Pet Behavior Tips For Households with Children
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
As sad as it is to say, becoming a parent is one of the top reasons that pets are relinquished to shelters, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Everyone knows how hectic life becomes once you become a parent and tending to both your two-legged and four-legged family members can feel overwhelming at times. However, there are some behaviors you can work on with your pets to make life a little easier to manage! It is best to start teaching your pet these behaviors from a young age, but the old saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is far from true; so never feel like it is too late to start working with your fur babies! Below are some key behaviors to teach your dog to help things run as smoothly as possible.
1. Teach your pet to remain calm and quiet when you come home. It is best to never make a big deal out of leaving or returning home (because this can also cause issues with separation anxiety), but when you are a parent this can be even more important. You want to eliminate excited and loud greetings at the door. You may be trying to keep a baby asleep, carrying a ton of your child’s stuff in your arms or juggling getting your screaming toddler safely inside without dropping any groceries, so frantic jumping is not desired. Practice withholding attention and interaction with your pet until they are calm. Work on teaching them to sit quietly in a certain spot when the doorbell rings when you are home – rewarding them with petting or attention for good job!
2. It is helpful to teach your pet a “go to spot” not only when someone is at the door, but also to use for a variety of purposes (such as keeping them from being under foot when you are cooking or out of the area where you are eating to avoid having your pet eat unhealthy people food your child may accidentally drop). With practice, asking them to go somewhere they associate with reward will be easy and can be a lifesaver! The goal is essentially to provide your pet with a command that results in a positive action that makes it impossible for them to continue their old actions which caused issues. Have a clear place, like a towel or bed, for your pet to associate as their “go to spot”. Clicker training works well when teaching this behavior; you will want to click first for approach of the spot, then for one paw on the spot, then for two or more paws on the spot, and finally cuing them to sit or lie down as part of the new command.
3. You can use the idea of providing your pet with a new positive behavior that eliminates the problem behavior for many problems – diaper changing, feeding time, bath time, bedtime, etc. If your pet usually jumps on your lap when you sit down on the couch or is always right next to you (often underfoot), you want to find something different that they can do during these activities that will allow you to complete the things you need to complete. For example, teach your pet to sit and stay next to you for diaper changing, with treats stored on the changing table for ease of reward delivery. Provide your pet with food enrichment toys to occupy them for nap time and bed time so they will have a good quiet distraction while you are trying to get everyone to sleep.
4. Another behavior that is good for all pets to know is how to have good manners on walks and know how to heal without pulling you down the street! It is still important to be able to spend time with your dog and allow him/her the proper exercise and getting outside for a walk is great for you and your family as well. If pets are well-behaved for walks, it doesn’t have to be a choice to spend time taking a walk with just your dog or being able to involve your children. Be sure to develop a low-stress routine for beginning your walk. Any excessive behavior, such as jumping or barking, is met with the consequence of waiting to go for a walk until they are calm. Being consistent with this allows your pet to learn that impulse control will get them more quickly on their walk. It is a good idea to start walking with a stroller even before the baby comes so that you can figure out which side you will want your pet to be on. If children are not in the immediate future and you do not have a stroller, just be sure to be consistent as to what side you walk your dog on for every walk. They will learn to stay on that side, which will make incorporating a stroller or holding a child’s hand easier when the time comes. Also work on teaching them to stop and sit as an automatic behavior when you stop. It is best to teach your dog to heal at the level of your leg and not allow them in front of you, where you may end up feeling like you are being dragged behind them. The best way to accomplish this is to reward them when they are at the correct level and immediately stop walking and have them sit if they start to walk in front of you. Again, you are teaching them that they will get what they want (a nice walk) faster by obeying your commands. For dogs that tend to pull, investing in a harness or a Gentle Leader can help you have better control when they do start to pull.
5. Always remember to be respectful of your pet’s fears. While children themselves can startle your pet with their actions, sometimes it’s simply their toys or gear that can cause the problem. Teach your children never to startle a sleeping pet and keep kids away from your pet while he/she is eating if they are food aggressive. If there is a particular toy or item that causes anxiety to your pet, try to pair food or playtime with your pet while that trigger is also in the area to help your pet develop a more positive association. You always want the trigger to be far enough away when you start the desensitization that is does not elicit any anxiety in your pet and then slowly move it closer at a pace that allows your pet to adjust without stress.
Hopefully these helpful hints will make your life much easier as your family grows, but always remember that safety comes first. Since pets are not able to vocalize their feelings, they may resort to using their mouth to serve as a warning and possibly injury someone. Never ever put yourself or a family member in danger and if you are dealing with issues of aggression, it is best to seek professional advice from a trainer. The goal is a happy household for everyone, but safety first is a must!