Un-"magnetized" Toddler

Long before Oliver (my 19-month-old son) was born, I began planning how to make my dogs happy, comfortable, and safe to have around my toddler.  However, as I worked on that, I also came to realize that it was not enough.  There are many, many dogs in the world, and I wanted my son to be as safe as possible around ALL of them.  While avoiding them might be an option for some people, I’m a dog trainer- many of my friends have dogs, and all of my clients have dogs,  People in general expect me to like their dogs and want to say hello (and I do want to- just not necessarily with my baby in tow!).

So, how could I make sure my son was safe around dogs that had not been prepared to deal with a running, yelling, exuberant toddler?  This question led me to Madeline Gabriel’s blog: www.dogsandbabieslearning.com.  She has a fantastic series of articles about not “magnetizing” your baby to dogs (here).  Think about a compass that always points north… a magnetized baby can usually be found hurtling towards any dog they see, while screaming “doggy” and charging in for a pet and/or hug.

I’m not going to rewrite what is a truly fantastic series- but I do encourage ANYONE with kids or expecting a baby to read all of the parts of this series. In these articles, she basically shows the reader how to teach their baby to be safe around dogs, the same way you would teach them not to touch knives.  Just as you would never leave a baby alone with a knife, you should never leave them alone with a dog- but in both situations, you canteach your baby to be behave in a pretty reliable and safe manner.

Since Oliver was very small, we have spent a lot of time using the language that Madeline Gabriel encourages in her blog, i.e. “Yes, that’s our dog, Kaylee.  Kaylee is a good dog,” or “Dogs like a little more space.  Let’s move over here so she feels safe.  Look, our dog is staying with us!  You helped her feel safe.  You are a good friend to dogs!” I’ve also added phrases like “We only touch the dog with our hands!” and “Beskow’s sleeping right now, let’s leave her alone to rest,” and other (often self-evident) phrases.  The importance of this dialogue is three-fold: it makes your child engage with you rather than with the dog; it reminds you what is appropriate behavior around the dog and encourages you to always be paying attention; and, as your child grows, they start to understand what you’re saying, it sounds familiar, and they’re used to listening to those phrases.

In our family, the result has been a child that likes the dogs, likes to share his food with them (sigh), but leaves them alone when they’re on the couch, in their beds, or eating their dinner.  He often plays next to them on the floor without so much as looking at them.  Is he 100% reliable? No! He’s still a toddler, but most of the time, he leaves them alone or interacts appropriately.  This morning, when he came over and started driving his car along Kaylee’s back, because we already had the rule “we only use hands on the dog,” he cheerfully relinquished his car, gave her a nice pet on her shoulder, asked for his car back, and went to back to his play on a more appropriate surface.

When we’re out of the house, now that Oliver is walking, I pick him up when we approach dogs, he waves hello, and we go on our merry way.  As far as I can tell, he has never considered running up to a dog to say hi- it’s not in his behavioral repertoire.This weekend, however, was our first real test.  We went over to a friend’s house to play. They have a toddler, so I was pretty sure their two dogs - a Doberman Pinscher and a small Rat Terrier mix - were safe for my two babies. When we got to the house, the Doberman was crated to avoid an overenthusiastic greeting (hurray for dog owners who know their dog!), and the little dog came running over to give Oliver’s hands a thorough licking.  He looked down at the dog, smiled … and then went over to play with the other little boy! WOW! I was FLOORED! He’d never been in a situation with a small, excited dog to play with- and he acted completely unmagnetized. I was incredibly excited.  The second test came about 45 minutes later, when they let their Dobie out of his crate.  Now, our dogs are medium-sized, but Dobies are big.  I was sitting on the floor and his head was well over eye level.

As far as I can remember, Oliver has never been around a dog that big.  Dexter the Dobie came out happy to say hi- licked Oliver’s face a couple times and began making the rounds.  And … Oliver just kept playing!  I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I was about this.  If anyone out there doubts the power of Madeline Gabriel’s advice, I challenge you to raise your child this way and see how he or she handles these situations.  I could not have been more thrilled.  Even if either of those dogs had been a little nervous around little kids, they would not have had to deal with any staring, chasing, or grabbing- Oliver would have given them a safe, appropriate amount of space.  My child, I believe, can be declared unmagnetized to dogs!

Stimulus Control: The Most Important Concept You've Never Heard Of

The fourth principle of behavior I want to discuss is Stimulus Control.  This is probably the least talked about in dog training with new dog owners, but also an incredibly vital piece of training your dog.  I’m going to break it down to its most basic meaning in this post and then in subsequent posts talk about how good stimulus control can be achieved. The definition of stimulus control is when a behavior changes in a particular way depending on whether a given stimulus is present or absent.

To make sense of that definition, let’s start with the word “stimulus.”  A stimulus is anything that affects the senses.  Examples include the sight of a red traffic light, the sound of a loud honk, or the feeling of rough pavement underfoot. Stimuli are exceedingly important when talking about dog training because they are the reasons dogs behave a certain way.

