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Please Don't Bite the Baby (and Please Don't Chase the Dogs)
Keeping Our Kids and Our Dogs Safe and Happy Together
By Lisa Edwards
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CHAPTER ONECHAPTER ONE
The Ruff Wait for a BabyThe Ruff Wait for a Baby
Before I had any notion I would have a baby in my life, I frequently worked with clients whose dogs’ behavioral problems fell into the dog-baby or dog-toddler category. I remember one smart Schipperke in particular. She was the only dog who ever figured out how to unzip my treat bag—a red flag. She was too smart, enthusiastic, and driven.
I asked the parents if anything had changed in her life when the baby arrived. They said no and then outlined the dog’s issues: “She jumps up on the kitchen chairs and begs for food at the table. She growls and bites at us when we push her off. She won’t get off the bed, and she barks and growls at the baby when he’s playing.”
I asked a little more and they said, “We always used to let her sit on the chairs and feed her at the table . . . then the baby came, and we stopped that.” Clearly, they didn’t realize they had actually changed a lot.
I watched how their son played around the dog. Pushing a toy lawn mower that made a scary noise, he chased the ten-pound dog around the apartment while Mom and Dad laughed, until the Schipperke turned on the menacing lawn mower and growled. Then they yelled at the dog.
This dog’s life had been turned upside-down when the baby appeared and went from bad, when so many things in her life had changed, to scary, when the little boy was allowed to frighten her daily. It’s hard to tell parents that their baby is tormenting their dog, and it is even harder to help people realize and accept that they and their child have contributed to their dog’s dangerous behavior. I struggled to convince these parents that allowing their son to do whatever he wanted to with this dog was dangerous. In the end, management, training, and guidance allowed them to keep the little dog they loved with them through a second child and beyond.
Without the realization that we as parents have to protect our dogs from our babies in order to protect our babies from our dogs, we may find ourselves facing one of the worst choices in our lives—between the safety of our baby and the life of our dog.
With a bit of mindfulness and preparation, most of us can avoid ever having to make this choice.
FOR THE FIRST TEN YEARS of our marriage, my husband, Lawrence, was opposed to having children. We both knew the statistics regarding abuse passing from one generation to the next, and unfortunately both of us experienced childhood abuse, which I detailed in A Dog Named Boo: The Underdog with a Heart of Gold. I was hopeful that years of learning to understand our upbringings, along with our slightly oddball sense of humor, would allow us to break the cycle, but Lawrence was not convinced. “It would be when it would be” was my refrain and, meanwhile, my dogs offered me an outlet for my mothering instincts.
Atticus, my first dog, was there for me before my husband entered the picture—in fact, Atticus introduced me to Lawrence. The first words I said to Lawrence were, “What are you doing to my dog?” I walked in on him trying to engage Atticus in a chase game with the Baby Dino-Roar—one of the many dog toys scattered around the office. Atticus was happily complying, which meant Lawrence was on Atticus’s approved list.
I will always be grateful to Atticus for introducing me to my husband and for bringing me through some of the darker times of my life as I processed my past. I learned lessons from that devoted dog I never learned from my human family—how to love unconditionally and without being violated. After finding me my husband, Atticus seemed to conspire with Lawrence to find Dante at a dog run in the East Village. Not usually a big player at dog parks, Atticus was actively playing with the emaciated yet gregarious and joyful Dante. Between bouts of play, Atticus would return to my spot on the bench as if to check in and Dante would follow him. At each of these check-ins Atticus, Dante, and Lawrence would all employ their big begging eyes in support of Lawrence’s case for bringing Dante home with us. A few years later, I found Boo when I stumbled upon his litter one fateful Halloween. They had been dumped outside a pet store that could best be compared to the shop from the Stephen King novel, Needful Things. This pet store, like Stephen King’s store, disappeared without a trace a month after I found Boo.
These three dogs walked me through a learning and growth process in a way that demands my eternal gratitude. After Atticus pulled me out of a deep, dark hole and taught me how to love, Dante taught me how to be joyful and guided me toward a newfound confidence. Boo was able to heal the last of my old wounds as he worked his magic, not only on Lawrence and me, but also on the thousands of strangers he visited during the years he worked with me as a therapy dog.
