Babies and Bullies Part 2

Babies and Bullies Part 2
Jake and Charlotte, One Year Later


“Daa” is Jake’s only word so far. My partner Tim likes to think it means “dad,” but our stubby oneyear- old’s index finger pointed squarely at the dog says otherwise. Charlotte, our 12-year-old Pit Bull, has adapted well to her new name, along with the Neanderthal hugs, jocklike whacks, and obnoxious sounds emitted by her two-legged sibling. Admittedly, I’m longing to hear my son say “mama.” But for now I’ll settle for his monosyllabic reference to the big hairy beast that our relatives feared would harm him, the 80 pounds of terrier who is arguably his best friend.

Our comedic duo of Pit Bull and toddler have turned out to be real bosom buddies. A far cry from the tragedy forecast a year ago by worried relatives who were adamant that a dog-aggressive terrier and a newborn have no business living together. The concern was misguided, but very understandable. Charlotte is a big, strong dog of ill-reputed breed and a downright nuisance with other dogs. She is the classic backyard-bred Pit Bull: a sweetheart with humans and a social misfit with her own kind. But Charlotte’s lifetime track record of being exceptionally people-friendly, and her ability to scrap without doing any harm to even her worst canine foes, makes her as safe as any large dog can be around babies. Not an easy sell for a breed with entrenched mythology about locking jaws and “turning” on people, even for my partner and I, two veterinarians able to cite all the scientific facts and agreement of our expert colleagues. Despite some pretty pushy pleas to re-home her, Tim and I stuck to our guns and proceeded with the planning and work that is needed for any blended family of canine and kid. The training and safety considerations apply well beyond big burly terriers, so I’ll take the opportunity to share some pointers from our four step “tail” of success:

Step One: First Impressions
No sooner did I deliver Jake than we delivered home some of his used baby blankets. You only get one shot at making a great first impression, so Charlotte’s first whiff of Jake was followed immediately by a five-star dinner of meatball parmesan. The order and timing is important when teaching new associations. First you present the thing you want the dog to like (baby smell), then something fabulous just a split second after (dinner). Easy when you are working with blankets and a food bowl, more complicated when working with five pounds of squirming newborn. So for our arrival home we had two extra adults on hand and preassigned roles. Tim was baby-butt-presenter, I was dog handler, our pet nanny was baby gate manager and my mom was on stand-by for post-greeting handoff of baby Jake. Yes, it was tantamount to stage planning for a Broadway production; laugh if you will, but it worked. We kept their introduction short and sweet: once Charlotte had some good sniffs and a few chunks of freeze dried liver, we passed Jake off to my mom so we could fuss over the dog like she was queen of the castle. Charlotte seemed impressed with the new addition, and we were rather impressed with ourselves. Jake was impressed with no one, and did what newborn babies do best—kept us up most of the night!

Step Two: Build a Foundation of Trust between Siblings Prenatal class prepares you to respond to your baby’s cry like a world class butler, prompt and reliable. They do not prepare you for juggling TWO needy creatures that must learn to like each other. We knew that when Jake cried he could wait an extra few seconds to be tended to, so we made sure we tossed something good Charlotte’s way en route. It didn’t take her long to go from tucking her tail to salivating when Jake wailed. And with four adults around there was usually enough manpower to give Charlotte some love and attention along with her snack. Charlotte adjusted very quickly to cries from a distance, but erratic movements and sudden screams in close proximity took a bit more time.

As Jake grew so did our dependence on baby gates. Gates gave us control of when and where the two kids would have access to each other, enabling us to give our full attention when they were in shared space. Managing their access to each other allowed us to spend those first few months teaching them to like and trust each other, rather than having to harp on Charlotte to follow a bunch of new kid rules. We wanted all her neurons focussed on learning what a great addition Jake is, not trying to figure out what is permitted. And besides, we had enough work on our hands just keeping everyone housed, fed, and bathed—we weren’t looking for more!

As Jake matured, his behaviour shifted from a pretty small repertoire of movements to new ones almost every day. He was getting strong enough to hurt Charlotte but was still too immature to be taught not to. By four months of age he could give a pretty good pinch, and the normal stage of experimenting with cause and effect made Charlotte a very attractive outlet for his ever increasing abilities. Our main job from four to eight months was to protect Charlotte from Jake’s uninhibited manhandling. We kept shared time short and well supervised, quickly getting a finger between his palm and her fur to prevent a tight squeeze, and intercepting eyeball pokes and foot bites. Being human, we’d miss the boat now and then, which was an opportunity both to gauge her reaction and make it well worth her while (think hotdogs and Frisbee, pronto) for tolerating him. The brief but regular interactions created a foundation of familiarity, fondness, and confidence between them in preparation for the next step— some rules of engagement.

