Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: New parents usually too busy to give new dog the attention it needs
Last week I responded to a reader's email: "Dear Gail: We are expecting a new baby (our first) in just a few short months. We also have wanted to adopt a dog (preferably a mid-sized dog a couple of years old), since our shepherd/husky mutt passed away from old age a while ago. Which should we introduce to the household first? Thanks for your thoughts on this!"
I wrote last week about the importance of selecting the right dog, which I'll write more about in the future (I've gotten some good emails from readers detailing their experiences).
The reader's second question asks whether to have the baby before getting a dog, or the dog before baby. Without knowing specifics about lifestyle and family, my advice is generic, so know that there are certainly other choices. For more specific guidance, expectant parents should consult with a behavior specialist or trainer who can help with the best decision for individual circumstances.
My feeling is that adopting a dog a "few short months" before the birth of a first child is not a good idea. Adopting a dog that is a few years old won't make a difference, as even a 2- or 4-year-old dog will require energy, training and attention, perhaps less than a puppy would need, but one never knows. Any new dog comes with the possibility - even the likelihood - that it will require and benefit from training, exercise and a great deal of focus and attention as the family and dog get to know each other.
It is unrealistic and possibly even unfair to both the baby and the dog to give either less than 100 percent of what he or she needs and will benefit from. Clearly new parents' focus is on their infant - and it should be! Acclimating a new dog into the family dynamic at any time requires time and attention - neither of which brand new parents have in abundance.
If the new dog doesn't get the attention and focus it needs, the owner might be left feeling guilty ("I know I should spend more time, but ..."). For the dog, possible outcomes include attention-seeking behavior (barking, jumping, pushy behavior) or the channeling of excess energy in undesirable behavior (chewing, stealing, digging, destructive behavior).
It's also important for all dog owners with children to recognize the critical importance of supervision - not just most of the time, but all the time.
If you're "watching" your child and dog while you're texting friends, or cooking dinner, or surfing the Internet, you're not really watching. Especially critical with toddlers and young children, the dog and child must never, ever be unsupervised. Supervision means interceding on behalf of the dog, for the safety of the child. The moment you begin to suspect that the dog is not 100 percent comfortable around the child, remove one or the other immediately. Give the dog a "safe" place, such as a room or crate with a stuffed Kong or other safe chew toy.
Start setting age-appropriate rules from the very beginning with realistic expectations and clear perspective. Toddlers are unsteady on their feet, and most dogs are anxious around such out-of-control movement. Preventing the child from falling on the dog is critical. Even well-mannered, good dogs have been known to snap at toddlers who inadvertently cause pain or surprise them.
Supervision and care must continue until the child is old enough to be responsible to follow rules such as: "Leave the dog alone"; "Don't bother the dog"; Careful, don't rush around in front of the dog"; or "When Rover is sleeping, don't both him."
So my best advice for the reader is to hold off getting a dog. For the child's first few years, you're going to be busy enough (read "very") focusing on your infant, then toddler, then 3- and 4-year-old. After that might be the best time to think about adding a dog to the family.
Believe me, as a dog-lover, I know how much you want to get one ... NOW! But truly, unless my assessment of your family is off, I think putting it off is best for everyone.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.