People, like any other animal, perform certain behaviors in the presence of certain stimuli.  If you were driving down the road and suddenly saw a red light, a stop sign, a rolling ball, or a pedestrian – or if you heard a loud honk, or your passenger yelled “stop!” – you would probably apply the brakes quickly! All of these stimuli change your behavior.  You have learned, through rules or experience, that stopping is a really, really good idea in the presence of those stimuli.  You will be rewarded with your passenger’s approval, or you will avoid the punishment of an accident or a ticket.

In other words, stimuli like red lights and stop signs act as signals to you that some type of reinforcement or punishment is now available. This is the “control” piece.  The stimulus “controls” whether a behavior will occur if it acts as a signal that reinforcement or punishment is available for that behavior.

How does that apply to dog training?  Well, your dog sits all the time, for various reasons – fatigue, the need to scratch an itch, etc.  However, you can control your dog’s sitting behavior by teaching her that the cue word (stimulus) “sit” means reinforcement is now available for sitting.  In the beginning, reinforcement is almost ALWAYS forthcoming when you say, “sit”; it is the green light to your dog that if they plonk their butt down right now, they will get a cookie. My dogs are well advanced in their training and might get a cookie only every hundred times I say sit, but they still know that the best moment to sit is when I cue it, because that is the time when reinforcement is a possibility for that behavior.

Without the cue, the likelihood of getting a cookie for sitting is slim.  If there were no clear cue (or stimulus) to tell the dog when sitting will likely receive reinforcement, the dog would end up sitting all the time just on the off chance that something would appear.  Oftentimes, the cue becomes a person holding a treat- and that is something we don’t want!

This is where good stimulus control comes in.  If you’ve done your training “right,” with good stimulus control, you’ll get a dog that sits immediately upon being cued, but at other times during training won’t “try it out” in hopes of getting a treat without a cue.  This is how you avoid having a dog that “throws” random behaviors at you.  When you say, “down,” they won’t first sit, then touch, then spin, and then finally lie down.  With good stimulus control, the dog will perform the correct behavior – and nothing else – when cued for that behavior.

These are the four features of a behavior with good stimulus control as listed on Karen Pryor’s ClickerTraining.com.

The response is said to be 'under stimulus control' when presentation of the particular stimulus fulfills these four conditions:

      1. The behavior is always offered when that cue is presented
      2. The behavior is not offered in the absence of that cue
      3. The behavior is not offered in response to some other cue
      4. No other behavior occurs in response to that cue.

(from http://www.clickertraining.com/glossary/17#term21269)

Which of these elements of good stimulus control is the most problematic to achieve?  Well, that depends on your training method and is a subject for another post!

Extinction: Not Just for Dinosaurs

One of the four principles of behavior that govern how all organisms learn is extinction.  This is a separate principle from punishment and reinforcement, but it can work in tandem with them to change your dog’s behavior. What is it? Extinction is when a behavior that was previously reinforced isn’t reinforced any longer.

Some examples would be:

  • Your dog used to bark and get let outside; now you don’t let him outside when he barks anymore.
  • Your dog used to whine to come up on the bed and you would invite him up; now you don’t invite him up anymore.
  • Your child used to be praised every time he cleaned up his toys; lately you’ve been forgetting to do so.

Extinction can be used to stop a behavior we don’t want occurring- which is good for training our dogs! But it can also put an end to a behavior we like, if we neglect to reinforce it- which is not so good for training our dogs.

Like anything with behavior, extinction is not inherently good or bad, and understanding the principle can really empower your training.  However, it is frequently misused and misunderstood because of two major features: the extinction burst and spontaneous recovery.

To explain those, let’s use the example of a golden retriever mix, Polly, that jumps on everyone that she meets.  As a puppy this dog was, of course, ADORABLE.  Nobody minded when she jumped up on them to say hello.  In fact, they encouraged the jumping with cuddles, pats, and lots of high-pitched baby talk.  Who could blame them? Unfortunately, like all puppies, Polly started to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger.  Suddenly, the jumping up went from adorable, to uncomfortable, to downright dangerous to kids or unstable adults. At this point, the jumping up had been thoroughly reinforced by hundreds of experiences.  The owners took Polly to a trainer and the first piece of advice they received was to ignore the behavior- turn around, walk away, close a door between them and the dog- whatever they had to do in order to completely ignore the behavior.  In other words- they were told to put Polly’s jumping behavior on extinction.