Boo’s patience and gentleness with children allowed me to take him to visit kids in schools, libraries, and hospitals. In addition, he visited adults with developmental disabilities and seniors in nursing homes. Our work with kids simultaneously soothed my need for my own child while highlighting the emptiness I felt.
While Boo and I were visiting children, Lawrence was percolating on the subject of kids. Boo had cerebellar hypoplasia, a neurological condition that caused him difficulty in walking and learning and affected his vision. At first, these needs pushed Lawrence’s buttons. But as he began to accept Boo and learn to be patient, Lawrence realized that he was not the same as his biological father had been and maybe, given the chance, he could be a very different parent. Lawrence has a singular approach to change, best illustrated by the now semi-legendary dishwasher episode.
“We don’t need a dishwasher,” he said. “I’m a dishwasher.”
I made my case, failed to convince him, and installed the dishwasher anyway. Within a month, Lawrence said, “I love this dishwasher!”
While I was used to this approach for mundane matters, I never expected him to wake up one morning and tell me out of the blue, “We should have a child.”
By the time he did, Atticus was gone and his successor, Porthos, was already four years old. Boo had been visiting with different schoolchildren and seniors and doing library reading visits for almost six years. My dog-training business was doing well. Dante was slowing down with age, and a cat we later named Freya had literally fallen out of a tree and moved in with us. Our animals had taught us we could parent with love and patience, but our bodies were not cooperating as we struggled to become pregnant. Lawrence and I were wildly unsuccessful at producing a child on our own, even with intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF) using donor eggs. After our last IVF ended in miscarriage, we realized it was time to adopt a child who needed us as much as we wanted him or her.
On some levels, the process of adopting a child was easier than infertility treatments: no daily shots, no blood tests. I could have coffee and chocolate along with a glass of wine with dinner and have no guilt over having too much stress in my life. On other levels, it was also much harder: we were expected to put ourselves into a fifteen- to twenty-page catalogue (the profile) with pictures of us, our family, and our home, along with exciting descriptions, to entice a birth mother or parents to pick us over the thousands of other couples wishing to start a family. The process was like waiting to hear your name called for a game of elementary school kickball—only this was the most important game of our lives.
As uncomfortable and challenging as it was to advertise ourselves, it became even more difficult when the adoption caseworker demanded I eliminate everything about the dogs from our profile except a brief paragraph.
“It shouldn’t be so much about the dogs,” she said.
I wanted to explain that my life was all about dogs, and if we had to sell ourselves like a time-share I needed to be comfortable with what we included. Instead I just said, “I work with dogs, I volunteer with dogs, and we have dogs. They need to be represented in the profile.”
Throwing in the towel, she replied, “Of course, it’s your profile and you can do what you like. We just know dogs are not a selling point.”
These dogs were my children when I had none and they were there to comfort me through various challenges in my life. They had been the greatest teachers I had ever had. I was a full-time dog trainer and behavioral consultant: dogs were my work and our primary source of income, and the volunteer animal-assisted therapy I did with them was my passion. The dogs were going to be a part of our child’s life, and it was important for the birth parents to love dogs as much as I did, especially if a love of dogs had any genetic component. It was also critical for the birth parents to understand the extent to which our child would be exposed to dogs, in case of a genetic predisposition to allergies. Our child would truly be enveloped in dogs from the very beginning. With my usual damn-the-torpedoes approach, I included the dogs in the profile—on several pages.
The adoption agency indicated that the normal wait time to be chosen was anywhere from three months to three years. With many of the staff reiterating that dogs should not be in the profile because it would turn off birth parents and they would look to another couple, who knew how much longer it would take for us with the inclusion of the dogs in our profile? The wide time frame made it hard to gauge when to begin training my dogs for a baby. Ideally, training the dog should begin as soon as a woman finds out she is pregnant—allowing about eight months to proof the initial skills and to begin desensitizing the dog to some of the stranger baby gizmos like newborn car seats that may be carried at the dog’s eye level, toys that beep or sing, automated swings that seem to move on their own, and crying sounds coming from a baby monitor. We know it is just the sound of the baby amplified from another room, but what does the dog think? It is usually a good idea to pair these items with fun games, meals, or treats so they learn to love—not fear—these items. I didn’t worry about Dante and Boo with baby gadgets—they had both seen so many different items on therapy visits that they were pretty solid. However, Porthos could be an anxious dog, so I wanted to do some work with him on these toys and contraptions.
