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A Pro Dog Trainer On Introducing Kids To Dogs (And Dogs To Kids)

If your happy family of humans is thinking about adding a 4-legged beast — or if your happy family of adults and 4-legged beasts is thinking about adding a squishy newborn that’s slightly less evolved than a puppy (which can at least be housebroken), then you probably have some questions. Like, “Can I housebreak my infant?”

In conjunction with our friends at BarkPost, we rounded up some common questions families have about dogs and posed them to Travis Brorsen. He’s the guy who trained the winner of CBS’s Greatest American Dog and now uses dogs to teach life skills to elementary school kids. He knows how to get dogs comfortable with kids, and kids comfortable with dogs; he also knows what to do when your dog inevitably realizes he’s gotten screwed with the whole kid thing.

If a couple with a dog is expecting their first child, what should they be doing with the dog to prepare for the arrival of the kid?
First, have certain areas of the house where the dog isn’t allowed. If the dog gets excited and the baby’s crying, there’s no reason for them to be in the same room together, so set a boundary — like in the nursery — where the dog knows he isn’t allowed. If your apartment is too small for that, give the dog a safe place like a crate or a pantry where he can go and it doesn’t feel like a punishment.

Leading up to the baby coming home, make sure the dog has a consistent routine, by which I mean 2-to-3 walks per day for at least 30 minutes each. That gets the dog in a balanced state of mind; what a lot of people don’t understand is that bad behavior comes from the dog having too much energy and not getting enough exercise. A well-balanced dog is calm and focused. Over-excited dogs jump and nip and bite.

Another tip is, a lot of people when they get home and their dog is excited, they respond with their own excitement. When you do that, it sends the dog’s energy level through the roof. So, it’s important that you don’t pay attention to your dog for the first 5 or 10 minutes after you come home. Only engage with the dog when the dog’s calm and you encourage calm behavior.

What about the actual “Walking Through The Door With The Baby” moment — is there a specific way to prepare for that? Have your dog walked for an hour to an a half before you come home from the hospital. Your dog will be tired, and you can lay the baby down next to him and they’ll just coexist.

Are there specific things owners of much older dogs need to do when introducing a baby?
As long as they’ve been trained, older dogs tend to respond a lot easier to their owner’s commands. If the owner says “Leave it” or claims the space around the baby, older dogs are often a lot more respectful of that. At any age, you have to be careful of the dog claiming the baby as theirs and getting possessive of the child. As owners, we often think it’s cute when the dog protects the baby but, at the end of the day, if you have friends over you don’t need the dog to protect the baby from your friends. It’s cute, but it’s important that the dog knows you’re the leader of the household and you’re in charge.

How do you train a dog to know the difference between dog toys and kid’s toys? Make sure the dog knows that all toys are your toys. No toy is the dog’s toy. Dog toys need to be picked up the same way as kids’ toys. You promote good behavior in dogs by rewarding good behavior. So keep the dog toys somewhere the dog can’t get them, and when the dog behaves the way you want him to, go to the place where the toys are kept and give them the toy. Now they associate the toy with something positive, and you also reinforce that it’s your toy and you’re letting them play with it. When the dog’s done playing with it, pick it up and put it away.

A lot of new parents realize after a few weeks that their dog just sort of gets the short end of the stick once kids are introduced to the family. Any way to make sure the dog doesn’t feel left out?
We tend to humanize dogs and think that if we’re not spending the same time with them as our family, they’re not happy — that’s not true. If they’re balanced, well exercised, calm and submissive, that’s a happy dog. People thing over excited means happy and that’s not always true. If you feel your dog is getting screwed in this whole baby thing, take the baby and the dog and go for a long walk as a family. Anything active will make them happy. If nothing else, focus on them when you feed them. Take some of the kibble in your hand and have them sit, lay down, do obedience things and use kibble as the reward.

When we think our dog’s eyes are sad, that what our eyes do when we’re sad. We confuse sad eyes with bored eyes. Dog’s don’t get mad at their owners for not taking them on 3 runs a day. They don’t hold grudges and they don’t know time. That’s why you can be gone 5 minutes or 5 days and they’re still excited to see you when you come home.