Polly’s owners went home and dutifully began to ignore her jumping.  They managed to recruit their friends as well, and nobody reinforced Polly’s jumping any longer. But instead of getting better, Polly’s jumping got worse! She was now flinging herself at people and jumping, jumping, jumping until they manage to get out of her reach.  What happened?! Very simply put, this is a classic Extinction Burst.  An extinction burst is when a behavior is placed on extinction and it gets worse (often much worse) before it gets better.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  In the past the jumping worked, so now when Polly jumps and doesn’t receive attention she tries harder and harder, just like a person presses the elevator button over and over again when it doesn’t immediately light up.  The good thing is, this means extinction is working- you just have to power through until the burst is over.  It can be tough, but the worst thing Polly’s owners can do at this point is to give in- if they do, they will have to start over and the extinction burst will be even worse the next time.

As you may be able to tell, a trainer has to be careful when recommending extinction.  If the behavior is something that could be dangerous to people or the dog if it worsens, like rough play, biting, nipping, or really even something like jumping, then extinction might not be a good idea.  There are lots of other things you could try instead that will be discussed later.

A couple months later, Polly’s jumping has almost completely disappeared! Her owners managed to stay the course and not respond to her jumping, the extinction burst passed, and she’s a much easier dog to have around these days.  Then, one day, they invite several friends over for brunch and as soon as they walk in the door, there’s Polly- jumping all over them.  WHAT?! They worked so hard! The behavior was so much better! Where is this coming from? Polly is exhibiting a Spontaneous Recovery of the jumping behavior.  Basically, any behavior that has been exhibited and reinforced in the past and has gone through extinction, always has the possibility of recurring at an unpredictable moment. Luckily, Polly’s owners know just what to do- they instruct their friends to ignore her, and in just a few minutes, Polly is back to her new normal un-jumpy self- hurray!

This is a great example of why I’m writing these posts.  If you don’t understand what’s happening when you start ignoring your dog, it can be incredibly disheartening when the behavior suddenly worsens or recurs- but if you know to expect an extinction burst, you can respond accordingly, know that it is working, and not get discouraged- your training will be that much more effective!

Negative Punishment- Much Better Than It Sounds!

Out of the four types of behavior change procedures in the quadrant, negative punishment sounds like it must be the worst of the worst, right? Well… not so much.  In fact, as a humane, positive reinforcement-based clicker trainer, this is probably the next type of approach I’m likely to use if I can’t figure out how to use positive reinforcement.  Why is that? Let’s look at what it actually means. Negative Punishment means removing something from the dog’s environment in order to decrease the future frequency of that behavior.

That means that all of the typical “punishment” procedures you might think of- hitting, yelling, prong collars, choke collars, or shocks- fall outside of this realm.  They all add something and so are positive punishment techniques.  What types of things are negative punishment?  The most obvious is the “time out,” a procedure that many people happily employ with their children as a humane method to decrease inappropriate behaviors.

Here is an example:

Suppose you’re playing tug with your six-month-old Labrador retriever mix.  It starts out well; the dog is tugging nicely and because you’ve trained a great “drop it,” she is releasing the toy and then tugging with you again.  But as you play, the dog is getting more and more excited.  Her eyes are shiny, her ears are up, and she even has some piloerection (hair on the back of her neck is standing up).  Suddenly, she misses the tug and nips your hand.  BIG no-no!  So, you drop the toy and walk out of the room.  You just put your dog in time out- you removed the game of tug to reduce the behavior of biting. If the biting decreases in the future, this is classic negative punishment.

Time out can also be achieved for an over-stimulated dog by doing any of the following: crating them for a little while (if they like their crate); closing the door between you and your dog until they calm down; or removing a toy until they have settled down enough to play appropriately.

As you can see, this type of training does not teach your dog what to do- it teaches them what not to do.  It is not an effective method for teaching your dog the tugging and play behaviors you do want- that still has to be achieved through positive reinforcement.  Remember, punishment should always be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement to teach your dog what you do want. But humane forms of punishment do help them learn which behaviors to avoid, because those behaviors make the game stop.

I used negative punishment with my dog when she was extremely “sniffy” on the agility course.  She loved playing agility by the time I used this.  When I would take her to class she would get very excited about the equipment, start a run, and then get extremely distracted by the smell (perhaps of rabbit) that was in the grass.  She would sniff and sniff and sniff and wouldn’t respond to anything I said or did.  Rather than using positive punishment (i.e. correction) to stop her sniffing, which might also have made her a less enthusiastic agility dog, I used negative punishment.  As soon as her nose dropped to the ground she got one call to come back; if she didn’t respond, I would walk over, calmly pick her up, and remove her to her crate.  She apparently was not a fan of missing her agility run, because after just a few times, the sniffing behavior stopped! So, did I “punish” my dog? Absolutely- the behavior decreased, and that’s what punishment means.  Did I hurt her? No, no, no! And, because I was careful, I have not (as far as I can tell) suffered any unwanted side effects from that punishment.

Positive Punishment - Not Really So "Positive"

Positive punishment is a term that is often misunderstood (much like negative reinforcement).  Once again, it is important to recognize that in behavior terminology, “positive” and “negative” are not value judgments- they are more similar to math terminology.  So with positive punishment, the “positive” really just means you are adding something to the environment.  The “punishment” part of the phrase means you are planning a technique that will decrease the future occurrence of the behavior. The formal definition of positive punishment is when you add something to the environment to decrease the future frequency of the behavior.

