My first “kids” were our dogs. Chloe and Stella, one brown mutt, one black mutt. They weren’t (aren’t) the best behaved furballs and they shed uncontrollably, have a nasty habit of barking every time they hear anything (and I do mean anything) outside, and they snore like old men, but they love us fiercely, and we love them. When I got pregnant, I knew that their lives would change and that there was no way they could be our priority anymore. Then we found out we were having twins and things got especially real!
Our twins were born 9 weeks early (at 31 weeks) and spent 78 days in the NICU. We spent part of every day with them and our dogs suffered. They didn’t receive much attention, didn’t get to go on walks or play fetch, and some nights, we even forgot to feed them. This is not something we’re proud of, it’s just the way it happened, but they were always in the back of my mind and I was nervous about bringing our babies home to two dogs who hadn’t received enough attention in the past 11 weeks (and even before that, as I wasn’t doing much dog walking when I was pregnant!).
I don’t pretend to be an expert on animal behavior, but after working at an animal shelter for several years, I know that a source of major stress for pet owners who are also new moms is the introduction of a baby into a home with a dog or cat. As a mom of preemie twins, I can tell you that I think I was especially stressed about this! Luckily, our dogs have been pretty great but I received some sound advice before bringing the babies home that I think really helped.
Give pets their own space
The two things I’ve done consistently are to make sure that our dogs (and this would go for cats too) have their own space, and to make sure they never feel trapped. Our home is small, but I’ve made sure that the dogs have their own beds and we do our best to keep the babies (now 16 months old) away from their beds. The dog bowls and dog water are also off limits, as possessive behavior near feeding areas and times can be extra stressful. I also keep a very watchful eye on everyone’s whereabouts, ensuring that the dogs have a clear route out of a room and that they are not being trapped by the babies, my husband, or by me. It is important that they feel that they can leave the room at any time if they get uncomfortable.
Slow, controlled introductions
A friend and pet behavior specialist at Animal Humane New Mexico, Rex Nowacki, CPDT-KA, says, “The advice that we always tell parents is that if the dog hasn’t been around infants before, you’re just not sure how they’re going to react so always play it safe. They will probably be curious, but they may be fearful, so it is usually best to facilitate a slow, controlled introduction and it is important to make it a good experience.”
Introduce pets to new sounds and smells
When it comes to preemies, there are lots of other factors besides just having a new little being in the house that might confuse a pet. There may be monitors, oxygen, helmets, etc. Again, it’s best to try to desensitize your pets to some of the new sounds and smells if at all possible. Expose them to these items (if you can) before the baby is around. Many hospitals will not allow you to take a monitor or oxygen home before you bring baby home, so if you can, make a sound recording of any items you think you might be sent home with and play them for your pets so the sounds are not completely new when you do bring home your preemie.
With regards to monitors and other preemie related items, Nowacki also shares, “My biggest advice would be that management is key. It would always be a good idea to do your best to desensitize the dog to equipment they are unlikely to have seen before by allowing them to slowly investigate and reinforce them for checking it out. You of course wouldn’t want to bring the new dog home and just let it have run of the house, rather you would want to set it up for success with initially brief interactions full of treats, affection, and praise.”
Familiarize yourself with your pet’s body language
I would also recommend becoming familiar with pet body language and stress signals and there are several resources with great information online. My favorite is on the Living with Kids and Dogs website and can be found here: https://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/stress.html . The Humane Society of the United States has some great information on feline body language that can be found here: https://www.humanesociety.org/animals/cats/tips/cat_communication.html .
We have had a few stressful situations in our house and I was grateful that I knew the stress signals my dogs were giving me. Again, I’m no expert, and we haven’t been the perfect pet parents but it’s important to keep pets enriched (take them for walks, throw the ball, give them snuggles, keep them busy!) and use lots of positive reinforcement so they associate the positivity with your preemie!
So, before you bring your preemie home, stock up on treats for your pet, get a few new toys for your furry friends, make sure they have a space of their own, and get ready to be ok with pet hair in your baby’s diapers….
Below is a list of resources provided by Animal Humane New Mexico for families with pets:
These books can easily be purchased through online sources such as Amazon, or occasionally found in your local library! All use positive-reinforcement training and science-based understanding of canine/feline/human behavior as a base.
Living with Kids and Dogs . . . Without Losing Your Mind: A Parent’s Guide to Controlling the Chaos(second edition) by Colleen Pelar, A wonderful, easy-to-read book that covers managing a child+dog home, canine body language, problem solving and more.
The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell
An exploration of why humans do what we do around dogs, how our dogs might interpret it, and simple ways to make our interactions positive. Truly a must read for any dog-lover.
On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugass
Explores some of the body signaling dogs offer on a daily basis and what this body language might mean.
Culture Clash (2nd Edition) by Jean Donaldson
What do we expect of dogs? Does it match what dogs really are? How do animals learn, and how can that inform our relationships with them? Explore these great concepts in Jean Donaldson’s iconic book.
How to Behavior So Your Dog Behaviors by Dr. Sophia Yin
Scientifically sound yet practical approach to explaining dog behavior and training theory, and then shows you how to apply these concepts so you can train your dog to be well behaved.
Colleen Pelar’s Living With Kids and Dogs: https://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/
Family Paws Parent Education – “Preparing families with dogs for life with children,” home of the Dogs & Storks and Dogs & Toddlers education programs: https://familypaws.com/
Dogs and Babies Blog – wonderful entries from a mom/dog trainer!: https://www.dogsandbabieslearning.com/
Pawsitive Cattitudes – A blog about cat behavior, body language and more from a feline expert!: https://positivecattitudes.wordpress.com/about/
Dr. Sophia Yin – great info on animal behavior and body language: https://drsophiayin.com/
Karen Pyror Clicker Training – information on training technology, articles, find a force-free trainer and more: https://www.clickertraining.com/