What does it mean when a dog "tucks a baby in"?

Food caching and predatory behaviors toward newborns.

February 1, 2023
Newborn/Infant

There are many viral videos of dogs “ tucking a newborn in.”

Based on the comments, most people assume the dog is trying to keep the baby warm or showing love—great big sister, caring big brother type of thing. 

Unfortunately, those seemingly “sweet” and “cute” behaviors are actually food caching behaviors.

Food caching is related to predatory behavior; the dog buries food for later consumption. You'll often see these behaviors when you give your dog a new chew or a bone where they rub, nuzzle or cover it for later. 

Examples of food caching behaviors:

  • nuzzling
  • trying to roll over the newborn with their muzzle
  • rubbing their face on the baby
  • appearing to cover the baby with a blanket
  • any of the behaviors listed above combined with licking, especially methodical licking.

Here is a great visual example of food caching behaviors.

It does not mean your dog thinks that your baby is food.

Rather, your dog is almost involuntarily performing an innate pattern triggered by the situation. It may also be a symptom of anxiety. So, while these behaviors may seem cute to the average person when directed at a baby, they are not!

Some dogs are more possessive than others, especially if they are living in a multi-pet household. They may try to hide the baby under the blanket from the other dogs.

I have to admit, watching videos of dogs “tucking the baby in” or trying to roll the baby over with their muzzle makes me very anxious. Frequently a dog covers the baby’s mouth with a blanket, and some babies start crying. It seems stressful for the baby!

Every behavior has to be read in context!

If your pup has an itchy face and rubs it against your legs, it’s not a food caching behavior—just an itchy face. Isolated licking, licking alone, or drive-by licking is typically not a concern but rather a sign of affection, appeasement, or attention-seeking behavior. Dogs lick because they like the taste of salty skin or because there is some residue from the food the person has just eaten, e.g., milk on a baby’s skin.

3 tips for keeping your baby safe 

Step # 1: Prepare your dog for your baby. 

A good place to start is my free Dog Meets Baby Preparation Checklist.

Dog Meets Baby Preparation Checklist
Step # 2 Have a plan for a safe introduction. 

After working with hundreds of expecting and adopting couples, I know that you can’t always predict how your dog will react to your newborn. But you can have full control during the first meeting! After my own scary experience, I know that the SAFETY OF THE BABY is a priority. If you need help, my course, The First Meeting  “How to safely introduce your baby to your dog the right way” gives you an easy, step-by-step plan for a safe first meeting.

Step #3 Important Safety Rules moving forward.

Mine are:

  • Never leave the baby and dog together unsupervised (awake or asleep).
  • Get in the habit of putting yourself between the dog and the baby.
  • Teach your dog to follow you whenever you step away from the baby.
  • No babies’ faces in dogs' faces.
  • Do not set your baby on or right next to your dog.

And some rules are OPTIONAL, such as:

  • No dogs on the furniture.
  • Dogs are not allowed in the nursery or certain parts of the house.
  • Dogs are always sent down the stairs before an adult carries a baby.
  • BABY TV - dogs are tethered or behind a baby gate to adjust to the baby's presence.
  • A dedicated time to spend quality time with your dog/s. 
  • One-on-one time with each dog to fill your and their cup. 

Understanding Your Dog: Drives and Instincts

Predatory Behavior

All dogs can display predatory behavior as it is an instinct. Predatory behavior is a survival mechanism, and it is what keeps a dog alive if they have to fend for themselves. 

Everyone knows that dogs like chasing balls, cats, sticks, and Frisbees, but not everyone knows why. Dogs are descended from wolves, which are predators. Many dogs have thus inherited, to some degree, instincts to hunt. Activities like chasing moving objects, stalking, and grabbing and shaking stuffed animals are all examples of these instincts. Selective breeding in dogs has exaggerated different aspects of predatory behavior. It is why Border Collies herd sheep, Pointers point, Terriers kill small animals, and so many dogs love chasing and retrieving. 

Herding breeds, Sporting breeds, Northern breeds, Hounds, Terriers, and Wolf Hybrids often have a stronger predatory instinct than others. 

Predatory Drift 

Even dogs that are not usually into hunting-type activities may have predatory reflexes triggered if the situation is close enough to a predator-prey interaction.

A good example is when dogs get into a scuffle, and one dog begins to vocalize or struggle like a prey animal. A predatory reflex in the other dog may then kick in. When this happens, it’s called predatory drift – what began as a social interaction drifted into a predator-prey interaction. 

Predatory drift frequently results in serious injuries or death to the struggling and panicking dog. This is because the prey killing reflex is a much more serious kind of bite – often a grab and shake - than in a regular dog fight. The risk of predatory drift is greatly increased when there is a significant size difference between the two dogs ‘arguing.’ For this reason, all interactions between very large and very small dogs should be closely supervised. The risk goes higher if the smaller dog is prone to panic and the larger dog has demonstrated any predatory propensities.

Courtesy of the San Francisco SPCA

Letting a dog chase or play roughly with a small child, especially if there is a significant size difference, is NOT safe. If a child falls and starts making prey-like sounds, a predatory reflex could kick in. The risk is higher if multiple dogs chase a small child.

Predatory Behavior toward Newborns

Newborn babies are tiny and have a distinct and unique cry. Sometimes, it can trigger predatory behavior in dogs. The vast majority of people will NEVER see this from their dog. It’s normal for dogs to be curious and interested in a new baby or to notice and vocalize when a baby cries or moves. However, when it is predatory, the dog’s body language will be similar to when they see a squirrel or mouse. 

If your dog alerts every time your baby moves or cries AND becomes stiff and serious, stalks, lunges, or tries to grab at the baby with their mouth, separate them immediately and get the help of a certified dog trainer. Unsure how to find one? Check out this blog post.

It is a terrifying experience; I know it firsthand. When I brought home my newborn twins, Lola, my uber-sweet yellow lab, had a predatory reaction to them. 

If you have a dog with strong predatory behavior, focus on the following:
  1. Obedience training.
  2. Desensitization to the sounds of a baby. Check out the Baby Sounds section. 
  3. Management and separation training.
  4. Understanding your dog’s body language. 
  5. If your dog has stalked, chased, and killed small animals, have a solid plan for introducing your baby to your dog. 

You can also look into Predation Substitute Training.  Simone’s (certified dog trainer and behavioral consultant) books, exercises, and training techniques come highly recommended by many dog professionals.

Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best

While I can’t take Lola’s reaction to my kids back, as a dog trainer, I can do a lot to help other parents never go through this traumatic experience. 

If you are expecting or adopting, this is the best time to train and prepare your dog for life with a baby. It was not easy to trust Lola again after she displayed a predatory reaction to my newborns. What made the biggest difference was her solid preparation and obedience training. Unsure where to start? Check out Dog Meets Baby Courses (Preparation and Bundle).