It can be tricky once you have a little one who is on the go, which adds a whole new level of issues if you have fur babies too. Luckily our guest blog this month is from Guide Dogs for the Blind trainer Sara McIvor MSc DipCABT DipCAS to give you all the tips you need for a smooth transition.

I am a mummy to an amazing toddler and 2 fantastic dogs. Although I would consider myself an expert in dog behaviour, I am certainly not an expert in how to manage toddlers and dogs, but I thought I would write a blog to share some of my experiences and how best to manage everyday situations to enable both to live together; so here goes….

When I was pregnant, I did a lot of work preparing the dogs for a new baby in the family, getting them used to new furniture, routine changes, exercise amount changes and also training to walk next to the pram. This worked well and set them up for success for the first year of our little boys’ life and we muddled through as best we could with very few issues.

However, what happens when a baby, who stays put when you put them down, begins to move? This is a game changer for any dog, the little human whom they could move away from, can suddenly follow them around and I was very aware of what can go wrong!

Studies on dog bites in children have shown that most incidents happen in the home and involve children under the age of 7. Children also were shown to mistake snarls as smiles in dogs, leading to most bites being located to the face and neck region.

With this information in mind, there is a lot we can do to help keep our children and dogs interacting safely, a lot of it is about management. Management is a minefield, but it is your friend! Manage the environment, manage situation and manage routines and you will enable your little human and your beloved family pet to manage to live together, somewhat harmoniously. There will be accidents, there will be mistakes but if you have managed successfully, both will be ok, and so will you!

Managing the environment

Baby gates can be really useful for separating both toddler and dog in a number of situations; during baby mealtimes and dog mealtimes, during dog and child playtimes and also for safety, such as top and bottom of the stairs.

Introduce these early so your dogs can get used to the separation from certain areas of the house and from you. Do this gradually and positively by introducing enrichment during these times. Baby gates will really help when your toddler is having a mini meltdown and you need to get the dog in a different area to prevent any issues, or perhaps you are feeding your toddler something which could be harmful to your dog such as onions or sultanas.

Its also important that your dog always has the choice to walk away and create space between themselves and your toddler. Ensure that if your dog chooses to walk away, you allow them to and don’t allow your little one to follow them.

Managing situations

Enrichment should be a big part of your dog’s daily routine. It will provide important opportunities to perform natural behaviours such as sniffing and foraging as well as mental stimulation which can help tire your dogs out when long walks are not available.

There will be times when your dog and toddler interact, we want these interactions to be positive and leave both parties feeling good about more encounters in the future. Any encounter needs to be supervised and your toddler shown how to interact with your dog. This should be in the form of how you interact with your dog in front of your toddler. If you and your dog enjoy rough play games, keep these activities for when your toddler is in bed. Instead, show your little one how to stroke your dog by guiding their hand. This prevents your toddler from being able to tug and pull your dog’s hair which can lead to pain and discomfort. You can also show your toddler how to play using non-contact games such as fetch.

Allow your dogs to be in the room whilst your toddler calmly plays or watches their favourite TV programme. If there are two adults around, try having one of you giving attention to your toddler and the other giving attention to your dog. If you do have the dogs in the same room as your toddler, ensure that you are actively supervising and not looking at your phone, accidents can happen very quickly, a toddler falling onto a dog’s back, treading on their tail, a dog walking past your little one and knocking them over. It’s important you are always aware of what is happening. If you need to leave the room at all, take either dog or toddler with you so they are never left alone together unsupervised.

Have treat pots situated around the house so that when your dog shows calm behaviour around your little one, or your little one accidently squeals too loud and startles them, you can reward your dog and create positive associations with any accidents. Do not be too stringent with rewards and verbal praise for behaviour you want to see in the future – that goes for both your dog and your toddler.

If an accident does happen and your dog shows they are uncomfortable by growling, do not punish this behaviour. It is the only way your dog can communicate that they need space. If your dog learns that it will be punished for growling, they may not warn you next time and bite instead.

Manage routines

Try and have your dog’s main walks of the day without your toddler if at all possible. This will give your dog some much needed one to one time with you. If it isn’t possible, don’t panic but understand that your dog will need plenty of “sniff time” on their walks so ensure that if they are walking next to a pushchair or trike, give them some extra lead and don’t be in a rush if they stop lots.

If you are running short on time, give your dog plenty of enrichment and time in the garden, perhaps with a stuffed KONG or scatter feed and walk them later rather than rushing. Remember, a dog walker is worth their weight in gold for busy households!! 

During the day, your toddler will take up a lot of your time and most of the interactions you have with your dogs will be moving them from one place to another without perhaps giving them much attention. It’s important to try and keep your dog’s feeding routine at a similar time of day. Predictability can be a comfort to dogs, especially as some parts of their day has become slightly more unpredictable. Ensure that once your toddler is in bed for a nap or for the night, it’s time for your dog to get some much-deserved attention. This might be a groom, a cheeky cuddle on the couch, a game or simply just some quiet time together. Make time for them, their lives have changed just as much as yours in the last year or so.

A word on dog mum guilt

Its real! It is as real as mum guilt!! If you haven’t got your toddler following you around and needing you, your dog will be. They need you just as much now and it can be really draining giving so much of yourself to everyone else in your household, but you. Its normal to feel like this and its important to talk about it. Whether that’s to your partner, a friend or a professional, verbalise and acknowledge how you feel as you are important!

Ensure that you do allow yourself some time to yourself without both dog and toddler – sounds awful doesn’t it?? Only by giving yourself this time can you be at your best for everyone, toddler, dog and partner. It may be a bath, reading a book in bed or going for a walk on your own.

There is a lot of information online, including games and songs for children to help them learn about interacting with dogs;

  • The Blue Dog – Encouraging safe relationships between children and dogs -www.thebluedog.org/en/
  • The Family Dog – Happy dogs = Safe Kids – www.thefamilydog.com

If you are ever worried out the interactions between your children and family dog, please do seek professional advice from an accredited behaviourist on the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (www.abtc.org.uk).

Sara McIver MSc DipCABT DipCAS.

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