The other day I got the wonderful news that one of my clients is adding a new baby to their family…a human baby, this time. Cricket*, their first “child,” has grown in to a sensitive four-year old terrier with lots of energy, tons of love to give, and some anxiety in new situations.
Sadly, some dogs never adjust to a new baby in the home and desperate parents have no choice but to surrender their pet. Cricket’s mom and dad adore their fur baby and would be absolutely devastated to give him up – even if it was a last resort to protect their human baby – so we want to make sure that he is as prepared as possible for the upcoming change. Ultimately, there is no way to simulate a new baby in the house but exposing Cricket to some of the scents, sounds, and other changes he will experience will help him to adjust to the real thing.
Babies are loud and for a dog with a history of sound sensitivity like Cricket, it’s important to get them used to the cries and gurgles that will become a part of daily life. Buy a c.d. (or make a playlist) of baby sounds – crying, cooing, laughing, etc. – and play it (loudly) daily. Give your dog a stuffed Kong to munch on while the c.d. plays so he forms happy associations with the noises. The first several times you play the c.d., do so while you are home with your dog so that if he is frightened, you can reassure him. As he becomes accustomed to it, give your dog a Kong and press play before you leave the house.
Sudden noises, such as a baby’s cry in the middle of a quiet night, which can be particularly frightening to a dog. Single out a couple of specific noises that a baby may suddenly make, play them at random times without warning. Gather a handful of treats and when you press play, throw a shower of treats over your dog. This will teach him that a sudden cry means that great things will happen!
There are all sorts of new smells that you will bring home with your new baby. Expose your dog to baby powder or other products you will use regularly on your little one in the months before the birth by using it on your own skin and allowing your dog to sniff you. Play games with him while smelling of the baby so that he will form happy associations with these scents.
When the baby is born but before he is ready to come home, ask your partner or a friend to take a blanket or piece of clothing that the baby has been wrapped in or worn home to your dog so he can sniff it at length and get used to the new human scent.
Your dog will have to get used to the fact that you will holding or otherwise paying attention to the baby a huge percentage of the time. A person holding a baby, or carrying one in a pouch or pack, can look like a distorted monster human to a dog. Buy a life-size babydoll and practice holding and carrying it around at home, as well as simulating other common activities like changing a diaper or bathtime. Show the baby to the dog but treat the doll the way you will your real baby – don’t let your dog lick it or get close enough to jump up on it. Put the babydoll in a stroller and practice walking your dog with the baby stroller, too!
If you have friends with babies or young children, invite them over for a visit. Ask your dog to sit calmly with you and your guests and give him a Kong or treats to keep him busy while they are present.
The reality of bringing home a new baby is that you simply won’t have as much time to spend with your dog. Even though your natural inclination may be to spend more time with him now to make up for the change, it is actually better for your dog to begin spending less time with him in the months preceding the birth. This will help to mitigate the realization that new baby = less time with mom and dad.
Bringing home baby
It’s very important that your first actual interaction between your dog and your baby is a good one so go slowly. With mom having been in the hospital for a few days, let her greet your dog without the baby – he will be excited to see her! Have someone else take the baby in to the other room while mom calmly gives your dog love and treats.
After mom’s initial greeting, sit somewhere comfortable with baby and dog and reward him for being calm. If possible, have a friend or relative introduce your dog to the baby the very first time while you sit with him and give him affection. Also shower him with treats or give him a Kong to make him happy around the baby.
As time passes, be sure to give your dog some one-on-one attention each day. Since dogs are creatures of habit, try to establish a routine that is as similar as possible to the pre-baby one (make changes in your dog’s routine pre-baby to anticipate those that will come when the baby arrives). Above all go slowly and be patient; never force your dog to be around the baby if he is not interested. As things settle down over time, so will he, and you will have one big happy family!
When Ginny began to have more trouble than usual standing about three weeks ago, we visited the vet. She was diagnosed with nerve damage in her spinal cord – a condition that would continue to deteriorate with time. Unusual in a 30lb dog under ten years of age, the vet believed she may in fact be more like 10-12 years old, instead of the 8-9 years she was identified as several months ago. We were given a prescription for a ten-day course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and asked to call with an update when the medication was complete.
I called Dr. Leyba at San Francisco Pet Hospital first thing in the morning on Monday and arranged to bring Ginny in the following day. When I returned to pick up my girl that afternoon, Dr. Leyba sat me down for a long discussion. From his previous examination, the doctor believed he would find the issue in the lower spine or hips of my little dog. He ordered x-rays but after close examination, saw nothing unusual; spacing between the vertebrae was wide and even. He extended his search further up her spinal column towards Ginny’s head and there, in her neck, he found the issue among three cervical vertebrae. Whether from past injury or a deformity, two of these small but vital bones had grown to compensate for the problem so that they are now almost fused together. A third vertebrae, not yet fused to the others, is separated by only a thin gap.
Spinal injuries – whether in the neck or back – can have a major impact on mobility. In Ginny’s case, the muscles around her fused vertebrae are likely stressed and causing spasms that are giving her significant pain and affecting her ability to rise from laying down. The doctor prescribed muscle relaxants and steroids to bring down her level of pain and strengthen her movements and discussed our choices.
There is no easy fix here. Surgery is an option but, as Dr. Leyba told us, as with any neck or spinal surgery the procedure is painful, recovery long, and improvement not guaranteed. Management may be the more appropriate choice in a dog of Ginny’s age, but management won’t actually change anything – it will simply help to keep her as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. In Ginny’s case, Dr. Leyba recommended several things, some of which we were already doing:
– Walking Ginny only with a harness, not with a collar so as not to put pressure on her neck.
– Carrying Ginny up flights of stairs.
– Decreasing Ginny’s activity. Walking is still a great option for her but should be done in shorter bursts of 15-30 minutes. Ginny’s not a rough-houser or ball player, but if she was, we would have to cut that out.
– Giving Ginny Glucosamine to help her bones and joints.
– Keeping Ginny at the proper weight.
– Continuing steroids for Ginny after her initial course is over. We will likely begin at a pill every other day but this will increase in frequency as she ages.
Eventually, Ginny’s pain will become so severe that she will need daily opiates and, when those no longer help, the time will come to consider putting her down. Dr. Leyba feels confident that Ginny still has a couple of good years left if we pay close attention and do everything we can to keep her comfortable. Sadly, this is always a hazard of adopting a senior dog but I do not regret my decision. As when Franny came to me as a hospice dog, I am honored to give Ginny the best life she can have over her remaining years.