The dogs in our household are integral members of the family. They enjoy a life of hanging out on the couch with us, sleeping in our bed, and lounging on the mats in the kitchen when we’re cooking. I encourage all of those behaviors because, for our family, they work! However, with the introduction of a new infant who needed to be laid down to be changed, laid down so I could swaddle him, and laid down on the floor to play, it became imperative that I could move the dogs quickly and easily. Our dogs are very responsive and relaxed with us in the house- so I could easily have just nudged them to get them to move, but there were two reasons I didn’t want to have to do that. The first is that when holding a newborn, you often do not have a hand free. The second is that I don’t really know if my dogs like being “nudged” out of place. It’s quite possible that even if they tolerate it, that form of touching actually bothers them. Given that, I didn’t want my dogs pairing the baby’s presence with something they might consider aversive. By training them to verbal cues, I could pair those cues with food and be sure they were moving because they were anticipating something good! That’s how I would like them to feel about the baby appearing, anyway! Here is my list of (nearly) essential cues to teach your dog prior to the arrival of your infant.
- “Move/Off” - There are many times per day when I find myself needing to put the baby on the bed, on the couch, on the floor, etc. … and there’s a dog there. It is extremely helpful to be able to tell your dog to “move” and have them do so right away. This is akin to “off” which is also a key cue at this point. When you’re having trouble getting the baby to latch on or take a bottle, you may just need your space and need the dog to move or get off the couch or bed entirely for a little while.
- “In/Bed/Place/Mat” - Have a place in each room where you’re likely to be playing with the baby that you can easily send your dog to and they will stay there. It makes your life so much easier! Plus, if your dog likes being on their bed or in their crate, this is not an “I’m ignoring you” command. The dog will be getting attention from you when you send them there, and then lots of praise (and ideally even a cookie every so often…) for staying there!
- “Come” - This is an important skill in any dog, but it’s particularly helpful to have a strong recall in the house. Getting out the door with a baby and their paraphernalia is a logistical challenge in the beginning. If you plan on walking your dogs with your baby, they should be able to come to you to get their leashes on without difficulty. Otherwise, you’ll be chasing them down or finding them in their beds, while also trying to soothe an infant in a stroller that hasn’t even started moving yet! A “come” cue is also important if you want to be able to leave the infant on the floor while you run to the bathroom, to answer the door, or grab a cup of water from the kitchen. It’s much easier to call the dog to come with you than pick up the baby and move them (and you definitely do not want to leave the dog and baby together unattended).
- “Leave it/Get it” - Once your baby starts eating real food, they will often drop it on the floor. Even before that, your baby will produce things from both ends that your dog will consider to be tasty. Being able to tell them to “leave it” will reduce your stress if you don’t want them constantly cleaning up after your baby. Conversely, if you really don’t want to have to pick up all of your toddler’s dropped food, having a really good “get it” is also helpful for after the meal! Make sure to train your “leave it” using treats, not through physically forcing your dog to leave it – again, you really do not want your dog associating your baby with aversive events.
- “Drop it” - This cue is vital if you have a dog that doesn’t love to share everything (which is most dogs). Although I try to keep my toddler separated from my dogs when they have something they value (Kong/bone/etc.), neither of them are resource guarders, so I’m not as careful as I probably should be and sometimes slip up. When this happens and my toddler is charging toward one of the dogs to wrench her beloved peanut-butter Kong from her jaws, I am really pleased I can say “drop it” so the dog spits out the Kong and comes to me for a treat before my son arrives to grab it from her. Bite risk averted! This is also a particularly helpful cue when you suddenly spot your dog heading out of the room with a pacifier, stuffed animal, or diaper in their mouth…
When training all of these cues, be sure to use lots of treats (and maybe even a clicker!) to make it clear to your dog when they are demonstrating desirable behaviors. When training behaviors that you plan to cue around your baby, it is particularly important for the dog to think that performing those behaviors will buy them something tasty, not worry that they might get punished. You never want your dog to associate your baby with punishment. To find out how to train these behaviors, go to a basic obedience class in your area, hire a trainer, or get a well-reviewed dog training book that teaches positive reinforcement-based techniques. Happy training!