Step Three: Teach Dog & Toddler Some Rules
With a solid foundation of good feelings between them, it was time to put some rules in place. Dogs and kids learn new rules very easily— it is only when you go back and forth on whether something is or isn’t allowed that you create stress and confusion. Jake is being taught that he must not approach Charlotte while she is eating. Soon we will teach him to bring her dessert so that she will grow to like the sight of him approaching her dish. He is also not allowed to pinch her, grab her tail or feet, or bug her when she’s sleeping. Jake is just the right age to be learning that there are boundaries for everything in his life, including access to his furry friend. Likewise, Charlotte is being taught some boundaries with Jake: no snatching food from his mouth, knocking him over, or soliciting attention when we are changing or feeding him. Learners do best when they get feedback on what they are doing right AND what they are doing wrong, so long as the feedback is mostly positive and they are never scared or hurt when it is negative. A simple word to mark a mistake followed swiftly by loss of privilege is all the punishment either of them ever needs to get our message loud and clear. Of course, with two learners in the house it is important that they know which one of them we’re talking to, so we use different words to verbally reward and punish each of them: “Cookies” and “Ah-ah” for Charlotte, “Good Job” and “No” for Jake. Feedback words for Jake will expand quickly, of course, and will simply not include the two I’ve always used for Charlotte. It is working out well so far. When Jake grabs a fistful of fur I can blurt “Cookies” to let Charlotte know there’s a reward forthcoming for tolerating the abuse and “No” to Jake, followed by an instructive “gentle” as I get Charlotte her deserved treats. If Jake persists he loses his playmate to the other side of the baby gate... a pretty harsh and effective punishment!

Step Four: Let them Train Each Other
We expect Jake to transgress—and to be chastised and even downright frightened by Charlotte when he does. Their solid foundation and Charlotte’s pristine track record of safety around dogs and humans will see them through. Jake has been socialized well enough to Charlotte that he should be able to endure a bark, growl or intentionally harmless snap without becoming fearful of her or, worse yet, of dogs in general. At 14 months, he is now old enough to connect cause and effect so that her punishment will impact his behaviour towards her (not pinch toes again), and I can use language now to help him with that learning. It is in his best interest to know that dogs can be scary if provoked. Likewise, Charlotte is very well socialized to Jake. She is always happy to see him, solicits his company, and has shown absolutely no aggression towards him. With this foundation of trust in place we now let Jake fend for himself a bit: he has mastered an effective ear-piercing shriek to stop her from stealing his coveted cheddar bunnies. Should they end up in a situation where Jake provokes her, I expect her to do with him what she’s done many times over with cats, pesky puppies, and the few dogs she’s known as friends—give lots of cues to tell him he’s doing something she doesn’t like, and eventually escalate to a impact-less snap if her warnings go unheeded. The silver lining to Charlotte’s rap sheet of canine fisticuffs is that she has demonstrated, paws down, that she is a safe biter. That may sound like an oxymoron, but dogs are designed to be able to argue and bite without hurting each other. Not all of them learn this in the critical first five months of life, but Charlotte did and she has had lots of canine kafuffles to prove it! This means that when push comes to shove and Charlotte bites, she can gauge to the nanometer what she does with her jaws and can brush skin without so much as an ounce of pressure. Her bite inhibition— the term for inhibiting force when biting—is our ultimate insurance policy regarding Jake’s safety, no matter what he may to do provoke her. We do not expect Charlotte to bite Jake, but we are absolutely confident that she would do him no harm if she did.

Life Choices
I am often asked why I would take the chance in keeping a large dog of ill-reputed breed in the house with a child. My answer? For the same reason that I travel by car with Jake—the quality of life it brings us both is worth the risks. As Janice Bradley points out so well in her book “Dogs Bite But Umbrellas and Slippers are More Dangerous,” dogs are statistically a much safer bet than toys, playgrounds, caregivers, and, of course, car transport, which is hands down the biggest unnecessary threat to our kid’s lives, one which we nonetheless impose on them daily. When I watch my son hug his “Daa,” sneak his dinner to her under the highchair, and look for her as soon as he comes home from daycare, I know I’ve made the right choice. And I think Charlotte concurs. She’s taken to curling up next to his car seat on long journeys, despite plenty of room to sit elsewhere, and falling asleep alongside him—his little fist resting snugly on her big head. In fact, Charlotte seems to like most of her new life with our new addition, especially his generous attitude toward sharing food and toys. There is, of course, always room for improvement. Charlotte has suggested we get in gear teaching Jake a more reliable sit stay, gentler mouth, and to go potty on command. We may be new parents but we’re old pros at puppy rearing, so I know we’ll manage just fine.

Click here to read Part 1 of the article

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