Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
What's Up With Dogs and Crying Babies?
Getting a dog used to a crying baby is something that is ideally done before the baby has arrived home. Not many expectant mothers are aware of the many difficulties they may encounter on the big day when baby comes home and dog meets baby.
Let's face it: If your dog has not encountered a baby before, a baby is like something that has come from outer space. No offense, but babies to dogs are very peculiar beings. They smell different, look different, and sound very different.
It's almost as if dogs have some difficulties accepting the concept that babies are human. Some dogs look at babies with a confused, almost frightened look. Then add to that, the sound produced when babies are crying may sound like a T-Rex with a bad sinus infection or an elephant with a trumpet stuck up his trunk. If your dog's eyes pop out of their orbits the moment your baby cries, rest assured, you are not alone.
In an ideal situation, dogs should be habituated to babies and their cacophony of sounds even before the baby has arrived home. How is this done if the baby isn't born yet?
Easy, you let your dog listen to recordings of baby sounds first at a low level of volume played in a distant room, and then you gradually increase the volume as you keep an eye on your dog's reaction. To make things even more delightful, and make the sound of crying babies turn into music to your dog's ears, you can play the sound of the bawling baby everytime your dog enjoys dinner several rooms away. You can find several CD's of baby sounds or you can download them from the Internet. Some are even free and can be found on Youtube.
If you have missed out on this opportunity, and your dog feels like he's stuck in "Jurassic Park" every time your baby cries, not all is lost though. Remedial exposure as detailed below can help.
On a serious note, if you have found your dog is not at ease or is overly stressed or overstimulated, or has even managed to growl at your baby, you should seek professional help at once. Schedule an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist. These are things that you cannot risk taking a "wait-and-see" approach. The stress and reactive behaviors are likely to escalate over time if no steps are promptly taken. Leave no room for error. Keep your dog safely confined in an area away from the baby as you wait for your appointment.
The good news though is that with the help of an experienced professional, such as board-certified veterinarian specializing in behavior, the problem can be often successfully nipped in the bud if you seek intervention early.
It is much easier for pets to begin adjusting before an infant arrives than to get used to household changes and the baby all at once.
— Laurie Bergman, veterinary behaviorist
The Process of Systematic Desensitization
Remedial exposure, where a dog is exposed to triggers that already evoke stress-related behaviors, poses more challenges compared to the preventive, gradual exposure to potential triggers to which the dog hasn't yet manifested signs of trouble.
In a dog who is cringing upon hearing a baby cry, the dog has already started to associate the crying sound with the baby, and therefore, the baby has likely automatically been categorized as something unpredictable and scary. It will, therefore, take more effort to undo these negative associations.
Affected dogs will show several fear-related behaviors such as ears flattened back, tucked tails, yawning, or lip licking.
As with the recordings of the babies crying, it will help to systematically expose the dog to lower levels of intensity of the crying. These lower levels may be easier to habituate to rather than a full-blown exposure with the baby crying at the top of his lungs, mom urgently running to the baby, picking him up, and trying to soothe him.
Systematic desensitization (first developed by the South African psychiatrist, Joseph Wolpe) entails an organized set-up where the dog is exposed to stimuli that create the least anxiety and then gradually building up in stages towards reaching up to the top of the dog's hierarchy of fear. This gradient behavior modification protocol requires good planning and observation to ensure that the dog is not exposed to levels of exposure that are overwhelming which can cause significant setbacks.
Therefore, if a dog tends to feel overwhelmed when the baby is in a crib nearby and cries at the top of his lungs, and then mom gets up and comes rushing and starts walking around trying to soothe the baby, it's important not to expose the dog to this level of intensity.
Start by keeping the dog in a separate area from the baby initially. From a distance, the crying sound is less intense and the dog is prevented from seeing the baby and all the associated commotion going on.
While one family member attends to the crying baby, another member of the family should be with the dog during the crying episodes. This brings us to another important piece of behavior modification that is needed on top of desensitization: the addition of counterconditioning.
The Process of Counterconditioning
In counterconditioning, the dog is conditioned to form positive associations which are meant to replace the negative ones. If we look at the etymology (meaning of words), counterconditioning simply means "unlearning," in this case the dog unlearns acquired fear responses.
Therefore, starting with the dog kept in a distant room from which the crying would take place, as the child cries, the dog is presented with several high-value, bite-size treats given in a row. To make the dog form positive associations with the baby's crying, it's important to stop feeding treats the moment the infant stops crying. This emphasizes in the dog's mind that only the child's crying evokes the treat-feeding session.
A helper comes in handy here while a parent gives attention to the baby, but some dexterous parents with good timing may be able toss treats across the room to a dog while giving the baby a bottle.