This differs from both types of reinforcement, because with reinforcement, you are always planning to increase a certain behavior.

Let’s look at an example. This is a hypothetical situation and it is not how I would recommend responding. In this example, the dog’s owner walks into the bedroom to discover Puppy chewing up a pair of very expensive shoes.  The owner yells and smacks the puppy’s nose. The puppy scampers away, hides, and never chews on shoes again.  Why is this positive punishment? Because the owner added something (the yell and the smack) to the environment and the puppy’s chewing behavior decreased in the future.

There are several ways to look at this situation.  You might think- “Oh my goodness, I would NEVER hit my puppy!” Or, you might think- “Hey, it was only one smack and the puppy never chewed shoes again, so isn’t that worth it?” To answer that question, let’s look at some possible consequences of this scenario.

  1. The puppy never chews shoes again (this is the good consequence).
  2. Every time the owner walks into a room for the next week and the puppy is there, the puppy urinates on the floor out of fear.  This is because the puppy has learned owner + entering room = smack.
  3. Every time the owner goes to pet the puppy’s head, the dog ducks his head, turns away, and/or just scampers away, having developed a fear of approaching hands.
  4. The puppy will not walk out the front door past the shoes that are next to the door because he has learned that shoes = pain.
  5. The puppy now growls, barks, and lunges whenever he is chewing on something and his owner comes near him, anticipating another smack.  In doggy language, he quite clearly tells his owner to STAY AWAY.  The owner becomes afraid of the dog.
  6. Use your imagination- once you start really thinking about all the things the owner might have actually taught the dog with that smack, the possibilities are endless.


This is one of the major issues with punishment-based training.  Does it work? Absolutely – though, as noted above, often not in the intended way.  Is it humane? I would argue it is not humane, but that could be a personal opinion that differs from yours.  I also have no interest in treating my dog in any way I would not treat anyone else I love. But, one place where there is no argument is in the consequences.  Before punishing your dog for something, ask yourself- Is it worth the possible side effects?? 

The known side effects of punishment include aggression and avoidance.  These side effects are not only very common, but also incredibly difficult to avoid, even if you have knowledge and experience with positive punishment techniques. Do you want to risk creating a dog that is either fearful or aggressive?  If not, it is much, much safer to use positive reinforcement and avoid the chance of creating a dog with serious behavior issues through the unintended side effects of punishment.

Negative Reinforcement - Isn't that an Oxymoron?

Negative reinforcement is a term you don’t often hear unless you’re in the business of training and behavior.  It can sound like an oxymoron until you realize that in behavior terminology, negative is not a value judgment- it simply means something has been removed from the environment.  Let’s look at a scenario and then I’ll break down the definition. Sometimes, my toddler starts getting really wound up towards bedtime, as he gets more and more tired.  Occasionally, he’ll even do something like pull my hair to get my attention (I know, I know, even my child isn’t perfect… sigh...).  When he pulls my hair, it hurts and hurts and hurts, until I manage to uncurl his little fingers and remove them from my hair.  Then it stops hurting.  This means that something that really, really hurt me was removed from my environment when I uncurled his fingers.  In the future, I will be much more likely to uncurl his fingers as quickly as possible.  In other words, the frequency of me performing that behavior will increase.

This is exactly what negative reinforcement is: When the removal of something increases the future frequency of the behavior.

How does this impact dog training?  Well, negative reinforcement is still used by some trainers to train a dog to come back to their owner.  The owner says, “come,” and then either they or a trainer applies a shock to the dog through a shock collar until the dog turns back towards them.  At that point the shock stops.  So the shock is removed to increase the behavior of returning to the owner.   (Please note that this is only an example- I do NOT personally use or condone this technique.)

You can also see negative reinforcement in action with a dog’s behavior towards children.  Suppose your toddler is running around and squealing, and the dog doesn’t like it.  If the dog suddenly jumps up and barks at the toddler and the toddler then goes very quiet and still, the dog’s “barking at the toddler” behavior will be reinforced by the cessation of movement and squealing.  The dog might be more likely to jump and bark at the toddler in the future.  This is a challenging situation, and punishment could make the situation even worse.  There are humane ways of addressing it that are outside the scope of this post.

As you can probably tell, most instances of negative reinforcement are not particularly pleasant for the person or animal being trained.  This is why you have to be very cautious when throwing around a term like “reinforcement.”   When choosing a trainer, it’s important that you look for someone who doesn’t just “use reinforcement” but also emphasizes humane training methods.

