Preparing your dog for a new baby: podcast episode #113
February 19, 2021

Preparing your dog for a new baby: podcast episode #113

Today Kristin talks to Jenn Gavin, owner of A Pleasant Dog in Grand Rapids, MI about when to prepare your dogs for the arrival of a new baby.  You can listen to this complete podcast episode on iTunes or SoundCloud.

Alyssa:  Welcome.  You’re listening to Ask the Doulas, a podcast where we talk to experts from all over the country about topics related to pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and early parenting.  Let’s chat!

Kristin:  Well, we are thrilled to have Jenn Gavin join us today.  Jenn is another female entrepreneur in the local Grand Rapids area, and Jenn owns A Pleasant Dog.  Welcome, Jenn!

Jenn:  Thanks for having me!

Kristin:  So feel free to fill our listeners in about your business, and I’d also like to hear a bit about how you’re adapting to COVID.

Jenn:  Sure!  I am the founder of A Pleasant Dog.  We are a local dog training facility.  We’ve been in business seven years now, and we really cater to — especially to families with dogs living in the city of Grand Rapids.  We focus our practice solely on using positive reinforcement to train and modify behavior in dogs.  We have a school for dogs on Knapp Street on the northeast side of Grand Rapids, and we offer everything from puppy 101 and puppy kindergarten classes to more advanced training and help with behavior consults for dogs who are struggling with problem behavior.  So that’s a little bit about us.

Kristin:  That’s fantastic.  I know you’ve posted quite a bit about behavior issues during COVID because families are home more?

Jenn:  Yeah.  It’s really — you know, my part of the practice, I’ve got 8 really talented trainers working with me, but the particular cases that I see are those cases where dogs are really struggling either with their people or other dogs or with stimuli that they see in the community.  And I think — I saw a statistic somewhere that there’s been a 20 percent increase in bite cases since COVID started, and I think it’s kind of been a challenging time for a lot of people who are living with dogs who maybe were a little bit uneasy living with their people or living with children and now that everybody’s home all the time, there’s kind of a spotlight on those issues.  So we’re seeing a lot of really stressful situations that we’re trying to help our clients and their dogs through.  If anything, COVID has made our practice much, much busier, not only because of an uptick in behavior issues, but also because, boy, it seems like everybody wants a dog now that they’re home.

Kristin:  I’ve noticed that!  So many of my friends have gotten puppies in this last year.

Jenn:  Yeah.  So we are busier than ever, but you know, it’s been a really kind of fun time, too, because our practice has expanded from just seeing the occasional behavior consultation or a client virtually who was outside of our area to really, we’re seeing a lot, a lot, a lot of clients virtually, and almost all of our behavior cases at least start out with an initial virtual consultation.

Kristin:  That’s great.  So for our listeners who live in other states or cities, they can contact you and have virtual consultations, correct?

Jenn:  That’s right.  I see a lot of — like I said, I see a lot of challenging behavior cases, and I’ve always had the possibility of seeing those cases virtually, so it’s just a nice opportunity to practice that, to help more people.

Kristin:  Are you doing anything in person at the moment?

Jenn:  We sure are.  All of our drop-off services that we offer — so we have a puppy day camp where, if you’ve got a COVID puppy and you’re trying to socialize them, you can drop them off with us for a half-day camp where we introduce them to a variety of novel stimuli and play with other dogs.  Sometimes we have kids come in or different types of vehicles, things like that, so that we can get them used to things that they might see when they’re grownups that they might not see if they’re in quarantine with their owners.

Kristin:  That makes sense.

Jenn:  Yeah.  All of our group classes are offered in person.  We’ve just reduced the number of people who are allowed in the class to four, so we only have four puppies and four people, and we’re using social distancing and requiring masks.  And then we are also still offering our house call services, as long as, you know, we’re respecting social distancing and masking requirements.  So we’ve kind of slowly ramped back up to offering the bulk of our services in person, but we also, like I said, offer almost all of our services virtually, including our group classes.

Kristin:  So I get asked, as our clients are preparing for a transition, whether it’s their first baby or adding a baby to the family, we talk about pets.  And I often send them your way.  But I’d love to hear your tips on dog training specifically to prepare a family for a new baby and also, you know, just any advice you have for expecting families, even beyond the training with the change, not only for the family, but also for the dog.

