Jack, Meet Ben (Part 2)

June 24, 2013  

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

In the second half of StubbyDog’s conversation with veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall and Pennsylvania SPCA board member and The Utley Foundation co-founder Jennifer Utley (you can read the first part of the interview here), they discuss developmental and behavioral changes, integrating Ben into Jack’s training, and how Jen manages when her husband Chase is on the road with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Jennifer, Jack, and Chase Utley

StubbyDog: Karen, how does everything change when the child’s movements and autonomy change?

Karen: Well, it’s interesting. Normal dogs recognize developmental stages, whether in dogs or in humans. The biggest risk to dogs when kids begin to toddle around is they may use the dog to stabilize themselves, or teethe on just about anything, including the dog’s ear or the dog’s tail. It’s that age group where we actually begin to see the first bites. So, until that age group, the injuries are all, “You got knocked over; you got stepped on; you got the baby carrier rolled on you.” But as soon as they get to that manipulative hoisting point, that’s another phase of risk.

StubbyDog: As the baby gets older and more mobile and the relationship with the dog changes, are there any behaviors that should make the new parents consider re-homing the dog?

Karen: There are two situations where re-homing can come in. The first is if you truly have a predatory dog — and I have these in my patient population. These are the dogs where you bring the kid home from the hospital and the dog stares at the child and salivates and licks its lips and is very still and, every time the baby goes in and out of sleep cycles, becomes very attentive.

The nice thing is, children will outgrow that stage, but until then the dog isn’t actually making the distinction between a child and a prey item, and they have to be extraordinarily cautious because the dog will generally react when the baby is waking up from a sleep cycle. Even a gentle, exploratory grab could do horrendous damage to an infant.

Jen: That’s exactly right.

Karen: I have to say, in my patient population, we’ve never had a serious injury. All of these people have been able to see the child very safely through that first six months of life and, in fact, these dogs have no other problems and they do quite well with the kids, and usually turn out to be the kid’s best friend as they age. But that’s a risk point, and what I tell clients is that if they have another home for this dog and they’re going to be nuts the whole time worrying that something will happen, the dog would be better off in another home.

StubbyDog: And what is the second situation?

Karen: The second situation is if you notice that the dog is becoming withdrawn, or his appetite changes, or he becomes overly attentive and watchful of the child.

Then you have to see if what the child is doing is terrorizing the dog, and in some cases they may be doing it deliberately. That generally takes a three or a four year old to begin to be that manipulative, and the kids will not realize that their behavior may be very out of line. The kids may know that what they’re doing is provoking the dog, but they’re not making the connection between “I really shouldn’t do this” and the consequences. Developmental psychologists say that that’s an extremely variable period, and it takes kids a long time to figure that out.

But if the dog is becoming very wary of the child all the time and their appetite has changed and their social behavior has changed, you need to watch more carefully because something that child is doing, whether it’s deliberate or malicious, is very scary to that dog and it isn’t going to end well.

StubbyDog: Jen, have you ever been in any situations that have given you cause for concern?

Jen: I had one situation when Ben was very young, and crawling, and it was completely my fault. I let him get all up in Jack’s face, crawl in his bed, play with his toys, all that stuff. And Jack snapped at him.

Jack Utley on the beach.

Thankfully, nothing happened, but it was completely my fault and it was such a check to me. But they really are best friends and they play well together. A lot of what I’m dealing with right now is that Ben’s really interested in Jack’s water and food bowls. I was always sticking my hand in Jack’s food bowl just because I knew we were going to have children at some point, and I just didn’t want to have that type of dog. I also had two cats, so I’ve had Jack ready to be around other creatures his whole life.

Karen: The cat point is a good one, because if he didn’t stalk cats, chances are he’s not going to stalk a kid. That’s a different type of dog.

Jen: And that is a dog where you cannot waiver in your training and your maintenance of his training. I think it’s the only way to really keep that kind of dog out of trouble.

StubbyDog: Jen, how did you feel after that incident, when Jack snapped at Ben?

Jen: I was just hysterical when it happened, not so much because of the snap but because I was so disappointed in myself as someone who knows so much about this. But it happens; you cannot be your child’s shadow 24 hours a day. For me to not blame Jack was easy because it was my fault.