It was also time for me to assess my dogs’ basic commands, including sit, down, stay, wait, settle, and come. Dante and Porthos were dead-on in terms of their general commands and the all-important settles, while Boo was average. His love of kids made up for it and with age his settles were becoming much better.
Even though my dogs had good basic skills, there is always room to improve before a baby comes home. With the caseworker’s words—“Dogs are just not a selling point”—repeating in my head, I had very little faith that any birth parents would pick us. Because of the nagging feeling that it would be a long wait, I couldn’t bring myself to start the proofing or desensitizing for the baby thingamajigs. Instead, I worked skills at a distance so I could give the dogs commands from across the room or from another room, and I reminded them of their group commands so I could give them cues like, “All dogs, sit” or “All dogs, down.” This prevents doggie Whac-A-Mole, in which one dog complies when he hears his name and the others break, thinking they are done (and around it goes!). In a household without a baby, doggie Whac-A-Mole is annoying, but with a baby in the home it becomes potentially dangerous and tiresome for already exhausted parents. I reminded myself that all three of my dogs had passed their Pet Partners therapy dog evaluations—they were pretty good dogs. But, as in so many cases, too much knowledge isn’t always a comfort. I knew from years as a dog trainer that dogs don’t generalize well. I could not assume that because they were good on visits, they would be okay with automatic baby paraphernalia, or a real live crying baby in their home. Many good dogs have made horrible mistakes with children.
At the beginning of the first year of our wait, Dante let us know his time had come. At thirteen years old, and after two strokes and a cancer diagnosis, he needed to rest. We let him go with the help of my friend Julie, who euthanized him in his favorite spot in our backyard while other friends came to support us.
Just before he passed away, I asked him to come back next time as something a bit smaller. I said, “Maybe Beagle-sized.”
Later that day, I was certain Dante sent me a sign when, after cleaning vegetables, I went out to discard the scraps in the woods for the critters. There, about six feet from where I was standing, was a brown bear—looking at me. I said, “Hello there,” and he looked at me as if thinking for a second and then casually romped off into the woods. Dante’s markings had always resembled a Kodiak bear’s, and there was no question in my mind that this was his farewell. I wanted to believe it meant he’d be back.
Two months later, a pregnant dog came into the shelter where I consult. I didn’t think much about it until I looked at her eyes and saw her eyeliner—identical to Dante’s. The shelter president told me that apparently the mama-dog had been tied up in her yard when a roving Beagle took an interest and, voila, the pups were on their way. Dante was a very literal dog and, since Boo, I have been driven by signs and portents when choosing my dogs.
I was at the shelter the day this mama-dog gave birth to seven of the cutest puppies—six girls and one boy. I was overjoyed at the prospect of having a girl-dog for once. Lawrence, Boo, and Porthos all picked the fluffy little girl-dog we named Callie when I was fostering all seven puppies at home during the holidays. As this was the first litter I had raised from birth in the shelter and fostered at home, I was devastated when they came down with parvovirus (a highly contagious deadly disease). The boy-dog responded to home treatment, but the girls were all admitted to intensive care. After ten days, we were able to bring our fluffy, tiny Callie home. A week later she had a massive seizure and died in my arms on the way to the emergency vet.
Lawrence and I were averaging a death every six months—first my miscarriage, then Dante, and then Callie. We needed to break the pattern, and all Lawrence could say was, “We have to take Pinball.”
Pinball was the only puppy from that litter not adopted—the only boy. I reminded Lawrence that Pinball was trouble. He was an extremely high-energy, seemingly jet-fueled, pushy puppy who lacked confidence but played hard, jumped high, and howled like a Beagle. Neither Porthos nor Boo was keen on him. Was this Dante? Was there a reason Pinball was destined for us? The answers to these questions didn’t matter. We were both too emotional to do anything other than adopt Pinball—we needed some joy.
