Saturday, March 12, 2016

Blending The Family: Introducing Children to Pets

Ingrid's son, Ethan, at 7 months old, with Pluto and Wilma
When my older sister Kir was born, my parent’s 10 and 11 year old Yorkies, Kirsch and Butch, were not impressed. From the moment they brought her home, Kirsch and Butch were kicked off of all the comfortable places -- couch, bed, laundry hamper -- and forced to fend for themselves on the uninviting, uncomfortable, and cold floor.  It was clear from their body language that both dogs considered the baby to be the intruder, but Butch chose the path of least resistance and simply decided to distance himself and find new places to hide out. But Kirsch, being the more dominant of the two, had probably asked them to return ‘that noisy thing’ to the pet store, and exchange her for the memory foam dog bed with the pink lace pillow top, or a new Kong chew toy, since hers was pretty worn out. But since my parents didn’t speak ‘dog’, Kirsch was forced to voice opposition in another way, one that would allow her to reclaim her house and position as pack leader, and ensure 100% that her whimpers would not be drowned out by baby cries. 

So what did she do? She left a warm, wet, puddle of pee everyplace the baby sat. When my sister was placed on the couch, as soon as she was moved, Kirsch peed in the exact same spot. Same thing next to the baby basin in the bathroom, behind the high chair in the kitchen, and last but not least, right smack dead in the center of my parent’s king size bed. And while it was a nuisance to clean up, and a headache to endure, what could they do? The Yorkies were part of the family, so they would have to learn to blend.

How to introduce children to pets is a common predicament amongst new parents. Questions such as “Will my pet bite my child?” or “How do I comfort my pet so that they don’t feel abandoned and show resentment?”, are just a few of the more common ones.  As my husband and I are getting ready to start a family and will face the same situation with our 8 year old German Shepard and 10 year old cat, I decided to conduct more research on the subject and interview 4 professional mothers who shared their educational views and successful experiences.  

Dr. Olivia Shoenfeld is a mother of two young children, ages 7 and 3 ½, and a certified Veterinarian. She completed her undergraduate at McGill University; took an accelerated pre-med course at Rutger’s University; then studied 5 years at Veterinary School in Scotland; and finished off by doing an internship at the University Of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, before starting her practice. When asked why she chose this profession she replied, "Like many of my colleagues, it is a vocation. I wanted to be a veterinarian from the age of 3, when I started off “treating” and “hospitalizing” my stuffed animals, followed by treating all the traumatized birds and chipmunks caught by my cats.”

When her children were born, Olivia worried about introducing them to her Chihuahua, who had been her constant companion since she began in private practice.

"My fears were two-fold: how was my dog going to cope with no longer being the center of my attention (how was he going to react to this “intrusion”) and would I need to protect my children from my dog?” I wondered if I knew my dog well enough to anticipate how he would act around my children (ie. could he be trusted).

"I was worried that he could become frustrated or aggressive. Some non-pet people asked if I would get rid of him when I had my children, which was out of the question. Others worried that I wouldn’t give my children enough attention.”

As it turned out, her worries were turned into afterthoughts, and the reality of the situation was a lot less stressful then originally imagined.

“In reality, the transition went very smoothly and naturally. My dog did not particularly react any differently when my babies were brought home than if we had a visitor. He was curious but otherwise normal. 

"I included him in our routine from the beginning. I was cautious not to leave the babies and my dog alone unattended when they were very small to avoid my children or my dog getting hurt. My children grew up with my dog and respected and cherished him. He solicited their affection as well as mine. 

"Dogs are so family oriented as they are pack animals and, as such, they really enjoy playing an active role in a growing family as long as everyone’s needs are met.
Ingrid's son, Ethan, being introduced to farm animals
Many people are overly concerned that animals are not very sanitary and carry diseases that can be transmitted to their children. This fear is what drives them to keep their children in more isolated environments, out of contact with nature, wildlife, farm animals, and also deters them from having pets.  As a medical professional, I asked Olivia to share her thoughts on this subject.

“I have cats which live with my parents because my husband is allergic. Ironically my kids were around my cats as small babies and annually thereafter. They have never had any issues with allergies. I think that as long as a pet is protected against parasites, and does not inflict harm on children (scratching or biting), there aren’t that many diseases that are transmissible. 

"It is my conviction that the more restrictive parents are, the more of a disservice they are doing their children. I know of people who practically wouldn’t leave their home with their baby for the first year, restricting contact with the general public, other children (and definitely animals) in an attempt to protect their babies from disease. It seemed that these were the children which turned out to have all sorts of allergies. Perhaps it was a biased impression but I think, in general, that the more exposure your young children get (within the limits of what is safe, of course), the more adaptable they will be in the future, both physically and psychologically.
Olivia and her Chihuahua

Eleftheria Koufougeorgou is a mother of two young girls ages 3 and almost 2. She holds a BA in Law; Master’s in Business Administration; certificate in Logistics and Supply Chain Management and Environmental Management; and is working as a Procurement and Contract Specialist. Eleftheria and her husband had one dog before her first daughter was born, and adopted a second dog while carrying her second child. 