Are there instances where negative reinforcement can be used humanely?  That’s a tricky question, and I’d love to hear if anyone out there thinks of any viable training scenarios.  The problem is, whatever is being removed from the dog’s environment really has to be something the dog doesn’t like, and thus is probably something you would not want to purposefully introduce to their environment in the first place.  I think one instance where I use it is in getting my dogs to shake themselves dry after their bath.  As soon as they shake, they’re allowed out of the bathtub- and they hate the bath.  But, I’m sure they wouldn’t classify giving them baths as humane treatment to begin with!

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Many people train dogs without understanding exactly why what they are doing works.  My toddler trains our dogs constantly without knowing anything about training techniques or the science of behavior.  For example, he has trained them to hold a down-stay (i.e. stay for a long period of time in a down) under his chair whenever he eats.  How has he achieved this feat at just 18 months of age?  By intermittently dropping food on their heads, of course! Granted, this was not an intentional training of the animals, but it was training nonetheless.  Understanding why even toddlers can train dogs can help all of us be better and more thoughtful trainers. The four core principles of behavior are:

  1. Reinforcement (positive and negative)
  2. Punishment (positive and negative)
  3. Extinction
  4. Stimulus Control

Today I’m going to delve into the world of positive reinforcement. This is a term that is used constantly in dog training- people are often termed “positive reinforcement trainers.”  But what does “positive reinforcement” actually mean?

Definition: Positive reinforcement is when you add something to dog’s environment that increases the future frequency of the behavior.  Adding something is what makes it “positive,” and the increase in behavior is what makes it “reinforcement.”

In other words, when my son drops food on my dogs’ heads, he is adding something (food) to the dogs’ environment that is increasing the length of their down-stays in the future.  In short, he is positively reinforcing their down-stays.  We can give our dogs loads of cookies for just about anything, but that isn’t enough to say we are “reinforcing” their behavior, unless it actually increases the future occurrences of the behavior.

How does this impact dog training? Well, if you are trying to train your dog to sit, and giving them a Milk-Bone each time they sit, but they are not actually getting better at responding to the “sit” cue, it could be that the Milk-Bone is not actually reinforcing the sit- it’s just a tasty treat they’re eating. Maybe by switching the treat to something stinkier like freeze-dried liver, you might have more success.  If each time the dog sits on cue, you give it a piece of liver, and the dog starts responding to the cue more frequently, you will know the liver is actually reinforcing the behavior.

This means that positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder.  If your dog LOVES tennis balls, asking for a down and then throwing a ball (adding the tennis ball to your dog’s environment) could be positively reinforcing.  If your dog LOVES to tug, asking for a sit and then letting them tug could be positively reinforcing for a sit.  If, on the other hand, your dog doesn’t care for toys, giving them a ball or tug in exchange for a behavior won’t increase the future frequency of the behavior and is therefore NOT reinforcement.  This shouldn’t discourage you from playing with your dog; it just might not be the best way to train a specific behavior.

Although clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement training, I call myself a behavior analyst rather than a “positive reinforcement trainer,” because my training techniques are not limited to positive reinforcement.  Positive reinforcement using treats or toys is often the best and most enjoyable way to train your dog, but it is only one of numerous humane techniques you can use to change your dog’s behavior.  I will discuss more of those techniques in the upcoming posts.

It's Science, Not Magic.

Dog training is not magical.  It is not “whispering.”  It is something anybody can learn to do, if they understand the science of behavior. Just as there are laws of physics, there are laws of behavior that work for any behavior in any species. What is behavior?  The definition I learned as a behavior analyst is “the activity of living organisms.”  Essentially, anything any organism does to interact with the world around it.  So, if you lift your arm- that’s behavior.  If your dog barks- that’s behavior.  But, if you just think about lifting your arm, that doesn’t count, because you don’t actually interact with the environment.

As a behavior analyst, if you tell me your dog is anxious when there are visitors are in the house, that is useful information, but it doesn’t tell me enough to help you.  “Being anxious” isn’t a behavior.  What I need to know to help you is what behaviors you see that suggest your dog is anxious.  Usually these are things like barking, whining, chewing, hiding, growling, or other behaviors you’re not used to seeing in your dog when you don’t have company.  In other words, I treat behaviors that can be seen.  At the end of the day, if we can help your dog get past those behaviors, everyone will be happier.

In the next series of blog posts, I will cover the four basic principles of behavior science, how those principles relate to dog training in general, and examples of how each principle can be employed in dog training. This will give you lots of information on how to help your dog learn new behaviors and some more insight into how I work as a trainer.  I hope you enjoy these posts- as a behavior nerd, I think this stuff is not only incredibly helpful, but also fascinating!