Jenn:  Thank you.  I appreciate it!  We do see your referrals, and we appreciate seeing them.  You know, I think the tricky thing is, a lot of people are worried about how they’re going to introduce the dog and the baby after baby is born, whether baby comes home from the hospital or the birth center or is born at home.  And that’s really not the trickiest part.  I think it’s really important to take an honest look at how your dog feels about children, babies, novel stimuli, before your baby comes home, and to begin to prepare a plan for your dog to be comfortable with your baby or your child before they get home.  And, you know, everybody knows that you’re not supposed to leave dogs and children unattended together, but how that practically plays out takes a little bit of finagling.  I think it’s easy in the newborn phase when you get done feeding your baby and you’re going to go jump in the shower and you can just pop baby in with you or stick baby in a carrier and shut the bathroom door.  But it’s useful to have a dog who can settle either in their own room or in a crate or behind a baby gate so that you can have a physical separation between baby and dog when you can’t directly supervise them.  So that’s a skill that I really like to teach well before baby’s going to come home.  If you have a dog who isn’t accustomed to being crated or stuck behind a baby gate when they can’t be supervised, that could cause stress, and you don’t want to be causing stress to the dog right when baby comes home.

Kristin:  Sure.  That makes sense.

Jenn:  Yeah.  Teaching comfortable separation is really important.  If you have a dog who startles easily with novel stimuli, the kind of dog who’s afraid when you bring a new box in or when they hear a loud noise, getting the dog used to baby-type apparatuses early on is important, and there’s a lot that we do with just classical conditioning, pairing a baby swing with treats.  But it’s definitely something you’re going to want professional help with because, at the same time, we don’t want to magnetize your dog to your baby or vice versa.  We don’t want to draw a dog in to smell a baby.  We don’t want to bring a diaper home from the hospital and have the baby’s diaper be smelled by the dog.  We really want to associate perceiving that baby with good things but also build independence and space between the two.  There’s usually not a big problem when baby comes home.  It’s usually when baby starts to toddle and pull on hair and pull up that we start to see a problem between babies and dogs.  So I want to practice teaching independence and mutual respect between the two parties from the get-go.

Kristin:  That makes sense, and when babies start to pull on ears and tails and so on, that the dog is trained and is used to that kind of behavior.

Jenn:  That’s a common misconception.  So we never want a dog to get used to those behaviors.

Kristin:  Okay!

Jenn:  We try to really keep baby and dog pretty separate until baby is old enough to have the skills to use gentle touches and to understand canine body language and parental direction to move away from the dog.  You know, dogs will often tolerate being pulled on and climbed on for a very long time until they can’t tolerate it anymore, and that’s unfortunately when we see bites happen.  So, yeah, a lot of people think, how do I train my dog to tolerate baby in the food bowl or to tolerate baby climbing on him, and that’s not ever a goal that we have.  It’s not fair to baby and it’s not fair to the dog.  You might have the world’s most tolerant dog, but if you teach your child that it’s okay to climb on a dog, and your child then climbs on another person’s dog who is not so tolerant, you could really be setting your kiddo up for failure.

Kristin:  What about families who have a toddler at home and then all of a sudden, especially during COVID, want to transition a puppy into the home?  So instead of bringing a new baby in, how does that work?