Both dogs were subsequently killed in a tragic accident, leaving the parents to explain the art of life and death to a 1 year old child. And although at this age children are too young to understand, it gives parents a chance to practice explaining harsh realities. The family was still grieving after their loss, but they missed the warmth and life that their dogs brought to their home and decided to wait until a month after the birth of their second daughter before adopting their Labrador, Perseas.  

"I did not want my dogs to feel neglected while taking care of the newborns and express this as jealousy, that's why my dogs were always present, for example, when breastfeeding the babies . Me and my husband did everything we could to show our dogs we still loved them, and nothing had changed after the birth of our children”.

Eleftheria is one who can strongly attest to the many benefits of raising children with animals. It has become clear that her children are a lot less afraid of interacting with animals, and started showing signs of responsibility at a much earlier age than expected.

"I don't see any drawbacks, only benefits. My oldest daughter, for example, at 3 years she cares about the wellbeing of our dog the same way we do.  In addition, I see that my children started at a very young age to be interested and not afraid to touch other animals like goats, horses, cows, cats etc. So I strongly believe that love of animals starts much earlier when there is a pet at home”.
Eleftheria's daughter, Elektra, and Perseas

Ms. Monette Daubenfeld is a mother of two adult children, has a granddaughter 10 years old , and was working as a nurse for 25 years before transitioning into her current role as a certified breeder.  Dogs have been part of Monette's life for decades. A German Shepard and a cat were part of her family before her children were born. Monette started off breeding Airendale Terriers, and later changed to Irish Wolfhounds when she started her own business called Of Kirld Ground Castle almost 25 years ago.  
Monette's daughter and 3 of their Irish Wolfhounds
The Irish Wolfhound is a very large dog ranging from a height of 30 to 32 inches and 105 -120 lbs. I was curious to know more about the characteristics of the breed with regards to interacting with children considering their size, and how much of an effect this has on the sale?

“When looking back, all my Irish Wolfhounds were very friendly to children in general, they surely knew about their big size and were always quite. It is a very quiet breed."

A family came in looking for a Wolfhound, and selected a puppy they thought they would like.

"We finally gave another pup that family because that puppy kept following the child all around and waiting for him. That pup is still the best companion of the young boy, who is an adult now.”
Monette started breeding dogs when her youngest child was 12, I asked her if it was difficult to manage a household with multiple pets in addition to raising children? What would her advice be to families deciding whether or not to raise their children with pets? Her reply was honest and simple,  

“It is more work and a little challenging to get all this working together. Yes, do it! It is great fun and very beneficial for your children.”
Monette and one of her Irish Wolfhounds

Ingrid Johansson is a mother of an 8 year old boy and runs her own business as a professional dog trainer and dog walker called The Dog House. Ingrid also started out as a nurse, but never lost her passion for or desire to work with animals. Before moving to Luxembourg 16 years ago, she was volunteering at the Swedish Working Dog Association (SBK) as a trainer, and by doing so was able to obtain her trainers license. She’s continued her education by attending different seminars, working at kennels for various breeds (German Shepard, Golden Retriever, Irish terrier, West Highland White Terriers and Tibetan Spaniels), in addition to training and professionally competing her own dogs in obedience. Five years after moving to Luxembourg, her Labrador passed away, and when she was ready to get another puppy, started considering how she would adapt her lifestyle to take on this new responsibility.

“I had to wait 7 month before I could get my puppy Wilma. Before I could commit for a new puppy I asked my veterinarian, Sylvie Neis, if she could temporarily dog sit my future puppy. My plan was to have a puppy leave of 3 month. I had saved enough of days of holiday so I could be able to stay at home with the puppy and when I started to work Sylvie temporarily helped me out. After Sylvie helped me my dog went for day care for 3 month.”

Ingrid was unhappy with the daycare experience, and therefore, “I decided to resign from the bank and start up my own day care for dogs. I opened the first crèche for dogs in Luxembourg.”
Ingrid is walking and training with her client's dogs
As an experienced trainer having dealt with many different types of dog breeds, I asked Ingrid what her concerns were about introducing her pets to her newborn.

“Well basically no concerns at all. I do trust my animals and for me it’s more to teach the child how to behave around pets and to teach them how to communicate with different kind of pets. If they learn to stay calm and balanced and treat the pet with respect there is usually no problem at all. 

"I remember the pediatrician telling me at the maternity to ask my husband to bring a t-shirt that our son should sleep with for a night and then bring it back to the dog so she could get used to our son’s scent before we introduced them. I remember myself thinking does he think my dog is a monster. For me that was never an issue nor even considering she wouldn’t accept the baby and it wasn’t either.”

As Ingrid runs her own puppy school, educating both humans and canines, I asked her a series of questions related to training pets to interact with children.