Introducing a New Baby, Part 5 - Planning for the Big Day

One thing that is very hard to predict is when your baby is actually going to decide to make his or her grand appearance.  With my first son, we had zero warning: we were out, my water broke, and all we had time to do was stop by the house to pick up the suitcase and head straight to the hospital.  With our second one, we had a little more warning, but since he was a week and a half late, it was definitely not on a day we could predict.  So, what will you do with your dog when your baby decides the time has come?  That is up to you, but I encourage you to sort it out well ahead of time.  Is there a neighbor, family member, or dog walker who can be available at the drop of a hat?  Do they already have your key?  If your dog hasn’t ever been left alone overnight, is your helper available to stay over or take the dog to their house without too much warning?  You should have a very definite plan in mind, and make sure you have a couple of people designated as backups to at least let your dog out to pee or feed them – just in case your first person loses their phone or something (for example, our dog walker was unexpectedly out of state for a funeral when our first son arrived).

  • Meeting the baby
    • When you first arrive home with the baby, leave them outside with someone while you go in to greet your dog.  Let your dog get over their excitement about seeing you.  Let them smell the new smells and settle back down before bringing in the baby.  I found it helpful to leave my baby in his car seat so he was enclosed and quiet when the dogs first investigated him.  If you’re very unsure how your dog will react, you can also put the car seat up on a table so they can just smell the baby.  You can pair that initial meeting with treats if you think it is appropriate.  Try to find an opportunity (IF you think it’s safe) to let the dog see the baby and sniff him or her politely for a few seconds.  Then tell your dog, “That’s enough,” and remove the baby.  Give the dog a cookie if they leave the baby alone when you say, “That’s enough”. The first few times, you may need to physically move in between them to convince the dog to stop sniffing. Babies smell very interesting! Keep things very light and positive.  If you’re not comfortable with your dog’s level of excitement, crate them and try again later or contact a positive-reinforcement-based trainer to work with your dog.  It is important at some point to let the dog safely see and sniff your baby- curiosity is a powerful force, and it’s better for them to investigate the baby when you’re ready for them, not when they find an opening.
  • The First Few Weeks
    • Beyond planning for the actual birth, it is also important to consider how your dog’s needs will be met in those first few weeks.  I love my dogs dearly and interact with them constantly.  As a dog trainer, you would think I could stay on top of their needs even with a newborn, but I will tell you that we hired a dog walker during both of our sons’ newborn stages.  There is just so much else to worry about – and if mom gave birth, she probably will not be up for walking the dogs in the first couple of weeks anyway.  Rather than having an unexercised dog in the house, pay someone to make sure they get out at least once a day (or find a friend or relative who can do it).  This will also help mitigate the guilt you might feel for ignoring your dog more than usual!
  • Giving Your Dog Attention
    • Besides exercise, your dog will still need some attention.   Try to keep some dry treats (my dogs like these) in your pocket and give them one every so often when they’re hanging out with you and being calm (especially when the baby’s around!).  Prepare and freeze some Kongs ahead of the birth and/or try to make one per day for your dog to chew on and get some mental stimulation.  When you feed them their breakfast and dinner, ask them for a sit/stay to keep some training up.  You won’t have the time or energy your dog really needs, and that’s fine for a couple weeks, but try to be aware of them and give them some attention every day!

Sometimes, having a dog at that moment in your life can seem like one more thing you don’t want to deal with, but it only lasts a short time and then the benefits of dog ownership and the love you have for your pet will quickly reassert themselves! Once you get through this rough patch, you’ll remember the excitement you felt about your child growing up with your dog in their life.

Introducing a New Baby, Part 4 - What Cues to Train

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!

Introducing a New Baby, Part 3 - Transportation

At some point, you’re probably going to want to leave the house with your baby and your dog.  If you’re at all like me, you spent time during your pregnancy fantasizing about evening strolls with your new baby in the stroller and your dog heeling precisely at your side while old ladies stop you to coo over how perfect your newborn is… and at the same time, harboring the fear that you’ll be the one walking through the park with your newborn wailing to be fed and your dog leaping at the end of the leash and barking as the old ladies shy away from you.  Well, this post is not about curing your dog of barking at old ladies, but it is about preparing your dog to exist politely with any kind of conveyance you plan on using for your baby- whether it is a car seat, a stroller, or some kind of baby-carrier.  If your dog cannot remain calm and disinterested in the various types of baby transport, be sure to work with a trainer to help them learn.

Car Seat

  • Most babies arrive home in a car seat and are frequently put into it and taken out of it as you go in and out of the house.  The car seat itself rarely causes problems, since the baby is completely snuggled into it and often asleep.  However, if you transport your dog in the car, it is worth considering your travel arrangements before the baby arrives.  We own a Volkswagen Golf- it is definitely not a big car, but with careful planning we now transport two babies in car seats, three cats in their carriers (fastened to the center seatbelt), and two dogs tethered with harnesses in the trunk.
  • For your car, you need to consider how you will restrain your dog.  Even if you don’t think your dog will bother the baby in the car seat, they should not be loose, as they can become a very heavy projectile if you have to stop quickly. According to AAA, “An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert roughly 300 pounds of pressure, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of pressure. Imagine the devastation that can cause to your pet and anyone in its path.” (http://newsroom.aaa.com/2011/07/2011-kurgo-pet-surve/) So, take care of your pet and your baby by restraining your dog!  With a seatbelt, your dog can still put their nose up to a cracked window, lie down comfortably, and won’t distract you.
  • The options for transporting your dog in a car are generally a crate, a seat belt, or (if you have a hatchback or SUV) a pet barrier between the trunk and the backseat.  If you plan on using a pet harness, you have to be comfortable with your dog being in the backseat within reach of your baby.  If you don’t fully trust them, plan on using a crate or barrier.
  • Whatever you decide to go with, start traveling with your pet restrained using that system well before the baby is born.  That way, if they bark or whine to be let loose, you can work through it before you have a sleeping baby in the car!


