Minds of Animals

The cognitive abilities of non-human animals

Introducing a newborn to a dog -- or a dog to a newborn

Our dog meets the new squeaky toy in the house: a baby.

Nine weeks ago I left the house one day and returned the next with our newborn son. From our young dog's point of view, this was a very surprising occurrence. Though I had been pregnant for forty-one weeks, our pup had seemed unaffected by the gradual change in my body and behavior -- and the presumably immediate change in my odor. By contrast, the infant child I brought into our home smelled delightful, and behaved quite unusually, to go by the dog's reaction. (It was at this point that we re-considered our purchasing of so many squeaking dog toys: while hugely enjoyed, the enjoyment took the form of "tearing the toy until the squeaker comes out, and the squeaking stops". Now we had brought a live squeaker into the house...)

I recently published a book, Inside of a dog, using the results of scientific research to imagine a dog's point of view. None of the studies of dog behavior and cognition that I have done, or that I discuss in the book, deal with what dogs think of the introduction of a newborn child into their lives. But I was especially interested in what our dog was thinking -- and, of course, in how to introduce him to my son in order to ensure the start to a safe, rewarding kind of siblinghood of my two charges.

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That researchers have not tackled this subjects is not to say that it is undiscussed: behaviorists and dog trainers have many recommendations on how to best, and safely, introduce a newborn to your dog. Steven Lindsay, for example, writes in his terrific Handbook of applied dog behavior and training that a new mother should enter the house without the baby, first, to dispel any over-excitement; then to give the dog a number of items with the baby's odor on them for the dog to smell -- while rewarding the dog with treats.

We followed some of this guidance, and I entered our home first, without my son. After a long happy greeting, I brought our dog outside, where he met the new kid in the house. After the excitement had died down, we all went inside. And here is where we diverged from the recommendations. I know that my dog gets especially interested in objects held out of his reach. To hold an object up and say "no" to him is to invite jumping. I can hardly fault him for that: look how I am taunting him with an object just out of reach! So we decided not to put my child out of reach of the dog. We all sat on the ground together. The dog sniffed and licked and sniffed and licked. We kept the energy level low, and wrapped up the episode before anyone got irrepressibly excited.

The result? Our child is just starting to acknowledge the dog, by turning and sometimes even widening his eyes and grinning. Our dog is continually interested in the child, but rarely too interested. He stays near us -- closer than before -- but makes no untoward move to pull out the child's squeaker.

This is not a recommendation that everyone follow my strategy. What I do recommend to someone who finds herself in this position is to try to imagine her own dog's tendencies, and how he reacts to new objects, to new people, to unusual behavior and sounds. Follow the advice of behaviorists that rings truest. And attend ever more to your dog in those weeks after the introduction: as with an older sibling, his world has changed, and he is looking to you to define it anew.

Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., is a Term Assistant Professor of Psychology at Barnard College and the author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.

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