The pandemic saw a huge rise in pet ownership, going from 41% of households to 59%. Many parents may be tempted to introduce a dog into the family, but to help you make that decision, Dr Charley Gray, Expert Vet at the home-cooking platform, VetChef has shared her thoughts on the benefits of having a dog in the family and how you can make sure it works for everyone.

What are the advantages of having a dog when you have children?

There are lots of advantages of introducing a dog into your family. Dogs can act as a bonding force for the entire family. As a vet I see this in my consultation room – when the dog is sick, the whole family comes in. 14-year-old boys, who would otherwise spend most of the day gaming, will give time to the dog (and by association – the rest of the family).

Dogs provide non-judgmental comfort for children when they are anxious or stressed. Sometimes, just like adults, children appreciate a friend that will just ‘sit’ with them – without making demands or trying to ‘talk’. It’s very reassuring.

I see exceptional examples of this – like the autism-support Labrador whose job is to recognise signs of anxiety in his teenage owner, and to sit close and lean on them when it happens. This dog gives his teenage owner the confidence to have more independence.

Duvet days are a whole lot less common when you have a dog. Dog walks and activities like ‘playing ball in the garden’ may not seem like much, but it all adds up. It’s good for everyone’s physical and mental health.

Is owning a dog unhygienic?

No.

There are still some diseases that can be passed from dogs to children, so hand washing, basic hygiene and regular worming are important. Toxocara is one example of a parasite (roundworm) that is picked up by dogs and it can also spread to humans via contact with your dog’s faeces.

However, the condition is not common and can be easily prevented. Conventional wormers kill toxocara and picking up your dog’s waste regularly will avoid your children coming into contact with it.

There is some scientific evidence that suggests owning a dog may actually reduce illness and allergies by exposing their immune systems to more ‘antigens’ earlier in life.

When is the ideal age to introduce a dog into the family?

The best age is two to three years old, when most children are able to actively interact with and enjoy a dog in the household. They can also understand basic rules that provide a safer (and more enjoyable) environment for both of them.

It’s a nice ‘idea’ to have a puppy on maternity leave, but it’s hard work and in my opinion, should only be taken on if you’re an experienced dog owner and understand exactly what’s involved.

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I’m pregnant, should I get rid of the dog for the sake of the baby?

If you’re pregnant and already have a dog, you don’t need to panic. Many people put their dogs in rescue centres when a baby is due because they’re worried that it will be a problem but, in my experience, it usually works out just fine if you plan a little bit ahead.

How do I prepare a dog for a new baby?

The arrival of a baby is stressful for a dog, but that’s partly because there is also a sudden change of routine. Start making the changes during pregnancy.

Put baby gates up and make sure you close it periodically. If the dog will not be allowed on the bed or sofa, introduce that rule now and stick to it. For sound-sensitive dogs, you can get them used to crying noises by playing baby crying noises sometimes. Start quietly and gradually increase the volume.

Get toys that you can hide food in (Kong toys or similar) and get your dog used to entertaining themselves with these when you’re busy. If your dog eats a home-cooked diet, batch cook for them before the baby is born. You can find recipe ideas on the VetChef website.

Introduce your dog to a new ‘safe space’, where the children are not allowed. This can be a dog crate with a comfy bed or even a cubby under the stairs.

How do I prepare the dog for the birth?

Make sure you have someone to look after the dog, however long your labour lasts, and if the dog eats home-cooked meals cook and freeze them in advance.

I fully expected to be walking the dog by the next day – but in the end a complicated C section meant I couldn’t walk at all for several days so have a friend or dog walker ready to take over.

How do you introduce a baby to a dog?

If possible, offer the dog some of the baby’s clothes or blankets to smell earlier in the day.

Ideally mum should go into the home without the baby first. Greet the dog – get the overexcited bit out of the way – then go back out and bring the baby in.

If your dog is calm and interested, let them stiff the baby’s feet. Reward them for being sensible. If they are too excited, your partner or a friend should keep the dog with them until they’ve calmed down a little, then try again. Most dogs are interested and gentle.

Make sure your dog still feels loved and part of the family but don’t leave a baby and a dog unattended at any point. Most dogs will happily sit by your feet whilst you feed the baby within a day or two.

Remember to praise the dog for being good. It’s easy to forget to reward ‘quiet’ behaviour, but reinforcing good behaviour is important.

What do I need to teach my toddler about my dog?

Key rules that my three year old knows well:

  1. In our house we stroke dogs – but we do not hug them. I know some dogs DO like a hug, but many don’t. Toddlers often hug too tight, they sometimes fall on dogs, and they do not always read the dog’s body signals.
  2. Do not wake a dog up if they’re sleeping – this can make them jump and snap at the child out of fear.
  3. Do not go into the dog’s ‘safe space’.
  4. Do not go near dogs who are eating. They do not want to be disturbed whilst having dinner any more than we do.

Teach your toddler to play fetch and let them help you make the dog’s dinner, and maybe even let them help you take the dog for a walk. Your dog will learn that your toddler is a source of food and fun!

Which dogs are best with small children?

Labradors are top of my list for large dogs and Cavalier King Charles are great if you want a smaller one. Other breeds to consider are bulldogs, bichon frise, poodles, bernese, and some cross breeds. Choose a dog that suits your lifestyle. An active dog will need hours of exercise and mental stimulation.

Rescue dogs are not always suitable for children, but some are excellent. The added bonus of this route is you already know what the dog’s adult personality will be like.

Will getting a dog teach my child to be more responsible?

Yes – but remember that children are not likely to be able to take sole charge of a dog until they are older (10+). Younger children can still play a big part in looking after the dog.

Article was written by Charley at VetChef.

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