Last week, a three-day-old baby in McKeesport, PA died after being left on the floor in its car carrier in a house with four dogs. While the child’s death is immensely tragic, it is made even more so by the fact that it could have been prevented.
Even in a house with the best-trained dogs, the introduction of a young child can be difficult. In this case, the dog that is thought to have attacked the child, a Husky with a broken leg in a makeshift cast, had only been in the house for about a month. Its reaction to the child—whether fear, curiosity or aggression—could have been tempered had the baby’s parents worked with this dog and their other dogs to help them adjust to having a newborn in the house.
To this end, Animal Friends, a no-kill shelter in Pittsburgh, offers a free monthly program called Baby-Ready Pets, to ensure that babies and pets get started on the best of terms.
Mary and Ron Papik, volunteers who work on the Animal Friends’ behavioral team, have been teaching the class for seven years. The program is based on a similar program created by the Humane Society of the United States.
According to Mary, the best time for parents to start the program is as early in the pregnancy as possible. Though the program normally attracts approximately 25 people, because of the recent incident, class sizes have doubled.
“The most important thing that people can do is to prepare their pet for not receiving 100 percent of their attention,” she said. “You have to do an honest evaluation of the amount of time you spend with your pet, and then try to reduce that time each week until you get to the point that you feel confident that you can spend that amount of time with your pet once the baby arrives.”
Papik suggest involving a spouse, significant other or family and friends to give the dog individualized attention. “If every time that you feed the baby, someone else walks or plays with your pet, that pet is going to begin to think that the baby is the best thing that ever happened,” said Papik.
If an animal is allowed on the furniture, it’s important that it be trained not to jump into your lap uninvited. “Your pet can sit beside you, and you can still reach over and pet it while holding the baby, but you don’t want a 50-pound dog leaping on you when you’re feeding your child,” said Papik.
Treats can be placed in plastic bins around the house to get an animal’s attention quickly in case you need to distract it while changing or calming a crying baby, and baby gates should be purchased early on so that dogs can be trained to stay out of certain areas. Animals can also be desensitized to new baby sounds by downloading the sounds of crying babies from the Internet and letting that sound play around the house.
“What’s most important is that you never leave a child and a pet alone; not just in the infant stage, but also toddlers and preschool-aged children,” said Papik. “No matter how good your pet is, there can always be accidents. A child may even provoke a pet, but if you’re not in the room, you don’t know what happened.
“When you’re leaving a room, train your dog to follow you,” she added. “And when you’re holding a baby, keep the baby with you.”
No matter a dog’s age or breed, caution is required. Younger dogs may play a little rough; older dogs may be hearing or sight-challenged, and may respond more aggressively to being grabbed by a toddler. Herding breeds tend to nip at children’s heels; terriers’ prey instincts can trigger them to chase a running child. In some cases, dogs may even become more aggressive to adults in the household in their efforts to protect a young child, whom they consider the weakest member of the pack.
If an animal has a known behavioral issue, such as anxiety or playing rough, it is important to seek help for that problem before bringing home a baby. “Unfortunately, people do use this as an excuse to surrender pets—they knew that the animal had a problem but didn’t get help in time,” said Papik. “What’s ironic is that after training, many of these pets get adopted out to families with children and they do beautifully.”
To learn more about Animal Friends’ free Baby-Ready Pets classes, call 412-847-7000 or visit www.thinkingoutsidethecage.org. Upcoming classes will be held on March 21, April 18 and May 16 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.