Jack, Meet Ben (Part 1)

June 17, 2013  

How Jennifer and Chase Utley introduced pit bull Jack to new baby Ben

StubbyDog recently had the wonderful opportunity to be present at a conversation between two Philadelphia pit bull lovers, Dr. Karen Overall, a world-renowned veterinary behaviorist, and Jennifer Utley, board member of the Pennsylvania SPCA and co-founder of The Utley Foundation (with her husband Chase Utley, the Philadelphia Phillies All-Star).

As expectant parents Jennifer and Chase Utley did everything possible to be sure the meeting between their son Ben and dog Jack was a happy one. Jen sat down with Karen to talk about pit bulls, family, and safety, and agreed pit bulls can be great around kids – you just need to teach them good manners. There’s far more risk of a pit bull accidently knocking a child over than biting one, Overall says. So teach your dog to sit and stay down – and be consistent and committed to your training regimen.

Note: While our focus at StubbyDog is on pit bulls, as is this piece, the majority of what follows applies to all dogs.

Jack Utley and Ben Utley.

StubbyDog: People can have these preconceived notions about pit bulls that make the pit bull and people interaction problematic, let alone the pit bull and child interaction. What should pit bull guardians be doing to evaluate the situation prior to their baby’s arrival?

Karen Overall: My first question is always “How energetic is your dog?”

Jen Utley: Jack is extremely energetic.

Karen: I’m less worried about someone perceiving a dog as aggressive than I am about the energy level, because that’s the thing that always scares me to death with kids. People should be aware that there are two mega-risk situations for anybody with an energetic dog – of any size – and children.

The first situation is: you’re outside and you have a stroller, a backpack, or a diaper bag. You’ve got the kid, plus gear, because children never travel by themselves; they have an army of things that need to go with them. And then you’ve got this energetic dog who goes off to see someone, goes off to see another dog, goes off to see whatever, who pulls you on the leash and all of a sudden, you’re in traffic and the baby stroller is upended.

So my first lecture to people is always about manners and the dog when you’re out in public with the baby and the baby’s accoutrement, because that to me is the single biggest risk for anything. This means the dog is getting a fraction of the attention he once received. Not only are the parents busy with the child, but the dog doesn’t even get to do things they use to or go to the places they once did. And so the dog is bereft because of that.

StubbyDog: And the second big risk?

Karen Overall.

Karen: The second biggest risk with that energetic type of dog is in a household situation. It’s fine if the dog bounces off walls as long as they come to learn that a baby is fragile. But if the dog plows into you and bounces its toys off the wall and runs up and down the stairs and careens into the backs of people’s legs, if they’re going do that with an infant or a toddler, that’s how skulls get fractured. People are often worried about the bite, but the most likely scenario is that a child ends up with a fractured skull.

This is a completely preventable situation that could happen with children and their caretakers. It all has to do with the fact that you’ve got this high energy dog and they may not have manners, or no one’s worked with them to develop any techniques to balance out that energy. And now they’ve got no outlet for that energy because of the reasons I said: you’ve got a child who’s taking up most of your time and if they’re poorly mannered, they don’t get to go out as much or have as many opportunities to release some of that energy.

StubbyDog: Jen, how are Jack’s manners?

Jen: Jack’s amazing. I have a very well trained dog, which I worked on constantly when he was a puppy.

Karen: That’s the magic word: Work.

Jen: And we’ve maintained it. I don’t feel like I ever really let it slide, either. I feel like some people tend to do training and then sort of let it slide by the wayside, which I never did – it was too important to both of us to let that happen.

StubbyDog: Karen, you recently had a client who did all the right things to prepare a dog for the arrival of a baby, but they were still worried. What did they do?

Karen: They got a baby stroller already, they put dolls in the stroller, they started walking the dog next to the stroller so they can teach him to walk easily, and they’ve got him on the right kind of harness. But they got panicky, and now she doesn’t know what she’s going to do if the dog does jump up. Well, this is a dog you only have to ask to sit still, and he’ll do it.

Jen: What’s interesting to me is that this person has a dog that she suddenly thinks, out of the blue, is going to hurt a child. I don’t understand that mindset.

Karen: It’s funny, because when I finally saw the dog paying attention to the baby I totally got it. Mind you, I love this dog. This is a gorgeous dog. He’s a cuddle bun, and she’s just in love with this dog. But, when this dog sees a child, he becomes completely silent and just focuses on the kid.

Jen: Oh. Okay. Totally different story.

Karen: Yes! The whole thing scared them, and nothing in this dog’s history led me to believe that this dog would injure a child. But now we’ve got to find somebody to produce a child [to see how the dog behaves]. It seems like everyone in the extended family has kids, but the one time he was with some toddlers, the toddlers were asked not to chase the dog, and they did anyway. One kid ended up by being bowled over, and that led to bad family feeling.

My client ended up getting a friend with a seven month old to come along so that we could introduce them. And it became immediately obvious to everyone that this dog was actually in love with kids. Appreciating that the risk was not going to be that this dog would become violent and bite but that he would knock the baby over, and that’s what she really needs to work on.

Jen, what you said about Jack is really important. He basically has manners. He has training, so he understands “sit,” “no, walk slowly,” “no, don’t jump.” And you didn’t let that training go. You didn’t think, “Well, he learned this; now we don’t have to practice it anymore.”

Jen: Also, as much as I talk to my dog and love him like he is a human, I also am very aware that he’s not a human, and I am very aware that he does not speak English, and I am very aware that his instincts are different from a person’s.

StubbyDog: What happened when the child was knocked over?

Karen: In that case, everybody said, “Well, the kids were asked to not do these things and they kept doing these things,” to which my response was, “At that point, you should have removed the dog from the situation.”