1. How do you teach your parent to introduce, and the pet to interact with children?

“The parents have to guide their children and teach them how to act with a puppy. They have to teach them how to greet a dog and how to handle the dog and to respect the puppy, it’s not a toy. 

"For example, if they have a puppy, the kids should leave the puppy alone when it is sleeping. You do not wake up a baby to show it to your friends, it’s the same with a puppy. The children’s friends have to learn the rules of the family regarding the puppy and respect them. They shouldn’t force themselves on the puppy; the puppy should make the first contact. The kids should be involved in the training of the puppy but it means it is only one child training the dog for a few minutes at the time so they don’t confuse the puppy. It is so common that 2 -3 kids are nagging and shouting towards the dog at the same time."

When kids can’t cooperate, which is frequently the case with youngsters, then the parents should set up a training schedule specifying when training occurs and what each child would be teaching the puppy.
If they can’t stick to the schedule and rules then they parents has to lock themselves into a room with one child and practice. I am very hard-core when it comes to this point, as it is not fair for the puppy to get dealt with like a toy. All parents should teach their children to ask if they can pet a dog and not just take it for granted.

"After the first theory lesson I have in connection with the puppy classes the parents have to go home and make a list of which words are going to be used as a cue and these are not going to be misused. I teach the parents how to play with their puppies to encourage contact. You can involve the kids in the training in a simple way by playing hide and seek in the woods and at the same time practicing recall of the puppy in a fun way without putting pressure on either the child or the puppy. I teach them how they should use their body language and not touch the puppy too much, get it to respond to your body language and voice without raising your voice or nagging."

The biggest fear parents have is their children being bitten or mauled.
Ingrid's son, Ethan, and Pluto, a friend's Basset Hound
Ingrid declared “Never leave a toddler or a child unattended with a puppy or a dog, most of the accidents happens then and I dare to say that in 9/10 cases it is never the dogs fault. It has showed all his different signals and ways to tell the child to increase the distance but since they can’t read the dog’s language they get closer and then the dog might snap or bite and then everybody is blaming the dog and saying it is not trustworthy. But the one to blame is the parent who left them alone unsupervised.

"The pets also have to learn not to be too rough to the kids. If the kids stay calm and don’t overreact and treat the puppy with respect it is often no problem. If the kids are running around and screaming, of course the puppy gets worked up and wants to run after the child. A puppy will most likely try to bite their ankles, as they see it as a fun game.”

 2. What are the differences in teaching older dogs verses younger?

“It is always easier to train a puppy and you should begin immediately when you get it home.  But I believe it is better for a puppy to have a few older dogs to interact with, as often with puppies it can be very rough.     

"An older dog has a history and it could sometimes be more difficult to train them. What you have to do then is to have a look at the background of the dog and what has been done to it. It might be that you have to change the cue e.g. instead of using down use flat or lay. We all learn differently and that needs to be considered in any training plan."

3. How does the owner impact this relationship?

“My philosophy is a dog never fails; it is our fault that our dog didn’t ́obey. We have to find the reason why the dog didn’t ́obey and then we have to train better, more and with enough of distractions. Never rush in your training. If we have a mirror - just look there to remember who is responsible. Never blame anybody else. If you want some improvements you have to improve your way of training your dog. Your dog is an angel and is always trying to do its best. Very simple.”
Ingrid teaching her puppy class
After speaking with these four women, I can honestly say that my previous anxieties have been significantly reduced, allowing me to focus on more useful things like what color I want to paint the walls of the baby’s room. What I’ve learned and what I want to share is that for many young families the benefits of raising children with pets are numerous, and the difficulties are absolutely manageable. The decision to add a pet to the family pack should never be taken lightly, or made on the spur of the moment. Research what types of breeds would fit well within your family and can easily adapt to your lifestyle. A pet is a 10 to 20 year commitment depending on the type, and has needs that must be met before and after having children. 

In the case of my sister, it took about 7 months before Kirsch and Butch decided that their evil nemesis, was actually a blessing in disguise. My mother had just started introducing solid foods into her diet, but instead of putting the food in her mouth, my sister was more intrigued by dropping it on the floor. This simple defiant act generated a frantic reaction from my mother, which made Kir laugh, but also benefited the dogs, who gobbled up the tasty morsels falling from the sky. They quickly changed my sister’s status from ‘Noisy, Hairless, Obnoxious Creature’ to that of ‘The Chosen One with Food’.

From that day forward, Kir, Kirsch, and Butch became inseparable. The Yorkies followed her around, they protected her, they played together, and watched over her while she slept. It took a bit of time, and a lot of patience, but my parent’s dedication to blending the family had finally paid off. Now all they had to do was sit back, relax, and enjoy the harmony until it came time to bring home baby number 2, me.


  1. Great article!! It will really help new parents on their decision whether to adopt a pet
    Thank you for writing this Brie!

  2. Great read. Your putting out really good articles.

  3. Great article. My Yorkie didn't take to my child as rebellious as yours did in your childhood but it still was challenging.