  • Many dogs that heel very nicely on-leash get confused once a stroller is added to your walk.  Be sure to get the stroller out ahead of time and see if your dog needs some extra heel training when walking with a stroller.  If not- great!  If they do, it’s better to work on retraining the skill before your baby is actually in the stroller.  Never attach any dog’s leash to the stroller, as they can bolt suddenly when you least expect it.
  • If your dog has had trouble with wheels in the past (for example, barking at skateboards, bikes, rollerblades, or trash bins), make sure you start early and with the stroller at a comfortable distance from the dog.  This would be a good situation to contact a trainer to work with you, as this can be a very difficult behavior to get past.
  • Lastly, with any dog, take them for a walk around the block with a “screaming baby” track playing from your phone or iPod in the stroller.  Make sure your dog can remain calm and not obsess over trying to look into the stroller.

Baby Wearing

  • I found that the easiest way to walk my dogs with my baby was by wearing my baby in a carrier.  My first son preferred the Sleepy Wrap initially, but my second son prefers the Ergo.  I like both of these options better than the Baby Bjorn, as they keep the newborn totally enclosed (no dangling limbs), and their faces tucked in by your chest.  Especially if you plan to take your baby to dog parks, where strange dogs might come sniffing and jumping on you, please consider using a carrier that does not have your baby staring straight out and exposed.
  • Whatever system you choose to use, put it on in the house and stick your “practice” baby (doll) into it.  See how your dog reacts.  Some initial curiosity is fine, but they should not be jumping up on the carrier to see what’s inside.  If they don’t settle down and lose interest, do some training with sits and heeling while wearing the carrier.

However you choose to arrange your baby and dog, you should all be comfortable with it.  Walking your dog should be relaxing, rewarding, and a good way to get out of the house for some exercise with your baby.  Some of my favorite moments of the week are when my husband and I get out with both our sons and both our dogs for an evening walk.  I hope it’s that way for you, too!

Introducing a New Baby, Part 2.3 - New Sights and Obstacles

The last part I'm going to talk about in terms of the physical environment is introducing your dog to the new sights and obstacles that will become part of your home. One of the biggest physical changes in most households is the introduction of baby furniture.  Sometimes this will be mostly confined to one bedroom, but oftentimes, especially in small city apartments, there are changes throughout the home.  In our apartment (~950 sq. ft.), furniture was rearranged everywhere to accommodate our first son when he was born.  Besides the “office” being converted to a baby room, we added a Pack ‘n’ Play to the living room, a swing near the dinner table, and, eventually, a playpen in the middle of the apartment.  If all of these changes had happened at once, I think Beskow (our more anxious dog) would have had a heart attack!

  • FurnitureThere is not much training around the furniture, assuming your dog does not jump up on the crib or changing table (if they do, make sure you work with a trainer to change this behavior), but do set it up ahead of time.  That way the dog can get used to it being around, and by the time the baby arrives, the excitement of new “stuff” will have diminished.  Here is a list of the biggest common additions:
    • Crib
    • Changing Table
    • Swing
    • Diaper genie
    • Pack ‘n’ Play – Special Note: We had a Pack ‘n’ Play in our living room so we had somewhere safe to put the baby down if we had to leave the room, even for a moment.  Remember- NEVER, ever leave the baby on the floor with the dog in the room.  For us, the Pack ‘n’ Play was an easy solution to provide a safe play space for our newborn.
  • BarriersAlso before the baby is born, you should get your dog acclimated to being blocked from certain parts of the house.  We set up baby gates between the kitchen and the rest of the house, and at the entrance to our baby’s room.  This way we could be in either of those places, with the baby on the floor, without the dogs being underfoot.  Our dogs were not used to being closed out of places where we were working or hanging out, so it was good to get them used to the experience before it could be paired (in their minds) with the baby getting attention.  Weeks before the baby arrived, they got over whining and pawing at the gates and just found somewhere else to lie down.