I read an article that was written by a veterinarian and a trainer that pointed out that, when a mother dog snaps at her puppy’s muzzle, it’s the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for a human child. There’s not a lot of soft tissue to really hurt them; it’s bone. It’s just like, “Ah! That’s not what we do! Not okay!” That’s basically what Jack was doing to Ben.

Karen: Your point about it being a normal canine signal is a good one. We are living with another species, and these dogs have done the most miraculous job of accommodating all our weirdnesses; and yet, here’s a case where they’re doing a perfectly normal behavior and we won’t even give them an acknowledgement of that before we relinquish them — when, in fact, what we should be saying is “But the child wasn’t really injured. You know what that dog could have done.”

Jen: I was very upset with myself, but I have to look at it as “These things happen; we all make mistakes.” And it hasn’t happened since. I had to finally remind myself, “Wait a second. My dog is not a person.” My dog is a dog; as much as I want to believe he isn’t, he is. And it’s getting back to that truth which has kept everything in check.

StubbyDog: But the overarching message is that, regardless of breed, shape, size, it’s all about supervision and being on top of the situation as much as possible. It’s fair to say that any interaction with a child and a dog should be supervised.

Karen: I think that what Jen said about not being able to be vigilant every second of every day is true, but you also should be aware of situations that could provoke this.

So we’ve got to realize you can’t do this every second of every day but you can make a real assessment of risk and ask yourself if there is something that you could be doing. No one should leave a baby alone with any animal simply because if the animal can get into the crib with the kid, the kid could smother; it could have nothing to do with anybody being nasty.

But you’re going to want to know where everybody is at all times. You’re going to allow for species-normal behaviors, and that’s what Jack did.

StubbyDog: Jen, have you integrated Ben into Jack’s care and training at all?

Jen: I have! When I have Jack’s ball, I always make him sit before I throw it to him, and then I’ll say “Now give it to Ben.” I’ll make Jack sit and then I help Ben throw the ball. Or, if we go on walks in the stroller, I have Ben hold Jack’s leash. Of course I’m holding it, too, but he’s holding the end. When I give Jack treats and make him sit, I put them in Ben’s hand and I say, “Give Jack a treat; he’s a good boy.” So I’m really nourishing the relation between the two of them.

Karen: The work you are putting in now is going to be a lifetime payback for that child. Because the child, first of all, not only now has more tolerance because he’s learned to interact with two species, but that can be the fundamental relationship that turns the child into a humane adult.

StubbyDog: Karen, how should parents manage other children around their dogs?

Karen: There may be some of Ben’s friends that you’re not going to let interact with Jack when you see how they play. Some kids are just not developmentally ready, and not all kids are going to be nice with dogs. And when they’re not, it’s actually a flag to look further. I tell my clients who have kids and dogs that they need to vet their kids’ friends and families and they see how they behave with animals. And if they’re not happy with even a single thing they see, that dog can be perfectly ecstatic upstairs behind a locked door with a chew toy or a bone. We’ve got to be good guardians, not just of the children but also of the dogs.

StubbyDog: Jen, when you throw someone like Chase, who doesn’t really have a “normal” schedule, into the mix, does that change the household dynamic?

Jen: I don’t think so. With him being gone so much, it makes Jack and I more of a team. But it does add to my load because I don’t have another person if Chase is away. If he’s in town, I can say, “Can you go play with Jack,” or “Go watch TV and snuggle them,” or, “Go to the grocery store and please, just take him in the car, to get him out and to distract him and have him have some solo bonding time with you.”

Chase and Jack Utley.

When Chase is gone, it all is on me. So it is difficult to balance, and I’m lucky that I have enlisted a dog walker that helps me with that because then all of Jack’s energy is let out in a positive way. Then, when he comes home, he just wants to chill.

So when we’re playing with Ben, he’ll hang out on the floor. If we’re outside, he’ll come walk with us. It’s just all about recognizing your schedule and that you have to organize it a little bit. But you have to try to give everyone some time, every day.

Karen: What you said about Chase taking the dog to the supermarket when he is home so that Jack gets out is a good point. It’s basically about mental stimulation for the dog. Let him get out; let him have some time with you; let him go to a place where he’s not cooped up. Let him have the stimulation of different things.

Jen: If I can’t take him on a big walk or something, I bring him in the car with me everywhere, he’s with me, he’s out of the house, he’s not alone, and even if he’s not working out, it doesn’t matter. He’s exhausted from just being awake, so he’s tired.

