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Meet Michelle: Michelle is a sought-after dog trainer and mom to a 4-year-old girl, two dogs, and one cat.
Meet her fur babies: Her dog Izzy is friendly with all people BUT nervous with younger kids and barks if young kids come too close. Frankie is neutral with kids but nervous of adult strangers if they rush her. She will bark if strangers are looming, staring, and trying to pet or touch her.
I asked Michelle to share her story and what she did to overcome the obstacles that come with introducing a baby to your pet-friendly home, as I know it could help many parents who are nervous about that transition.
✔ will give you many ideas
✔ will help you to have realistic expectations about your baby and your dogs
✔ will give you HOPE!
Disclaimer: If your dog has displayed aggressive behaviors toward children, reach out to a certified dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist.
I started prep work in the second trimester and focused on separating the dogs from myself when I was at home and ignoring them. I worked on getting them accustomed to baby equipment and sounds since they already had a strong foundation of other skills.
I always kept my body between the dogs and the baby. From the beginning, I taught the dogs to give the baby distance by having them lay on their beds or the other end of the couch from us. Always prompting them to be away from the baby, but reassuring them and encouraging them to look and sniff from a distance.
For the first couple of weeks, the dog, who is nervous of kids, wanted to investigate the baby and showed lots of conflicted body language.
I had her keep her distance until she showed calm body language and only then let her briefly sniff near the baby or her feet, never letting her up to the baby's head or face. She is also the dog who always wants to be close to me (being nervous of the baby didn't change that), so I had to carefully manage that and teach her to give us space.
Over time she got used to the baby's presence and relaxed, but would become slightly agitated if the baby was screaming and upset, e.g., when agitated, she would approach me to check if everything was okay, frantically wagging her tail, jumping, or standing on me while staring into my eyes.
The dog, who is neutral to children, kept space on her own and would often just walk away or leave the room if she was unsure or uncomfortable. I always praised her for doing this and let her take as much space as she wanted.
➜If I had to leave the room, I always had the dogs follow me and never left them alone with the baby.
➜I frequently physically separated the dogs and gave them stuffed kongs and treats at a distance.
➜Even though the physical separation wasn't necessary a lot of the time since the baby was immobile, I was practicing for when she started to crawl.
As soon as my baby started to move, the dogs were more alert to her and pretty nervous.
The neutral dog started to just leave the room, which I loved.
The nervous dog would watch the baby like a hawk but never move away on her own. I continued to prompt that dog to go away or go somewhere else. Even though she was super worried, she wouldn’t move away. She just sort of let the uncomfortable thing continue to happen until it's too much for her.
➜I had to separate the dogs a lot more during this time and put up additional baby gates and fences, and I bought a playpen for the baby.
➜Around this age, I started to talk to the baby about giving the dogs space and not touching them. I had never let her touch them, always blocked/redirected her if she tried.
➜I started to model other things to do, like waving hello or hugging one of her soft stuffed animals.
➜Once my baby started moving, I never gave my dogs food, toys, or chews in the same space as my child.
This was the HARDEST time for us.
My baby was an early walker and has always been fearless and physical. I had to have the dogs and baby separated probably 90% of the time during this phase from about 1 year-18 months old.
When they were together, I was totally on top of it, not doing anything else but literally practicing them being in the same space. The dogs were pretty nervous because she was unpredictable and pretty wobbly.
➜I continually reminded her not to move toward the dogs and that they needed space.
➜I physically blocked her and redirected her repeatedly.
➜If she kept trying, I physically separated them.
➜I gave her TONS of praise for interrupting herself or just doing something else like waving or just looking, and I especially loved it when she got bored enough to just ignore the dogs and play with her toys or do something else.
➜I watched the dogs closely to ensure they remained comfortable in the situation and gave them TONS of praise for staying calm in her presence and relaxing.
(This will vary greatly based on your specific child!)
Over time, the dogs became more and more relaxed and accustomed to her moving around. And because I protected them, they learned that she was not a threat.
Around 18 months, I started to let my child give the dogs treats, supervised and modeled by me. I only did this because my dogs are well trained in not grabbing treats from her or jumping up.
➜I started by using treats she could eat (e.g., goldfish crackers) in case she put them in her mouth.
➜I've reinforced to her the very important rule that once the dog is near or has the treat or food, you never approach them.
Around 18 months, I also started to teach her how to play fetch with the dogs. This was especially great with the dog, who is neutral toward kids because playing with toys is a huge reward for her.
Between giving treats, playing fetch, and me continuing to make sure the dogs had only good experiences with my child, I could see them starting to relax and build a relationship with my child, each dog having their own dynamic with her.
Around this time, I also started to teach my child the concept of animals being in a "bubble." How the dogs and the cat are in a bubble, and we never go into their bubble unless invited. Because she loves actual bubbles, this gave her a concrete visual. She often reminds me that the cat or dog is in their bubble when she walks by them, and it's really neat to see her understand the concept.
