Wondering what you can do to ease your fur baby’s transition from only child to happy sibling status when you bring baby home? To answer this question and more, I’m thrilled to share an interview with Rebecca from Pals for Paws Petsitting. As a pet care professional, Rebecca shares important strategies for integrating your beloved animals and your new bundle of joy. And as a mom, she shares her personal postpartum experience and how life after baby doesn’t always look the way one expects.
Before we get to questions about pets and babies, I'd love to know how you and your husband Aaron began Pals for Paws. What drew you to starting this business?
We both loved animals, of course. Aaron grew up with a house full of dogs and cats - due to family allergies, I did not. Still, I had dreams of being a veterinarian, and worked for a vet in high school (where I promptly learned I did not want to be a vet anymore!).
In college I worked for an animal shelter and pet supply store. Aaron's aunt had friends who needed pet care and suggested us, we went to meet with the lady, and she asked how much we charged. Charged?! I thought, amazed that someone would pay us to hang out with her animals. We took care of her animals, then she referred another friend, and another. I was in school for graphic design so I built us a website, and we started getting strangers for clients. It was very exciting and surprisingly busy.
When we completed school, we both got full-time jobs and had to start turning down our clients. Aaron was unhappy in his job. We felt a little bad turning down the work we loved (the animals) in favor of the work he was struggling to enjoy, so we took a leap and he quit his job and started waiting tables so we could focus on the business. It grew and grew. Eventually, he was able to stop waiting tables and I was able to quit my full-time job, then quit my freelance work. It took about 7 years to go from our first clients to sustaining income for two people, and from there we added employees. We are almost 12 years in and employ five people.
That's an amazing story, Rebecca. In those 12 years, I'm sure you've seen many clients bring home new babies. Can you share with us any tips for how to get ready to integrate a new baby and pets? Specifically, are there things families can do prenatally to make for an easier transition?
Oh yes - many clients! I very much suggest taking your dog to training prior to the baby arriving. If you have never done training before, and especially if you regard your dog's "bad" behaviors as sweet quirks, this is the time to address them, NOT after. If the dog barks a lot, or jumps, it's time to start working on those issues. Training will also give you a better general sense of how to communicate with your dog and tools to use once the baby arrives.
Even if you have a very well-behaved dog, I suggest refreshing them on commands like "Stay," "Off," and "Place." These are commands that you will be using! With a new baby, you will need space, and having a "Place" command teaches your dog that they have "their" space and they need to go to it. "Off" or "Leave it" is useful for dogs who are excessively interested in the baby's toys or, later, snacks. And "Stay" is something you'll use often for when visitors arrive. You will not be able to teach your baby to "Stay," but you can teach your dog, and that will make life easier.
In terms of making the transition easier on the dog, in the months leading up to the baby's arrival, think about an area that can be the dog's space so they have a safe place to go to where the baby is not allowed. Let them become comfortable in this space prior to the baby coming so it doesn't feel like a time out or punishment space. If there are any areas that will be off limits for them when baby comes, start blocking those areas ahead of time. Also, think about how their routine might change and make those changes in advance so they become accustomed to fewer walks, walks at different times, shorter walks, going potty in the yard, and tapering down one-on-one time.
While it's tempting to go all out giving them as much love as possible since it's about to change, that will be all the more abrupt of a change when the baby arrives. You don't want the dog to associate their decline in quality of life with the arrival of the baby. Plus, many pet parents feel guilty about "not having time for the dog" after the baby arrives. Getting yourself used to the new normal in advance of the rush of hormones (because let's face it, you're going to feel guilty about literally everything) may ease those feelings because it's not an abrupt change for you either!
Finally, get the baby equipment out so they are familiar with it. Strollers and car seats can be a bit scary, especially if you have a skittish dog! If you are installing a gate in your vehicle, do that when you put the car seat in.
Trust me when I say that it is much, much easier to address and prepare for these things during pregnancy than during postpartum!
I love the idea of slowly easing into the changes ahead a time - makes so much sense to make these changes when you have the time and energy before baby arrives. If we follow this plan before baby, what would suggest we do after baby arrives to make a more positive transition?
The traditional wisdom is to bring home a blanket or piece of clothing with the baby's scent from the hospital for your dog to get used to before bringing baby home from the hospital. When you actually come home, the baby should come in last - your pup is going to be so excited to see you after you've been away for a few days. He or she will most likely not be taking care to be gentle with the unexpected additional tiny human being in tow.
When the baby is introduced, you can do it on whatever timeline feels comfortable to you, given your dog's behavior. The AKC suggests letting the dog get used to the baby's smell and sounds for a few days prior to letting the dog approach the baby. That being said, I'm not sure I know anyone who actually was able to do that! Regardless of how long you wait, you'll want a separate person holding the dog on a leash and paying close attention to their behavior. The dog will pick up on your nerves, so try to stay calm and positive. Whoever is holding the leash can also have treats if your dog handles itself well with treats - my dogs tend to get overly excited so I would not introduce that stimulus for my crew! Speak in your normal, happy voice and allow the dog to sniff the baby's feet from a distance. Things to watch for in terms of nervousness in a dog would be licking of lips or a tense stance. Praise your dog for gentle behavior then redirect to a sit or lay-down and give the dog some good pets and love.
