We brought home a puppy two months after I learned I was pregnant. In a way, he was our practice baby — another living being that needed our attention to survive and a way for my husband and I to learn about how each other function as caretakers. It turns out, there’s a lot more parenting wisdom to be gleaned from our relationships with our little furry friends than I originally anticipated.
You see, before giving birth, we took our dog, Phoenix, everywhere — to dinners, on vacations, to the grocery store, to the top of the needle in Seattle… But after the birth, as I was recovering and navigating new parenthood, everything changed. We missed walks because I was too tired or busy to get out of the house, and I did everything I could to keep him away from the baby. The pooch that I used to take everywhere suddenly wasn’t allowed within 10 feet of me and, inevitably, grew insanely jealous.
This new dynamic between my dog and me (and the baby coming in between us) has taught me invaluable lessons that I think I can apply to my own parenting. Sure, I am still figuring things out with both of them, but I take what I can, when I can. So without further ado, here are 6 things my dog has taught me about raising tiny humans.
1. Set Boundaries. Creating boundaries is a good idea for all relationships, even (and especially) with dogs. We had him trained, but we should have been more diligent about establishing control and boundaries. Having the baby just exacerbated all of the bad behavior that we had previously let slide.
Similarly for me, having a baby also means that I have to set personal boundaries. My time now has to be divided thoughtfully between a tiny human who is completely dependent upon me and everyone else — parents, clients, friends, my husband, myself and my puppy are now only allotted a pre-portioned amount of my energy. Setting up the structure of our relationship from the beginning would have eliminated this frustrating situation.
2. Put Yourself in Their Shoes. When the dog bites at my feet, I can be quick to anger. Then I stop and remind myself that he just wants to play. If I just wanted to play with someone and was met with ferocity what would that feel like? I imagine this exercise will prove useful as my daughter enters toddlerhood and her independence and mobility grow stronger.
3. Breathe. This is my go-to mama-hood tool. When the baby is screaming and the dog is biting at my feet, I will stop for a few seconds, close my eyes and take 3 deep breaths. Even a sort breathing session has an impressive ability to decompress the chaos.
4. Do Research and Don’t Be Scared to Call a Professional. First of all, I should have done my research: there are plenty of articles on the internet that walk through necessary preparations for introducing a puppy to a new baby. But I didn’t. I honestly just didn’t believe what so many people were telling me. After weeks in the unprepared trenches, I spoke with a dog trainer about our situation, and her advice was invaluable in making me feel more apt.
The same goes with babies. Sure the internet provides you with some the basics, and family and friends bring you the support system that you need to make it through the day. But everyone has different opinions, and the internet can be very confusing, especially when you’re looking for specialized information. In the end, nothing compares to one-on-one, in-person visits with an expert — whether it’s your pediatrician, a lactation consultant or a sleep coach.
5. More Positive Attention, Please. This is a tough one. The trainer who I spoke to told me that her experience and research suggest that punishments don’t work as well as positive reinforcement. I also found this to be true in our household. If I punish Phoenix, he just acts out more. So, I try to find opportunities to reward him. When he picks up a shoe and runs away from me hoping for a good game of chase, I tell him to drop it and reward him with a treat for the dropping behavior. This strategy feels counterintuitive, but it has worked much better than punishing him for the bad behavior. This positive reinforcement system is most certainly building up my toddler-mama muscle in preparation for the days to come.
6. Focused Attention. Once the baby was on a regular sleep schedule and started going down around the same time every night, I booked in one-on-one time with my puppy. I put the baby to bed and then give my puppy some serious snuggles. I also try to take him out for walks without the baby when someone else is watching her. Having to do this with my dog made me look to the other relationships in my life, too. I now book dedicated time to be completely present with my daughter, husband, parents and friends as well. It’s helped me stay organized and balanced and feel like myself as I navigate the ever-changing journey that is motherhood.
Jacqui Somen is a Certified Postnatal Fitness Specialist. She is a former ballet dancer, a coach for wellness entrepreneurs and is trained in trauma-informed yoga and Reiki. She teaches a Mama & Me Meditation and Movement class in Miami and writes about postnatal wellness at 100and8.com.