Jenn:  It really kind of depends on the toddler and on the family.  There’s so many different variables there.  But I think if  have a family with young kids and they’re thinking about adding a puppy to the home, I think it’s important to know that puppies are not a blank slate.  So it’s not all in how you raise them.  Just like with people, personalities are the product of both genetic predetermination and early husbandry.  So you might be tempted to rescue a puppy that’s coming up from a shelter in Texas that came up on a rescue train, thinking that at 8 weeks old, you can mold that puppy into your baby’s best friend, and that’s not usually the case.  More often than not, those puppies that are coming from rescue, while they can be wonderful companions, probably not the very safest choice for a family with toddlers because we don’t know what kind of trauma they’ve been through.  And we don’t know what their adult temperaments will look like.  So while I love rescue — I have rescue dogs myself, and I came to training through rescue — if you’ve got toddlers and you’re thinking about a puppy, probably best to find a puppy from a reputable breeder.  And that’s a whole trick in and of itself in this day and age.  With the internet, people can go online and think they’re dealing with a reputable breeder and found out later on down the road perhaps they weren’t.  So reputable breeders will have you out to visit the parents, at least the mom.  The mom will be outgoing, come up and want to hang out with you, be seeking petting, will be seeking petting from your children, will be engaging with you.  The puppy should be raised in the household.  They should never come home before 8 weeks.  We know that early maternal separation causes a lot of anxiety and can be one of the bases for aggression later in life.  And, you know, we want puppies to be clean and healthy and also outgoing.  It’s normal for puppies to be bouncy and excited and engaging with you and happy.  A little bit less normal for a puppy to just kind of sit back and watch quietly.  Oftentimes, that’s an indication that the puppy’s a little bit fearful.  So you want that bouncy, happy, snuggly puppy.

Kristin:  My kids are wanting a puppy, so I’ll have to chat with you offline sometime about breeders.

Jenn:  Yeah, and I was going to say, probably your best bet is to find a trainer who has the same philosophy as you do and have them help direct you toward breeders that they see having puppies with really great temperaments for kids because it is really challenging for a dog to live with a toddler, because toddlers just — you know, they don’t have great control over how hard they’re pulling on tails or how they’re moving and running around.  And so you really want a puppy who not only tolerate that but really is drawn to and thrives on the company of children.

Kristin:  Jenn, can you walk us through what a typical group class would look like and preparing families for the baby?  So they have an existing dog, and they want to do an in-person group class.  What would that look like?

Jenn:  Yeah.  So I think our in-person group classes that you would bring a dog to are really basic skills classes.  Those are skills that are designed to teach your dog to go lie down on a bed, walk nicely on a leash, come when he’s called.  We do offer workshops and seminars for getting ready for baby, and those are really designed for parents.  And typically what we’ll do is we’ll bring in a Family Paws certified parent educator.  It’s a fantastic organization.  You can check them out online.  And they have a whole Dogs & Storks or Dogs & Toddlers program that’s geared toward setting families up for success with babies.  We’re hoping to do one of those this spring, if we can make that happen.  It might end up having to be virtual.   But if we’re working specifically with a particular dog and setting that particular dog up for success in a family that’s adding children, we really like to do that on a one-on-one basis because every dog is so different, and their capabilities and sensitivities are so different, and every family is so different.  That really needs to be catered to one-on-one.  You know, even my own dogs, each would need something different in order to adjust to a new person coming into the house, so it’s not really something that we can do well in just a group class.  Things we’re going to think about are, you know, where does your dog eat?  Where does your dog sleep?  Do we need to change that to accommodate baby?  Is your dog crate trained?  Is your dog comfortable going behind a baby gate?  How does your dog do with noises?  Do we need to do some counter-conditioning with baby crying sounds?  You know, does your dog currently sleep on the couch?  Is that going to be a safe spot for your dog to sleep when baby comes home, or do we need to transition your dog to his own dog bed?  So it’s really individualized I guess is what I’m saying.

Kristin:  So it seems like it would be best in person, ideally, in their home?  But potentially also virtually?

Jenn:  We can do them in-home; we can do them virtually; we can do them at our facility.  A lot of it is kind of taking a history and finding out where you’ve been with your dog, what you’ve done already, what your dog knows, what your dog is sensitive to, and then constructing a plan that’s individualized for you and your dog.  So I’d say about the first third of that session is taking a history and finding out how we can best help you and then coming up with a plan specifically for you and your dog.

Kristin:  I am so excited to chat with you about a project that Alyssa and I have been working on during the pandemic.  We took this time and pivoted, as many businesses have, and decided it was the time to launch some online programming to better serve expecting families.  So our first step in that first stage is we created a download for you about how to birth confidently in a pandemic.  We also have a free course coming up on both February 23rd and 26th, and you can find all of this at our new website,

Kristin:  Do you have tips for our listeners who are planning a home birth and have strangers, essentially, entering the home between, say, doulas and family members and midwives?  Have you encountered that situation with clients in preparing a dog or multiple dogs for that situation?

