The recent news that a family dog attacked and killed a newborn in suburban Calgary was obviously horrifying for the baby’s parents, but it also shocked the rest of the community, the province and the country. The dog had reportedly never shown any signs of aggression toward the family, including their other child, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy. Something so tragic is simply hard to imagine. But should it have been?
It’s not the first—and, unfortunately, likely not the last — time a dog has inexplicably mauled and/or taken the life of a child. In 2010, the same breed of dog, a husky, also with no history of violent tendencies, killed a three-week-old baby. While such incidents are rare (statistics show a baby is much more likely to be killed by a relative than by a dog), they do happen. The fact is, according to the SPCA, aggression is a normal behaviour in dogs, and fear often manifests as aggression. It’s how they communicate, especially when they feel threatened. It’s the responsibility of the owners to manage that fear and aggression, to make their pet feel protected and safe so these traits do not lead to tragic consequences.
By all accounts, it appears this family did everything right: they had attended seminars at the local humane society on how to introduce a new baby into the home; they had sent their dog to training and obedience classes; the dog was in her crate when the baby was brought home. In addition, the infant’s parents are very accustomed to dogs — they own a canine supply business and have four Siberian huskies, none of whom they said had ever displayed any aggressive tendencies. Despite all this, the beloved family dog inexplicably and, most likely inadvertently, killed a newborn. A family friend went as far as to say he believed the dog, a female who had delivered four litters, was attempting to comfort the crying infant when she clamped her teeth around his little head.
“We will never know what [she] was thinking,” said the couple of their dog, who remained in quarantine awaiting its fate.* In fact, as tame and domesticated as family pets appear, there often remains a wild streak that causes them to behave in unexpected ways. All anyone can do, short of never allowing babies and dogs to share a home, is to be as well-prepared as possible, and to remain on high alert every second the two are in the same room.
PAUSE THE PAWS
The first step to warding off disaster is, of course, to recognize the signs of fearful and aggressive behaviours. If a dog cowers, tucks his tail between his legs, and flattens his ears, those are pretty good indications he’s afraid. If he bares his teeth, snarls, stares, stiffens and raises his hackles, he’s aggressive and an attack could be imminent. Many people mistake a wagging tail for friendliness, but it’s how a dog moves his tail that tells the tale. A high wag means excitability, and not in a good way, particularly if the dog is stiff and staring. A mid-level wag, especially coupled with a smile, is a good sign.
It’s vital to nip bad behaviour in the bud before the nip turns into an all-out bite, or worse. Dogs need to be properly trained and socialized, and never more so than when sharing a house with children. If you aren’t 100 per cent in control of your dog at all times, it’s crucial that you learn to be long before you introduce a baby into the home (if you’re unable to commit the time, consider consulting an expert to train your dog for you). The SPCA stresses that children should never be left unsupervised with dogs, until they are old enough to understand how dogs can react when startled or confused. And few things are more unpredictable or confusing to a dog than a baby. They look differently from adults, they make sudden movements and loud noises (crying), they even smell unlike anything they may have encountered. In fact, many behaviour experts claim that most dogs aren’t even sure what a baby is, or if it’s even a person.
It’s up to you as the owner to teach your dog how to behave, what is acceptable and what is not. And the first step when bringing a new baby home is to head off any potential problems with the dog by removing the element of surprise. Some experts, including Cesar Millan, aka The Dog Whisperer, recommend preparing the dog for the new arrival by first introducing the baby’s scent. Bring home a piece of the newborn’s clothing and let the dog smell it, preferably from a distance while you hold the item. This shows the dog you have ownership of it, that you control it, and that you are giving him permission to sniff it. It also conveys to the dog that he must follow the rules associated with it (and its wearer), i.e., approaching and smelling it only when you give the green light.
When the dog finally meets the baby, it’s important to keep a positive, calm, quiet energy during the introduction. As Millan routinely says, a dog mirrors our own emotions. If we are anxious, upset or worried, so will your dog be. In fact, Millan recommends that, before that first introduction, take Fido for a long, vigorous walk, so that most of his energy (and excitability) is drained. He believes it’s preferable for the parent and baby to already be in the home when the dog returns. After he’s exercised, he will be in a calm-submissive state and able to handle the encounter much better. Having previously been introduced to the baby’s smell through its clothing, he will know something is new, but familiar and unthreatening.
The dog should never be allowed to touch, lick or even smell the baby at close range. A dog has a powerful sense of smell — he can detect the baby from across the room — he doesn’t need to be within licking distance. In fact, a dog’s senses are so acute, he will already know of a pregnancy. He might not understand exactly what that means, but he knows something is up.
Once the dog accepts the baby, that’s not the end of your responsibility; in fact, it’s only the beginning. Constant vigilance is vital. Experts insist you never leave the dog and baby alone together, even for a minute. If the baby plays or crawls on the floor, remove the dog to another room. The dog should not perceive this as punishment, however. Ideally someone should spend at least part of the time in the other room with him. Or leave him with a treat, his favourite toy or blanket so he doesn’t feel he’s been banished. He should, however, be banished from the baby’s room. Condition your dog to respect that boundary even before you bring your baby home.
KID’S BEST FRIEND
As your child grows, it’s now up to her to learn a few rules, boundaries and limitations. Teach your tot to never hit the dog, pull his fur or tail, etc., especially if the pet is older or suffers from arthritis or another painful ailment. It’s never too early to encourage mutual respect between dog and baby.
Experts claim that dogs don’t feel jealousy, but they will feel territorial or threatened if they suspect the changes in their environment will affect them negatively. It’s important to maintain your routines: continue to walk and play with your pooch, give him the usual affection and attention, and, most important, consistent leadership. Once he realizes he’s still top dog, he will begin to relax and accept the new addition. With time, effort and patience, your dog will not see your new baby as an enemy, but as a friend for life. — By Robin Roberts
*Update: Shortly after I published this piece, the family announced that, despite offers of adoption from across the country, they decided to have their dog put down.