Jen: Right – then put the dog in a room. Whenever something like that happens, the blame should always revert to the people.

StubbyDog: Let’s switch gears a little. Jen, how did you handle coming home from the hospital that first time?

Jen: You know, it was very easy for us. Chase brought the baby in because I had been gone for five days, and I just went in and played with Jack by myself for a while. I just feel like we have had a lot of success with integrating all parts of our family because we all work on it. This stuff takes work. A lot of people ignore their dogs and then the dogs are suddenly shunned and they have no idea what is going on. That’s a huge thing that you have to be careful of.

Karen: Nine out of ten people can have that success if they understand up front the things that you understand.

Jack Utley on a play date.

Jen: Sometimes I was exhausted, as all new parents are, and so I outsourced. I got a dog walker to come and keep my dog socialized and keep him running so that when he came to me, he was calm. This was a luxury.

Karen: A couple of things you said are really important, and this is something I really emphasize to my clients. They can hear it; they can be told it, but they really have no idea as to how physically and mentally fatiguing it’s going to be. They’re not going to be able to pay attention to the dog in the same way. And even if they’re not wealthy, they can still get some help from a friend, a family member or a dog walker.

StubbyDog: Jen, what advice would you give to expecting parents?

Jen: Start making new routines now, because the sooner the dog adapts to a pattern, it will be an easier transition when the baby comes.

Karen: That’s one of the things that I discussed with my clients, about beginning to have other people come help. And they’d already done the first part, which is to start behaving the way you’re going to be when the baby comes. In an ideal world, what are you going to be doing with this dog and this child together you should start doing now.

Jen: Jack was never really a puller on the leash, because we maintained his manners, but when the stroller came out, he slowed down. I actually became keenly aware that he was more of a “nanny dog” around my baby when we were out, and he sometimes got a little snappier with other dogs coming up to the stroller.

Karen: It’s interesting to me that you use the term “nanny dog,” because the Staffordshire Terriers which pit bulls are derived from, and pit bulls in general, were selected to be extraordinarily social. Most dogs who are that social and that people have a good relationship with, they make the real distinction between “ours” and “theirs”.

Jen: True, but I also think that has to be reeled in a little.

Karen: It does. If the dog is going to snap at another dog, there could be a fight. You have to be able to tell the dog that he can keep watching, but he can’t react as he did before because you’re going to end up being pulled into traffic or the baby will get knocked about in the stroller. And I know I keep coming back to that, but those are the common injuries, far more common than bites.

StubbyDog: Karen, do you often do various kinds of simulations and practice scenarios so that new parents are better prepared?

Karen: I’m doing more of that, because I want people to think through everything that can go wrong, and I want them to make lists of the things that scare them and why and what they’re worried about. For example, that may be the first time you find out that they live at the top of a house that’s all stairs and they’ve got to get this 70 pound dog that’s all muscle plus the groceries plus the baby up three flights of stairs. Because if they don’t do an actual run-through, they may not realize that this is a point where things are going to fall apart.

So what is the solution for that scenario? Do you bring the dog in and hook him to the leash holder that you had installed? Do you take the baby upstairs first, and then you come and get the dog? Is there a way to leave the groceries while you get everyone settled? These are the practical things that come up in everyday life that nobody thinks about. I’ve found that the more that we can get people to think about these things, the safer everybody is and the more realistic they are. So I want people to at least try these things so it doesn’t come as huge surprise.

StubbyDog: Jen, you mentioned that you’ve maintained Jack’s manners. What do you feel is the best way for people to do that with their own dogs?

Jen: It actually isn’t a terrible amount of work if you just incorporate it into everyday life.

Karen: My rule for all dogs is that they sit before they get anything they want. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dinner or to have the door opened. I don’t need four dogs bouncing up and down and hitting me before I open the door. Everybody sits; they wait; you send the dog down the stairs first. (It’s a good rule anyway.) The dog sits when he gets to the bottom. These are easily re-enforceable things. They sit before you put down their food.

If you reinforce these every single day, the types of adjustments that Jen had to make when Ben was born were actually very common sense ones. That’s what dog training should be. But on a day-to-day basis, what she was really doing was just living with the dog.

StubbyDog: People may tolerate a lot of bratty dog behavior before the child shows up.

Jen: Yes, and it becomes an annoyance after the child is born. That’s the difference.

Karen: And that was the difference here. Jen didn’t tolerate it beforehand, and that is what made it so seamless. They’ve got a lovely dog that’s very nicely mannered, and Ben and Jack are going to be great friends. And I’m sure there are going to be scrapes and bruises on both of their parts before it’s all over.

Jen: I do think it’s about work and bringing them into your life and not isolating the dog and not making them feel like they’re being replaced, but also setting some very strong boundaries. In my experience, that has been the recipe for success with integrating new child into your home with your dog.

Karen: That’s right. I think that when people hear the word “work”, they think that if you go to a training class and put in these hours and the dog learns all these things that are completely irrelevant to the real world, you’ve got a trained dog. No – the things you need to have under control are:

  • Will this dog allow me to put a lead and a harness on easily?
  • Will this dog walk nicely under all sorts of social conditions or am I always struggling to keep the dog from grabbing somebody or bolting out in front of traffic?
  • Because if you were struggling before, you’re going to struggle worse when there is a child.
  • Is this a dog that I can reach towards and make adjustments to when needed? Or is this a dog who is going to be a risk? Because you can raise him with a baby, but they have to be kept separate during feeding times.
  • Is this a dog you can ask to sit, or does he jump up on everybody he sees?

These are the things that are going to matter to you on a day-to-day basis.

Jen Utley playing ball with pit bull Jack.

You can read Part 2 of the interview here.

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