I also started to talk a lot about body language and pointed out to her what it looks like if the dog wants to play or needs space, is happy or is nervous, etc. Learning about and recognizing body language helps her begin to understand if she's being invited into the bubble or not.
Another thing that's been important to us is doing things together as a family when we can. Taking the dogs and our child to the beach or park together for shared fun experiences outdoors helps build a positive association for both of them.
Around when my child turned 2, I started to be able to supervise her with the dogs more loosely. They were all used to sharing the space and following the rules at this point. Because she has never been allowed to touch or grab the dogs and has been taught many other ways to interact with them, it was rarely an issue, and she didn't try.
The dog who started out neutral toward kids has become really fond of my child (it was so wonderful to see!), and they started playing fetch together often. That dog also started to ask for physical affection from her, so we have started to practice the rules of touching and how to give a gentle pet on the dog's back (and that dog only!).
➜I physically separated the dogs and child if she was extra wild running around, was using a toy with wheels, or if she was in a mood where she may have a tantrum or push boundaries, but most of the time they were able to be in the same space together without any issues.
➜I have always been supervising, but I can also be doing something else at the same time and just keep an eye on them.
Izzy, the dog who is nervous with children, started seeking out attention from my child!
➜My child has learned how to gently pet the dogs and where. The rule then was that an adult always supervised petting, and she had to ask the grown-up first. They all played a lot more during this time.
➜We started letting our daughter share holding the leash if we were walking somewhere secure.
➜She also liked to help when the dogs were being leashed by holding the harnesses for us before we put them on each dog.
It was so amazing to see how much Frankie started loving my daughter and how much Izzy warmed up to her!
After my child turned 2.5 years old, and especially when she turned 3 (and increasingly with each day), she and the dogs have become really attached. When they are together, I can loosely supervise her with the dogs (walk in and out of the room).
Both dogs often come to my child to ask for physical affection, and she can gently pet them in an appropriate way. When she is watching tv, they like to sit by her. They both like to try and hang out in her bedroom with her when she is reading or playing calmly.
She loves giving them treats, and we have greatly increased her responsibility around food. She helps feed the dogs’ meals every day (supervised) by dropping the kibble into their puzzle bowls, asking the dog to sit and wait, then setting the bowl down and releasing the dog, saying “okay.” (Note: we still keep their bowls put away when they are not eating.). We also let her give low-value chewies to the dogs. We will give her a cup of treats on the table, and she likes to be a “dog trainer just like mommy” and practices rewarding them for Sit, Down, Spin, Stay, and Come.
She still loves playing fetch with them at home and outdoors. We go to the beach often. She and the dogs run together on the beach, and she throws the ball, and they retrieve it for her.
Note: My dogs are small and don’t jump or herd, so we have not had issues worrying they will knock her down when running - if you have a larger dog, you may want to be more cautious.
My daughter’s relationship with the dogs is so strong that she is often sad when we choose to leave them home (we never take them when we go to the playground or any other stimulating environment with many other children).
One amazing thing that has happened is the dogs are now comfortable around my daughter’s best friend (of the same age). We started very carefully by exposing the dogs to the friend over many playdates. (I always separate the dogs if there is a new child in our home first to make it easier for everyone.) The dogs can now hang out calmly while she and her best friend are playing in our house.
➜I physically separate when my child is wild, running and jumping with her play and having a hard time being in total control over her body during play.
➜I physically separate the dogs when my child uses a toy with wheels (she likes to practice her scooter and balance bike in the house).
➜From age 3-4, tantrums are more explosive, and boundaries are being challenged. I physically separate the dogs anytime my daughter is testing boundaries, being defiant, or I feel she cannot control herself around the dogs.
➜When her best friend is over for a playdate, I physically separate if they are playing wild or playing chasing or running games.
➜I now have the challenge of my daughter often wanting space from the dogs if they are seeking attention and interrupting her play or getting in her way. I make sure to call them away quickly and separate them if they cannot give her space.
➜Although my daughter helps with treats and meals, I still always closely supervise these activities. If I give them a high-value chewie or puzzle toy, I still separate the dogs.
➜Even though my daughter loves playing fetch with my dogs and giving them toys, I still do not let her play tug with them. They love tug of war, but I know tug is still too advanced of a game for a small child to play with a dog.
If you have a dog who is anxious or nervous around children, I hope this story gave you lots of hope and many tangible ideas.
Michelle and I talk frequently about how having well-trained dogs made our lives so much easier, once we had kids.
If you are stressed about how your dog will adjust to the new baby and would love to train and prepare your dog well for the new family member, I have courses for you!
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This course will have a dedicated module on how to help your dog who is nervous around little children feel more comfortable around them before you have your little one (coming September!)
If your dog meeting your baby makes you anxious, the First Meeting Course will give you a strategy and a detailed plan for introducing your baby to your dog/s and this priceless "I've got this, I'm prepared, and so is my dog" feeling.
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