Over time your pet and your child can learn to respect each other, and there's a good chance they'll even grow to be best pals. But this happy scenario won't become a reality without help from you. So follow these tips and start laying the groundwork for a beautiful relationship between your pet and your little one.

Many experts recommend that before you even bring baby home, you bring an article of her clothing, a blanket, or even a soiled diaper of hers for your pet to sniff. An animal's sense of smell is vital, so this step can help your pet become familiar the newborn. When baby actually comes home, have mom go into the house alone first to greet the animal, since the pet is going to be very excited to see her. Or consider boarding the pet with a friend so you can get settled with the baby.

The rules for introducing cats to baby are simple: Because felines are unpredictable by nature, discourage yours from approaching your newborn. Allow her to observe the new family member from a distance.

Introducing a dog to your baby is more complicated. When you're ready to supervise a meeting between them, follow these instructions:

  • Have someone restrain the dog on a leash while you sit on a chair, holding baby on your lap and covering her head with a hand. (This shows your protectiveness of the new person in the house and also prevents your dog from nipping at baby's ears.)
  • Do not place baby on the floor, and never hold baby over your dog's head, which encourages jumping.
  • Talk to your dog in a calm and normal voice, petting and stroking him for reassurance.
  • If he doesn't display any aggressive behavior, such as growling, hissing, pointing his ears back, or putting his tail down, you may slowly allow him to see and sniff -- but not lick -- your little one. Licking is unsanitary and may be a prelude to biting.
  • Make sure the dog is held firmly on the leash and anticipate having to pull him back. If your dog displays any negative behavior whatsoever, say "no," and command him to back down or physically remove him from the room. If he retreats on his own, reward him.
  • Even if all goes well, it's best to keep your dog on a leash any time he's around the baby for at least the first three weeks, during which time you can observe his behavior.

Cats and dogs are often jealous of their new housemate and can become aggressive toward your newborn baby. In both cats and dogs, be on a constant lookout for any of the following signs of aggression:

  • Biting, nipping, pawing, growling
  • Raised hair, pinned-back ears, or downward-pointing tail
  • Neglecting to use the litter box, or marking or spraying of the house by cats
  • Canine soiling accidents
  • Slinkiness when the cat approaches baby
  • Withdrawn behavior or refusal of food (both cats and dogs may do this)

Always address unwanted behavior by your pet with a firm "no" and reward all positive reactions (such as backing off when told to do so).

Very young and very old pets may require even more vigilance. Pups, for example, will still be learning obedience and have lots of energy, while older pets will be used to having the run of the house and no competition for their caretakers' affection.

After three weeks, if all has gone well:

  • Include your pet in your daily routine. Allow him to follow you around as you feed and change and otherwise care for baby. Continue to use the leash if necessary.
  • Give your pet as much attention and affection as possible when the baby is around. Slip your pet a favorite treat of his when you feed the baby, and take your dog along when going out for a stroll.
  • Supervise all contact between your pet and baby. Don't have them in the same room unless you are close enough to intervene if trouble arises.

As your baby begins to crawl and walk, maintain your vigilance. Your toddler will still have a lot to learn about how to treat an animal, and even the most gentle pet will bite or scratch when hurt.

Your child will stagger and fall without notice, which may startle your pet and make him defensive. Keep your dog away from baby if your child is using a walker, exerciser, or jumper, which prop a young baby upright, often at a dog's eye level, which can be a challenge to the dog. Don't allow your baby and your pet to be in each other's company unattended for baby's first two years.

As you train your pet to respect your baby, you will naturally want to teach your baby to respect the animal, too.

  • Show your little one how to stroke your pet gently; to avoid poking the animal's eyes and ears or placing his hands on your pet's mouth; and avoid tugging on your pet or pulling its fur.
  • Teach your child the concept of territory. Explain that anything within six inches of the dog's face, for instance, belongs to the dog.
  • In time, allow your toddler to help care for your pet, placing food and water bowls down and offering treats.

You may need to wait for this stage before your child and pet take more interest in each other. If you have visions now of your baby sitting on the floor happily playing with your pet, you may have to be patient. The learning process involved -- for both animal and child -- in building such a friendship takes time.