    Our dogs were also not used to being crated when we were at home and awake.  They were used to being crated when we were not home and occasionally at night, but not when we were home during the day. They really like their crates and will hang out in them when the doors are open, but being crated when we were home watching TV or entertaining visitors was NOT something they were used to doing.  So, we had to practice before the baby arrived. I highly recommend it, because that way you won’t have to deal with them whining or barking at you for attention once you are also dealing with an infant.  (If your dog isn’t already crate trained, a trainer can help if you’re not sure how to go about it.) If your dog likes their crate, they’re likely to get over this relatively quickly.  This was also our go-to solution when we brought in a babysitter.  Until we had a regular babysitter who knew our baby, our dogs, and our rules about the dogs around the baby very well, we always crated the dogs if we weren’t there to monitor them.

Introducing a New Baby, Part 2.2 - New Smells

Continuing with environmental changes... When preparing your dog for new smells, it can be useful to get a relatively life-sized baby doll that you can “put” the smells on and carry around like a baby, up high out of reach.  This baby doll can also be used to get your dog used to how you will transport your baby.

  • Baby diapers
    • To us, baby diapers stink.  To a dog, well, I can only assume they fall into the same category as cat poo, dog poo, and dead mice… i.e., “Ooh, hurray! Delicious!”... Silly pups.  Anyway, it is worth making sure that your dog is not too interested in diapers before you’re carrying around a baby in a dirty diaper. Although it sounds disgusting, try to recreate a “wet diaper” before the baby is born.  Put a tiny dab of your pee on a diaper or get a diaper from a friend with a baby and rub the wet side against a clean diaper to put a little smell on it.  (A truly wet diaper is a little too gross to keep around.)  Put this diaper on a doll and let your dog take a sniff.  If they don’t care- great!  If they do, let them have a short sniff, then say, “That’s enough,” and move away.  Reinforce them with a cookie for being polite.  If they keep bothering you and jumping up to sniff, you need to do more work.
    • Get a Diaper Genie (or something similar) to contain the diapers.  If your dog gets ahold of a poopy diaper once, they’re likely to try again.  If you block this behavior from ever occurring you won’t have to worry about it.
  • Formula
    • You can’t really prepare for the smell of breast milk, but if you plan on using formula, make a little up ahead of time and drip that on the baby doll’s clothes, too. If you are formula feeding, your baby will almost always smell like that. Practice polite behavior around the smell, just like with the diaper exercise above.
  • Lotions/Powders
    • Lastly, whatever lotions or powders you will be using, you can either add them to the baby doll, or just smear a little on some towels, the changing table, or in the crib so those places start to smell like “baby.”  It’s one less change for your dog to adjust to once the baby arrives!

Tomorrow: New Sights and Obstacles

Introducing a New Baby, Part 2.1 - New Sounds

Preparing Your Home’s Physical Environment for the Introduction of Baby Part 1 of 3 - This is going to be a three-part series posted over three days.  Stay tuned!

It is a huge change in your dog’s life and environment when your brand new little baby comes through the door.  There is a sudden barrage of new sounds, smells, and movements.  Pair that with a drop in the amount of attention your pup will receive from you and it can be an extremely confusing time for your dog.  There really is no way to avoid those changes happening suddenly and unexpectedly, but you can make it easier on your dog by preparing your home as much as possible in advance. Our two dogs are very different.  One of them needed a lot of work on these environmental changes, while we could skip many of these preparations for the other.  Work with your dog and a trainer to figure out what you need to do for your family.  These are just general "good ideas".

When I think about the environment in terms of how your dog interacts with it, I break it down into sensory categories rather than rooms.  Regardless of where you decide to put the baby’s furniture, try to make sure you prepare your dog for the new sounds, smells, and sights in their environment.


  • Baby cries
    • A baby’s cry can be anything from a grumble to an ear-splitting wail.  It can hurt our ears to listen to it, and we know it means we need to pay attention to our baby and fix what’s wrong.  To a dog (I assume), it’s a very loud, uncomfortable, meaningless noise.  Some dogs couldn’t care less about loud sounds, but some are extremely sensitive.  Before you bring your baby home, look up a video of a crying newborn on YouTube and play it for your dog.  Be sure to start at low volumes, pair it with treats, and increase the volume gradually.  You want to get your dog used to the sound, not scare them!
  • Baby swing clicking/swinging
    • As a mom, I can tell you that we LOVE our baby swing.  Our baby naps very well in it, so it runs a lot throughout the day (and sometimes into the night). The swing makes clicking and swishing noises as it rocks back and forth.  It also has the option to play music or white noise.  My dogs never cared about those sounds, but it is possible that your dog will.  To find out, run the swing a few times before the baby is born and make sure your dog doesn’t mind the noise.  Just like with the baby cries, be sure to build up to the full experience.  Start with your dog in the next room and either let them move closer or move them closer gradually with treats if they don’t seem to mind the sounds.
  • Music/white noise machines
    • Whether it’s the noises on the swing, the Sleep Sheep in the crib, or (in desperation) the iPhone in the stroller, people play lots of white noise and music to their babies.  Make sure your dog isn’t bothered by these sounds, just like with the noises above.

Tomorrow: New Smells.