If all the Impressionist painters got together and created the quintessential image of a dog, it would be Pinball. With his long flowing fringe that billows in the breeze, floppy orange ears, and big-eyed innocent face, he exuded cute. Social with dogs and people, he was extremely quick to learn commands and very willing to try new things. But as he matured, his fears began to surface and his resource guarding (fiercely guarding objects), which started early, was off the charts. He bit Lawrence (no puncture) when he was only four months old over the squeaker from a toy. We were well into the adoption process at this point, but no baby was on the horizon. I worked with Pinball, hoping to win the race between fixing his behavior and introducing a baby into the household.
Pinball went to classes with me and eagerly learned tricks, and his resource guarding was improving. But he was young and still had a few developmental periods to go through. Dogs, like children, have pretty well established developmental milestones. Just as children have their terrible twos and adolescence, dogs have five stages that typically come with increased fears and the potential social anxiety or avoidance that goes with them. I would have to work hard with Pinball to be sure these fear-periods didn’t result in an adult fear-aggressive dog who was also a resource guarder. It was going to take a lot of management and oversight, along with training, to keep a baby safe while keeping the dogs we loved.
We had put up gates so I could allow Pinball and Porthos to safely adjust to each other and I could begin some of the baby prep work like training them to obey commands over gates, at a distance, and from other rooms, as well as go-to-place commands to easily send the dogs to a specific spot. Because the gates were see-through, the dogs could be apart but not totally isolated, and I could work multiple dogs simultaneously (on either side of the gates) to build positive associations and good relationships between them as they worked, played, and were rewarded together. I would use the same technique once baby arrived, except I would be with the baby on one side of the gate while I gave commands and rewards to the dogs on the other side of the gate. This would allow the dogs to work around the baby safely, letting them get to know him or her up close but with boundaries.
At the end of the first year of our wait, it was time for our second annual home study. In that meeting, the social worker asked if we were frustrated by the wait and seemed to brace herself for the response she expected. I told her the wait was much like the day Dallas ran off with me. Dallas was a colossal horse who apparently needed a break from the group ride we were on and the fact that I was on his back was no more a hindrance to him than the flies around his ears. Without warning, his body jerked and I launched. I pulled back on the behemoth’s reins to no effect, except that I think his horsey ears flipped me off. I could do nothing but try to stay on him. I believed he would stop at some point; then I could figure out the next step—get off, call for help, and so on.
I had never galloped before, so staying on was a struggle. I clenched my legs around his girth, and locked my hands on the saddle. Eventually Dallas did stop and I heard hoof beats behind me as Cowboy Bob arrived with a laugh and said, “That was pretty good. Most folks would have fallen off a quarter mile ago.”
I had only enough air for a short reply, and said, “Falling was not an option.”
The process of waiting for a birth mother or parents to pick us was like staying on Dallas—it was the only option. The lesson that horse taught me that day was a powerful gift that allowed me to live through our adoption wait without the aggravation that often accompanies it.
Still afraid that if I began desensitizing the dogs to baby thingamajigs I would jinx everything, I focused instead on my business—teaching dog-training classes and meeting with clients. I wrote a memoir about the therapy work Boo and I did together in A Dog Named Boo. I taught Pinball to settle under my desk as I typed. I redesigned Lawrence’s office, creating a custom hand-made wall unit that had cubbies and drawers for great storage as a nursery or an upgraded study, depending on how things went. Because my tools were limited, I joked with friends that it was like catering a wedding with an Easy-Bake Oven. The complications of this project kept me focused on what I could control, while my doubts about the outcome of our adoption quest were intensified by the agency’s statement that we would probably parent an “instant baby.” This is a situation in which a birth mother delivers a baby without an adoption plan in place. When the agency is called, they call the next adoptive couple in line—usually well after a couple has exhausted the three-year wait. An instant baby usually leaves the adoptive parents with one or two days’ notice to get to the hospital and pick up their child. The anxiety of possibly having to leave at a moment’s notice was compounded by all the moving pieces of our life. Who would drop everything to come take care of our dogs if we had to leave in a moment’s notice? Who would give Porthos his insulin injections twice a day? Who would handle the nutty Pinball or gently steer Boo through the outside door, up and down the stairs off the deck to the yard, and up and down the thirteen steps to our bedroom where he slept at night?
