In the year and a half since my daughter Sydney was born, I have been asked countless times how our family makes it work, having one human child and one canine child live together so harmoniously. And yes, I am one of those dog people who refers to myself as my dog’s Mumma, and I make no apologies for it. I have two girls – Sydney and Bella – and they both fill my heart completely and my days with joy.
Now I have to preface this blog post by stating that while this is what worked for our family, not every family will have the same experience; every dog is different, every child is different, some people do not feel the same about their dog as we do about ours and everyone’s circumstances are different. But for us, these are the measures and routines that we took to ensure that our human child and our canine child would not suffer from jealousy of each other, would enjoy a safe and happy home together, would develop a friendship (which has blossomed into a bond stronger than we could ever have imagined) and would still individually hold their important place within our loving home.
We always say that Bella knew I was pregnant before I did! Perhaps it was because she’d been a mother herself, to 11 puppies no less, that she had the mothering-instinct first. We were confident that there would not be any aggression issues (and there never have been) because Bella has always been great with children and instantly protective around babies. But we did worry about jealousy and how that might play out. And so we did our research and followed our hearts and followed three main strategies that have led to our success: Preparation, Routines and Rules. The rules and routines are followed to this day and are something to which we adhere faithfully.
Preparation: Everything we read about introducing a baby into a home where the dog was already well established focused on a slow and steady exposure to the baby’s things, smells and space in whatever way possible.
When we purchased any items for Sydney, we always allowed Bella to explore them: Bella smelled, laid upon, sometimes licked and always stared intensely at every new item that came into the house. And while we never did intend for Bella to jump into our daughter’s crib before laying down the mattress, thus directly onto the metal frame (ouch!), Bella was always gentle and interested in all of Sydney’s things. When I did Sydney’s first laundry before going into hospital, we allowed Bella to lie on a pile of those clothes to familiarize herself with the scent. Once I was admitted into hospital and Sydney was born, my parents, who were Bella-sitting during my hospital stay (I had a cesarean so we were there for several days), brought home one of our baby blankets for Bella to familiarize herself with the tiny human’s scent at last, instead of just laundry soap and baby products.
The part for which we were perhaps the most nervous and also the most excited was when we finally got to introduce our girls to each other. When I first walked into the house, coming home from the hospital, the pain I was in was unimaginable. I wasn’t able to bend down and pet Bella (who I had missed beyond measure), which was torture for me. But she fussed around me just the same and when she realized that we were carrying her new little sister in her car seat, she became very still and interested. We promised we would not shove Bella out of the way, not matter how enthusiastically interested she was, because the initial moments are some of the most important when bringing a baby home, in order to show your dog they still matter. We placed the car seat on the coffee table and allowed Bella to sniff her way around before taking Sydney out. Bella was so patient in those moments, sitting beside us as we placed Sydney on our laps, inside our home as a family for the first time. Those were magical moments I will never forget, seeing them meet for the first time.
We never kept Bella away from Sydney. Bella would rest her head on the corner of Sydney’s bassinet, she would sit next to me on the couch during feedings, she would lay at our feet when we rocked Sydney to sleep and when we transitioned Sydney into a crib, Bella would get up in the night when Sydney cried and sometimes she would spend the night in Sydney’s room instead of in ours. From the very first time Bella licked Sydney’s face, we never stopped her. Bella has always been gentle with Sydney, instinctually. When Sydney learned to give kisses, Bella fast became her favourite target. I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve touched tongues! And before you say “ewwww that’s gross!”, many parents will tell you to let your children play with and eat dirt, play with other children’s toys on which they have drooled and chewed … Besides, we feel that this physical contact has contributed greatly to the fact that Sydney has never feared Bella (nor any dog for that matter) in any way. The bond between them was instantaneous and has only grown since. It’s truly magical to watch.
Routines: Dogs thrive on routines; they help dogs to feel safe and give them a sense of identity. Most homes with a dog have established routines. While I try not to judge how a family treats their dog, I stand firmly by my opinion that having a baby is absolutely not an excuse to neglect your dog. That is one of, if not the, most important pieces of advice I can give to new parents with a dog: Do not neglect your dog for the sake of your child! It’s not fair to the dog and it will set up a great possibility for resentment. It is not easy to keep routines the same as they were before a baby’s arrival, however, if you are consciously aware of giving your dog as much of the attention you did before and always ensure that their needs are being met, then you will all be happier for it.