In my experience it really is common to see dogs immediately fall into a protective, gentle role around babies, BUT you don't want to just bank on that. Even if you have the friendliest dog, you still need to be proactive and careful when they're together. The dog should associate positive feelings with being around the baby, so having a partner (or even friends or visitors) love on the doggie in the same room as the baby will help make those associations.
I do want to point out that if you haven't done preparations during pregnancy to get your dog used to the new routines, things might be difficult for a while. My best advice for that is to stick it out. Don't make decisions on rehoming your pet during the fourth trimester, because let me tell you, even with the best intentions, pets can make that period really difficult.
In addition to your professional experience, you also have personal experience bringing a baby into a home with pets. Was there anything that surprised you about your postpartum experience with your pets?
Being a pet care professional, I definitely went into it with a bit of the idea that I knew a lot about dog behavior and had a great handle on everything. I had my baby at home, and one of my dogs was in the room (the other went to a boarder because he's a bit on the wild side). My girl met my daughter within minutes of birth and it was very sweet and beautiful. On my daughter's first day on Earth, we all five sat in the nursery together: my, my husband, my daughter, and my two dogs. So idyllic.
Annie, our big white gentle giant, meeting Adeline as we follow none of the proper protocol.
Photo Credit: Riley Curry
I was surprised, then, that it didn't take long for me to not want them around me. At all. I adore my dogs! But when I was learning to care for another person, barely sleeping, breastfeeding nonstop, I found them to be two more warm bodies who just needed something from me when I just didn't have it to give. That was really a surprise to me, I was expecting this magical world of harmony and happiness. Their barking didn't wake the baby, thankfully, but it disrupted my peaceful moments, and I would find their hair stuck to my nipples when I was trying to get babe to latch. I was so frustrated by their presence, and I was not prepared for that. I felt immense guilt, and I felt like I didn't deserve to take care of other peoples' animals if I couldn't even stand to be around my own. The fog lifted, I became more confident in caring for my daughter, and I began to cherish their presence again. Of all of the things I felt prepared for, I wish I had known that this was ok, and normal, and, especially, temporary.
My husband definitely fell into being the primary animal caretaker for the first year or so, and to a certain extend remains so. The best advice I have from my personal experience is to have a plan for who is going to take care of the pets' physical and emotional needs, because mama doesn't need that pressure.
Our big, happy family.
I love that you are sharing these personal experiences, Rebecca, because so much of the postpartum experience is just that - deeply personal, unexpected, challenging, and beautiful. As far as planning to have help with the pets, your business Pals for Paws is an awesome resource for those who want to meet their animals physical and emotional needs while they rest, heal, and settle into life with a new baby. Can you share a bit about the services you offer and how they may be helpful to postpartum families?
We actually take care of peoples' animals even before the baby comes home! I think it's a great idea to establish a relationship with a pet sitter so you have a plan for your pets when you go into labor. Friends and family are often very helpful in this role, but we have on many occasions received the "we're heading to the hospital" text and got the dogs on our schedule until we heard they were ready to come home - it's one of those things that can give you peace of mind and allow dad and family to focus on being in the hospital and not worry about the dogs' schedule.
I mentioned earlier adjusting the dogs' expectations in advance, and if you do so, you may not need any help with your dogs. However, if it's very important to your dog to get a walk each day (and for some dogs this makes all the difference in their behavior), you don't have to cut that out. We have dog walking clients who we have continued to service all that way through pregnancy, postpartum, and going back to work, without taking a break. For these families, it allowed them to keep that routine going for their dogs and get the dogs the exercise they need. If you've never used a dog walker before, you may consider it for the postpartum period to ease that pressure of "How am I going to take the dog out?" and "the dog is just so wound up!" Doggie daycare (which we don't offer, but there are many great facilities in the area) is another great option if you're feeling overwhelmed by the presence of your pets or guilty that they're bored. Your dog gets to go and spend all day playing with friends and comes home wiped out.
That being said, once you are healed, walking your dog with your baby is a wonderful way to get exercise and fresh air. Just make sure to be safe - if you have a bigger dog whose pulling and strength you could handle pre-baby, it's a good idea to invest in a harness like an EasyWalk to give you a bit more control since you'll be managing a stroller simultaneously. You can babywear and walk dogs (I do!), but I do consider it a bit on the risky side if you have a large dog or a puller so use caution and your best judgement if you feel there's a possibility that you could be pulled forward.
Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing all of this fantastic advice! I know I’ll be adding it to my Pinterest board to share with anyone who has questions about bringing home a new baby to meet their beloved animals.
If you are looking for petsitting or dog walking care in Iowa City, North Liberty, Coralville, and Tiffin, you can reach Pals for Paws at (319) 535-0748 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Johanna received a Ph.D. in English in 2014. Now a postpartum doula and educator of childbirth, breastfeeding, and infant sleep, she blogs about pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and parenting.