New Mexico's Pet ResourceSPRING 2003


BEHAVIOR Q&A

WHICH SHOULD COME FIRST--
THE BABY OR THE DOG?

by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Questions concerning dogs and babies arrive in my email frequently. The emails are of two types. One type comes from young couples who are interested in adopting a dog. The other is from young couples who have adopted a dog, and who now have a young baby and dog problems. The following is from an actual email I received (name is changed), and is typical of the problem.

"We adopted Muffin about 3 years ago. She has been the love of our lives and until we had our first child (18 months ago), she was our baby. But of course, with the birth of a child, everything gets shuffled and the amount of time spent with Muffin has diminished. She is a very good girl, very good-natured with our son and has always been well behaved. I think that between work, children and household chores, Muffin has become more of a burden than a love. She's constantly underfoot, begs for food, rips any kind of plastic bag (when we're not home) and if we forget to put up the gate, she will poop in our son's room. I could understand having an accident if she were sick,…. but she will only poop in his room if we forget the gate and if we're not home. …We now have baby number 2 on the way and I'm afraid it will only get worse. I understand that when we adopted her we adopted her for good and bad. I also understand how difficult and traumatic it can be to return a dog. I DO NOT want to do this, but I need some suggestions as to what I can do. Please help. Thank you."

This email illustrates a major reason dog adoptions fail. At the dog rescue where I have worked for many years, couples, newly married and childless, often seek to adopt one of our dogs. Regardless of how many times we talk to potential adopters about the problems with adopting a dog prior to having children, most people insist that they can handle it. But when the babies do come along, we inevitably get that call or email from the family in distress. Muffin was adopted before the couple had children. The family was too busy with the first baby to deal with the problems, or even ask for help. By the time they contacted me, the situation had deteriorated as summarized in the line, "Muffin has become more of a burden than a love."

What a sad state of affairs for the dog to have gone from the love of their lives to a burden. DOGS NEED TIME AND ATTENTION FROM THEIR HUMANS. I cannot emphasize this enough. What Muffin seeks is time and attention from her family. She is telling them in the only way she can - by her behavior. New babies take up time leaving very little for family pets. Some pets need less attention than dogs. But dogs, especially those who have been the center of a couple's lives, will have difficulties adjusting when they are no longer given the attention they need. Even if the family makes it through the infant stage, in toddler hood we come into another big area of problems. Imagine this scenario: the toddler picks up one of the dog's squeaky toys. The dog grabs it out of the child's hands nipping little fingers in the process. What do the parents do? They return the dog because it bit the child. Whether the dog was responsible for the bite or not, the result is the same. People do not want to chance another, perhaps worse, bite. When we get the dog back, it is branded as a biter, which we must divulge to any potential adopter. It probably wasn't a bite out of viciousness. Lack of parental supervision, however momentary, was the likely cause. It was the proverbial accident waiting to happen. Yet it is the dog who gets the blame and suffers in the long run.

Back at the rescue, we have to deal with the returned dogs. We try to soothe them when they are confused and depressed at being separated from their family and home. We coax them to eat when they have no appetite. We watch with sadness as the dogs stare at the door, disappointed over and over when the people they love never return. To all couples planning families who are looking to adopt a dog, there are some considerations on behalf of the dogs that you need to keep in mind. Dogs are not practice babies. Sometimes, the dog is placed in the roll of surrogate baby. Young couples who want something to nurture before they are ready to start a family, often seek out dogs. The decision to adopt a dog does not seem to include what will happen to the dog when the human babies come along. For the sake of the dog, you must be clear and honest with yourselves about why you are considering adopting.

Some people are able to work out babies and dogs. But far too many are not. The saddest part of this situation is that it is preventable. There are right and wrong times in life to take on the responsibility of a dog. Before you consider adopting a canine companion, think it through. A dog will be with your family for ten years, or even more. You need to see how the lifespan of the dog meshes with your life's plan. If there are potential conflicts, err on the side of compassion, and do not adopt until the conditions are right. It will save both the dog and you a great deal of heartache.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, six rescued dogs (four greyhounds, two terriers) and three horses.

We do need the dog, but not as a watchdog . . . I have derived, from the mere fact of his existence, a great sense of inward security, such as one finds in a childhood memory or in the prospect of the scenery of one's own home country.
-Konrad Lorenz

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