Probably the most important routine for Bella has always been her morning and evening walks. For the first 12 weeks I was home, due to the cesarean, I was not allowed to exercise, which included walking. I suppose it was a good thing that Sydney was born in January (my husband Micheal had to trudge out in the early morning snow) but I had never been so excited for the arrival of spring in my entire life! Bella and I promptly got back into a morning walk routine and having a baby carrier for that first year was a tremendous help. Now that Sydney is in a stroller and even walking along side us on occasion (I need Micheal’s extra hands for those days), we have maintained our daily walks no matter what. We walk for an hour every morning, shortly after waking, and for about 20 minutes as a family every evening before Sydney’s bedtime. The girls both look forward to it and the exercise is just as important for us all as is the routine. We have also always dedicated Saturday and/or Sunday mornings to free playtime for Bella, taking her to a local empty field and letting her off leash, playing catch with her favourite ball. Now that Sydney is a toddler, Sydney is able to run with Bella in the park which delights us more than I can say.
A new routine that we have developed since Sydney came along is nightly tooth brushing: After dinnertime, we brush both the girls’ teeth. Sydney runs to get the brushes after dinner and she sits beside me, brushing her own teeth, as I brush Bella’s teeth. Afterwards, Sydney gets the dental treats and gives Bella one – it’s like a reward for them both!
We have always tried to take Bella along with us wherever possible and we continue to do so despite having a baby/toddler to transport … with alllllll the associated stuff! Is it more work? Absolutely! But it’s worth the effort to ensure Bella feels included as she always was. Bella loves her car rides and Sydney seems so much happier in the car whenever Bella comes along! Bella always comes along to visit friends or family and if we have errands that can be done from the car, or with Micheal or I running into a store/bank/gas station, then we’ll bring Bella along for those as well. I always used to bring Bella to Micheal’s baseball games, which was easy to continue when Sydney was little and remained in her stroller, but even now I still bring Bella whenever I have extra hands on-deck at the games as Sydney isn’t as interested in watching the game as she is in exploring the park with Bella! We made a conscious effort not to leave Bella behind at home once Sydney came along. Bella is just as important a member of our family as she always was, if not even more so now that she’s the “big sister”.
Rules: Every dog needs rules, even if they are a pampered “fur baby”, or “second child” in my case.
In our house, boundaries are the most important rules, with regards to food, toys and personal space. I have to give Micheal major credit because when I came into their lives, Bella was already very well trained, so it has not been too difficult to further train her with regards to new rules once Sydney came along. It took some time but we have made sure that Sydney understands Bella’s food dishes are hers and not for Sydney to play with … or in! There was a period where she treated Bella’s water bowl like her own personal splash pad, but after much frustration and consistency on my part, she gave that up. The same goes for Sydney’s food, which she often leaves on the table or on the floor. Bella knows that’s Sydney’s food and will not eat it, no matter how appealing. We have not, however, been successful when Sydney decides that she wants to share food with Bella. Bella will never say no to a French fry … or twelve! And it’s been funny to see what behaviours of Bella’s that Sydney will mimic, with Bella being her only sibling, Sydney often puts her crackers, grapes or cheerios on the carpet and eats them, face down, from the floor, just like Bella does with her kibble that falls out of the bowl!
We made sure from day one that Bella recognized that Sydney’s toys were not Bella’s toys. Bella loves her stuffies, balls and chew toys but we have never allowed her to put a single one of Sydney’s toys into her mouth. On the flip side, we have also never allowed Sydney to play with Bella’s toys. They stay on her dog bed and that is off-limits to Sydney. Now that she’s a toddler, with the exception of when Sydney cleans up after her sister and puts them away on Bella’s bed at the end of the day, she follows the rules!
As for personal space, that is something that were most militant about and it has paid off. Bella has always slept in our bed and now that Sydney often comes into bed with us in the early morning, Bella learned very quickly to stay at the bottom of the bed. Bella is a very enthusiastic greeter, when anyone gets home, but she knows not to lick Sydney to death, just because she’s the perfect height for it! And we made sure that Sydney knew from very early on that it is never okay to crawl on, poke, pull at, climb upon nor sit on Bella in any way. She will sometimes rest her head on Bella’s bum when she’s tired, but that has never led to any issues … just a whole lotta great photo ops for this Mum!
The bottom line is to keep your routines in place, even if they have to be modified slightly, and keep the attention as fairly distributed as possible. Of course, your baby has more needs than your dog does, so I don’t mean to suggest a 50/50 split, but, for example, if you come in from a day out, after you’ve taken your child’s shoes off, given her a drink, etc. don’t forget to fuss with your dog too! God gave us two hands for a reason and I often find myself holding Sydney with one and petting Bella with the other. If you’re playing in your yard with your child, why not include your dog as well? Sydney can throw the ball better than I can anyway!
In our experience, if you treat your dog with as much love, respect and attention as possible, they will continue to give you all their love in return and only further enrich the beautiful blessing that is a family.