These sessions should be repeated for long enough that the dog starts making the association, and at some point (with enough repetition), a conditioned emotional response may be witnessed. The dog will show signs of looking forward to hearing the baby crying as it predicts treat-feeding sessions.
Counterconditioning, therefore, allows the dog to form positive associations with the sound of the baby crying, and then, as things progress, eventually the dog will also start forming positive associations with the physical presence of the baby crying.
So, after conditioning the dog to form positive associations with the crying sound, things can progress by moving the dog closer to the source of the sound and feeding treats for the duration of the crying. Progress to the point where the dog sees the baby crying and is fed treats for visually seeing the child and hearing the crying sound simultaneously.
It's very important that, during these desensitization and counterconditioning sessions, dog owners pay close attention to their dogs so to quickly predict when things are becoming stressful.
Recognizing signs of stress in dogs is important. If your dog shows signs of stress during the exposure, take that as a sign that your dog is not ready for that level of intensity yet, and that you will have to take a few steps back to an exposure level your dog was comfortable with. Make sure your dog is always under threshold. The help of a behavior professional is helpful for both correct implementation of behavior modification and safety.
On top of behavior modification, to help soothe tense nerves, dog owners may also find pheromone products such as D.A.P. diffusers and calming chewable tablets containing L-Theanine helpful. Ask your vet for advice.
"When the baby fusses, clients can toss some kibble or treats into the air. The trick is to make it seem as if the baby is presenting the goodies. The goal is for pets, that get agitated by the sound of crying baby, to now associate that fussing with something enjoyable.
— Steve Dale, certified animal behavior consultant.
For Dogs Who Are Overstimulated
Some dogs may become overstimulated by the baby's crying more than becoming fearful or stressed. These dogs will not show fearful body language described above but will instead be focused on the baby, get hyper when they hear the baby crying, and may start pacing, whining, and wanting to go to the baby to check things out. This state of stimulation is not good and in mild forms, it's best to redirect it.
In these cases, it helps giving dogs something else to do when the baby cries. It may be helpful teaching your go to his mat and then rewarding him with a stuffed Kong to keep him there for a while at least until the baby has chilled. Train your dog to go to his mat on cue and make the behavior extra fluid. Then, each time the baby cries, send your dog over to the mat. Chances are, if you do this often enough, upon hearing the baby crying, your dog may almost automatically go to his may in anticipation of his goodies.
It's a good idea to have some goodies handy so you can readily reward the going-to-the mat behavior and keeping your dog occupied there for some time. Keeping a Kong stuffed with your dog's kibble and some soft foods like pumpkin, cream cheese, or canned food makes for a longer lasting treat.
In some cases, your dog may be exhibiting predatory behavior and may become fixated on the baby. This may turn into a dangerous situation which can lead to the dog harming the infant. In such cases, consult with a professional and in the meanwhile avoid your dog's access to the child.
A Word About Calories
Won't my dog get really fat if my baby is crying most of the time? This is a very good question. There are several ways to remedy this. One is using very small bite-sized treats. Small, bite-sized treats are easy to swallow and help make the point. More and more companies make treats that have lower calories.
You can adjust your dog's meal portion when feeding treats for training by reducing a bit the amount of kibble you feed your dog per day. This is OK only for a few days though. Treats are not nutritionally balanced and not meant for encompassing a large ratio of your dog's meals. Some dogs on top of calories also get digestive problems from too many treats.
The best option is to use your dog's kibble if your dog loves his food enough. Just calculate that an average dog's meal is made of about 80 or more pieces of kibble. Those are 80 opportunities to use to your advantage to help your dog form positive associations. Maybe you can start with high-value treats initially and then switch to kibble as soon as your dog gets better in accepting the crying.
If your dog is not too crazy about his kibble, you can always mix it with some low-sodium organic hot dogs and keep them together overnight in a baggy in the fridge. By the next day, the kibble will have absorbed some great hotdog aroma and your dog may be more eager to eat it.
At some point, you can even mix in some fun play sessions with your dog when the baby cries. Make sure the games you choose are mediated by you, meaning that you can control them by starting and ending the game as soon as the baby stops crying.
After several sessions, your dog may show signs of starting accepting your baby's crying and you may have to just do some rehearsal sessions every now and then. On those days when your baby is particularly cranky and you find yourself being extra busy and overwhelmed, you can always keep your dog in a quiet room away from all the commotion with something to chew on so to allow him some space to relax a bit or you can have a family member take him on a walk. Stress, just as it happens in humans, can have a cumulative effect in dogs and you want to avoid that as much as you can.
Think your work is done after having your dog used to your baby's crying? Don't be caught unprepared! Prepare yourself in advance for the eventuality you may need to get your dog used to your baby crawling.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli