The tragic circumstances surrounding the death of a five-week-old infant on the NSW Central Coast last week, after an attack by the family’s American Staffordshire terrier, has once again raised serious questions about the safety of infants sharing their home with dogs.
Welcoming a newborn into the home is an exciting time in people's lives. Setting up the nursery, "baby-proofing" the house and preparing older siblings for the changes ahead.
However, one important member of the household often overlooked during this busy time is the family dog.
New babies have a tendency to turn everyone’s life upside down and that includes your dog.
Up until now, perhaps they’ve been the "only child" in the house, used to receiving your undivided attention and now they've suddenly been banned from certain parts of the house, including the master bedroom.
Like humans, dogs can become stressed when changes to their routine and environment occur and may experience feelings of jealousy and resentment if your affection is directed elsewhere.
In certain situations, this can lead to frustration and resentment, turning a loyal pet into an aggressive and dangerous threat, especially to an infant.
According to the Australian Veterinary Association, most dog bites take place in homes with familiar family pets and most people bitten by dogs are children.
Mel Ritterman, an accredited dog trainer, mother to three children and one "fur baby", as well as the owner of Cooper and Kids - named after her beloved Golden Retriever, Cooper - knows all about managing dogs and children.
Ms Ritterman is passionate about her work which is all about creating safe, happy and supportive relationships between babies, kids and dogs, both before and after the baby arrives home.
Before baby arrives
According to Ms Ritterman, it’s very important your dog forms a positive association with the baby and this can start during pregnancy.
Start to think about some of the inevitable changes to your dog’s routine that will happen once the baby arrives and gradually introduce different routines before the baby arrives so your dog has a chance to become used to them.
For example, if your dog has pride of place in your lap, on the family couch, and this is where you’re likely to be feeding your baby, offer them another special place on the couch, or a comfortable bed on the floor, with the added incentive of treats and a new toy.
If you don’t want your dog to go into the baby’s room, put the baby gate up now so your dog learns and gets used to this being a "no go zone".
It’s all about supervision
Once your baby arrives home and grows into a curious and active toddler it becomes all about supervising their interaction with the family dog.
According to Ms Ritterman “the best type of supervision is active supervision" which is when two adult eyes are focussed on the dog and child, the parent is present in the moment and they know what to look for.
Unfortunately, attacks tend to occur when the child and dog are together without adult eyes watching them, such as when an adult falls asleep.
However, even the most vigilant parent can’t be supervising a dog and child twenty-four hours a day, especially when they’re sleep-deprived and perhaps caring for other children.
When you know you can’t actively supervise, Ms Ritterman recommends using "management tools" such as baby gates, playpens or closing doors to rooms the dog is not allowed.
Dog crates, keeping the dog on a lead or outside, where possible, are other ways to “proactively supervise” the interaction between the dog and child, according to Ms Ritterman.
Understanding your dog’s behaviour
As well as actively supervising when your dog and child are together it’s also important to understand their behaviour and be on the lookout for warning signals and any physical changes, indicating a change in your dog’s mood.
Dogs rarely bite without warning and may growl as a warning sign they’ve had enough and want their space.
Even the most patient and placid dog may tire of a toddler climbing all over them and it’s important to take note of how they communicate this.
Understanding your dog’s body language is also very important when it comes to preventing bites.
"Once your dog can see that we are understanding what they are trying to tell us and we are respecting this, you will build a much more solid relationship based on trust and respect,” Ms Ritterman said.
No matter how much you love your dog and think you know them, Ms Ritterman’s key message for young families when it comes to preventing attacks is to always remember they’re a different species, with natural animal instincts.
This means it is important to set the environment up so “your dog can get it right rather than setting them up to fail”.
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