At the beginning of year two, we had what the agency calls a fall-through, in which a birth mother or birth parents begin the adoption process but change their minds, deciding either to parent or choose another couple. In our case they chose to parent. This process, which the agency acknowledged would include at least one or two fall-throughs for each adoptive couple, seemed designed to diminish hope; so at the end of year two when we received an email stating that another couple was interested in our profile, we were very cautious. We had three months to be completely ready for a baby, or not. This was not the instant baby the agency had predicted. Somebody out there did like us!
Uncertainty, anxiety, and guarded hope permeated everything. Lawrence and I had multiple debates: Do we cancel our vacation? Who will take care of all the dogs—not just for a couple of days, but potentially three weeks or more? What do I tell my students when I have to cancel classes for an unspecified period of time? Do we prepare at all given the fact that the birth mother would have seven days after we had custody of the baby in which to change her mind? Do we buy baby paraphernalia yet?
We bought a car seat. Everything else could wait.
Those three months were the longest and shortest months of our lives. We spoke at length to the birth parents and cashed in all our miles to fly down to meet them for lunch so they could get a sense of us and be sure we were the right couple for their adoption plan. We came to know and like them—and, in an ironic twist, it was the home with pets to which they were drawn because we cherished animals as much as they did. I chuckled as I remembered the caseworker’s words: it turned out it was all about the dogs.
Just when I was hopeful, the caseworker called to say that a relative of the birth mother was worried about the dogs and the baby. She had asked the caseworker, “Will her dogs accept the baby?”
There had been two horrible news items about babies who had been fatally attacked by dogs, one not too far from where the inquiring relative lived.
All I could say was, “It’s never about if the dogs will be okay—that thinking leads to trouble. The real question should be, ‘Are the parents prepared to introduce the dogs and the baby slowly and happily, and are they prepared to manage the dogs around the baby to maintain safety?’”
I knew that answer, while correct, was not what the relative was looking for—and that this conversation could potentially mark the end of the adoption plan.
Was she right to ask? I couldn’t even count the number of calls and emails I received from frazzled parents (or grandparents) that read almost exactly the same way: “My son or daughter just brought home their first baby. Their ten-year-old dog acted aggressively toward the baby, but no harm done. Can they avoid having to get rid of the dog?” Or, “Our daughter has just started toddling and our dog growled at her yesterday. Can we keep the dog?” Some of the clients I heard from chose to try to work things out. But many gave up and found a shelter or rescue, re-homed the dog with friends or relatives, or euthanized the dog.
Often folks will say, “It’s easy for you—you’re a trainer!”
The reality is that my being a behavioral professional may actually make things harder. My understanding of dog behaviors and triggers makes it illogical for me to penalize them for any mistakes they make because of fear, anxiety, or things we humans may have done to aggravate the situation. And no matter how good a trainer I might be, I was faced with a houseful of complicated dogs. This leveled the playing field: a home with one easygoing dog plus a novice handler was equal to my home with three complicated dogs and one cat plus a professional—or some kind of similar math. It was not going to be any easier for me just because I was a trainer.
Boo, at fourteen, affectionate yet often confused and almost completely blind, could be a hazard to himself and others as he felt his way around the house, bumping into everyone and everything.
Porthos—smart, friendly, but sometimes suspicious of men—had injured every other pet who lived in our house. Would he make the distinction between a human baby and another pet? What do dogs think of human babies? Making an amazing observation, Lawrence once said, “I bet to the dogs we seem immortal. It probably looks like we don’t age at all while they go through their whole lifetimes, from puppies to old dogs, with us changing very little in that time.”
Dogs who watch children grow up may have a better sense of the human process and most dogs probably figure it out, but I cannot say with certainty that dogs understand what a human baby is right away. Human babies don’t walk, talk, or even smell like adults, and from a dog’s perspective they probably don’t look anything like adults. It’s hard to believe that a dog will look at the human baby and say, “That’s a little person. He looks nothing like a big person—he can’t even touch the top of his head—but yep, that’s a little person. . . .”
I hoped that Porthos would not see the new baby as another pet. And even if he did understand the concept of a baby, we also had to contend with his medical and psychological issues that triggered his worst behaviors. Both Porthos’s diabetes and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) came with mood swings and anxiety that could start a cascade of behaviors that sometimes resulted in redirected aggression. As a result, Porthos required a high level of daily oversight.
- On Sale
- Nov 17, 2015
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Seal Press