Jenn:  Absolutely.  You know, I think if you’re planning a home birth and you’re concerned about strangers coming into your home, we probably need to talk more about how to help your dog when baby comes home, too, because that tells me that your dog probably has some fears and anxieties that we need to deal with.  So I don’t think that’s the primary concern.  Hopefully, if you’re at a point where you are planning a home birth and baby’s coming, your dog is very comfortable with people coming in and out of the house.  If not, we’re going to need to come up with a management plan for the birth and probably a pretty comprehensive behavior modification plan for your dog because when we see a dog who’s uncomfortable with people coming and going in the house, that tells me that the dog is pretty anxious.

Kristin:  Yes.  I have encountered that at some births I’ve attended.

Jenn:  Yeah.  So I think if you know that your dog is anxious around people coming and going, oftentimes I’ll recommend that if you have a parent or a friend who can keep your dog for the birth or maybe board your dog, even, so that you don’t have — you know, it’s stressful enough.  Our dogs are so in tune to our moods and how we’re doing.  It’s stressful enough for them to see us in discomfort.  Adding strangers coming and going is probably too much.  So if you have a dog who’s at all concerned about that, I think it’s probably best to board them for the birth or have, like I said, a parent take care of them.  I know I wasn’t lucky enough to have a home birth, but my mom came and took care of our dogs while we were in the hospital when my son was born.

Kristin:  And that’s a big planning factor for the majority of our clients who birth in the hospital and planning — you know, not knowing when you’ll go into labor, most of the time; who will take care of the dog; who do you call, what’s the best resource.  Having someone come in the home or boarding.

Jenn:  And I recommend whoever’s going to be that person, that they do — if it’s not somebody who’s already known to your dog, that you do several visits with the person prior to baby’s arrival so that your dog is comfortable with that person, you know, if they need to come in when you’re not home.  Sometimes dog can be very friendly when their owner is home, but when someone comes in the home and no one else is there, they get a little worried, justifiably.

Kristin:  Sure.  Protective.  Yes, of course.

Jenn:  So I think it’s good to have a good, established relationship with them.  If you’re going to board your dog, you may need to still have a trusted friend or family member take your dog to the boarding facility.  Not very many of them will pick them up for you.  I don’t know this for certain, but places like Nature of the Dog — our friends, Nature of the Dog, do dog walking, but they also have an in-home boarding facility.  Maybe an organization that does something like that might be able to help.

Kristin:  And so they would have the availability, potentially, for 24/7 call if someone is in labor at 2:00 a.m. and they need —

Jenn:  I don’t know about 24/7 call.  I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a dog care organization that could do 24/7, but certainly if dog is at home and you’re in the hospital, it’s not typically emergent for them to get out right away.  But, you know, you could say, hey, here’s my plan.  Can I send a text to your organization and see if the sitter can come and pick them up the next day early in the morning or what have you?

Kristin:  Sure.  That makes sense.

Jenn:  I can’t speak for other organizations, but I imagine that if you have a good relationship with your dog walker or dog sitter, or certainly with a friend or family member, you could probably arrange that.

Kristin:  What other tips do you have for new parents when it comes to planning with their existing dog versus getting a new puppy?

Jenn:  I think, you know, the biggest thing is really to — we want to keep things safe.  We want to set everybody up for success and not just expect everybody to get along.  So if you know that your dog’s got some anxiety, let’s start treating that anxiety right away.  It’s typically best to start with training with positive reinforcement, and sometimes if the anxiety is severe, we work with your vet, too, to kind of come at it from a collaborative approach.  And we want to keep things super, super safe.  So don’t count on your dog tolerating things because I think that that’s when we really run into trouble.  The vast majority of the time, kids and dogs do wonderfully together, but it always takes careful planning and supervision to make sure that everybody is okay and happy and not hurting each other on accident.

Kristin:  Great tips!  How can our listeners reach out to you?  I’d love to get your website info, as well as — I know you’re very active on social media.  Share away!

Jenn:  Thanks very much!  We have a website.  Our telephone number, because we have one of those, is 616-264-2532.  And we are on Instagram and Facebook at A Pleasant Dog.

Kristin:  Thank you so much, Jenn.  It was great to chat with you, and I appreciate all the tips.  We’ll chat later about my kids’ puppy preferences!