Karen: You just said the single most important thing you could have said and this is what I tell all my clients. Everybody harps on how much exercise these high energy dogs need; no one ever tells you that most of the exercise they get could be cognitive if you just mentally stimulate them.

That could be going in a car, or sitting in your office while people are coming in and out all day, or going with you to the park, or just being in front of a big window where there is a lot going on.

StubbyDog: Karen, a lot of people might wonder how mental stimulation can be the same as physical exercise, as far as dogs are concerned.

Karen: It’s because of how dogs handle sleep deprivation. Dogs make up any sleep deprivation almost instantly. The parents and the babies don’t. Dogs have a very different response to sleep deprivation. They go into a deep sleep much more quickly after they’ve been deprived. But if the dog has nice manners and has what Jen would call boundaries and the dogs have the expectation that their needs will be kindly met, there’s no reason why going for a trip in the car can’t be almost as good as going to chase a Frisbee for half an hour.

StubbyDog: Karen and Jen, what do you think are the most important takeaways from this conversation?

Karen: Everybody can be successful with integrating their baby with their dog, and vice versa, but the work needs to be put in long before the baby comes home. Have a backup plan for when you’re not able to deal with it; this can be as simple as the dog going somewhere with a stuffed Kong. Have the dog have some manners, and have the dog be able to go with you as often as possible.

That’s not really that extraordinary, and the vast majority of dogs are willing to do that. But those manners need to be humanely instilled early and often.

Jen: I feel like my focus, as a human being, is to be a responsible pet owner, to learn the signals and be aware and be sensible. For example, if your dog has a problem with food, then put the dog in another room and let him eat alone, and keep his water and food bowls away from the kid.

These things aren’t brain surgery. You just have to think about it for a second. Rather than having to say “stop touching the dog food” all the time, it’s like, why are you leaving it there? Just move it.

This isn’t a big deal, and I think that there are things that people let themselves get so stressed and frustrated about that everyone in the house ends up frustrated, and the dog doesn’t understand. It’s all of these little things – just think about it really quickly, change it, and it’s not a big deal.

All these bad things, these attacks, these problems that people have between their dogs and their children are really from either negligent dog owners or negligent parents.

Karen: Well, the really interesting thing that Jen said there is that you’ve got this dog who is listening to you say all this stuff. The thing that clients really need to understand is that dogs work for one currency. Everybody thinks it’s rewards and praises and things like that. Dogs work for information. It’s the only thing they work for.

What a treat or a bone or praise does for them is give them information that what they did was okay. If you’re struggling with the dog in the situation she just outlined, where you’re yelling at the kid while you’re putting your hands in the bowl, the dog is going to be totally confused, whereas if you took that dog off and said, “Look, you need a break. Here’s some great food with something extra special in it tonight. Just chill out a little bit behind this gate or this door or in your crate,” the dog will be very clear that, in fact, he’s getting something special, he’s not being taken away from them, and he’s being protected.

Instead what usually happens is people drag the dog away and the dog is now the victim. But the dog doesn’t know what happened because he didn’t get that information about what the whole exchange was about, except it somehow ended up being the dog’s fault even though none of it was. It’s really essential to have good communication with all species.

Jen: I actually do believe that as a new parent, you have to take care of your dog a little bit more than your infant. I know that sounds weird, but what I mean by that is that your dog has already lived in your house. Your dog already has a routine and a life with you.

Then all of a sudden this newborn comes in and everyone’s routine is changed and as a human, you can understand what’s going on, but as a dog, you don’t. So it’s your responsibility, as the human, to really try to make that routine for him as easy as possible, and it’s a lot easier than people think it is for all the things that we’ve talked about already.

But, with that being said, the first five months of these babies’ lives they sit in a chair; they don’t move, they don’t go anywhere. So you actually do have the time to pay attention to the dog and have that introduction and friendship become positive. I do think that because I made a really conscious effort to make that happen, things are good between Jack and Ben.

Karen: I tell my clients a version of what you just said, and I tell them that this is the time for them to actually take some time every day with the dog. The baby doesn’t stay awake 24 hours a day. Take five minutes and spend it completely with the dog.

It will also de-stress the parent because, believe it or not, that’s the one thing you can still hold onto when your whole world has just changed. You still have that relationship with that dog and it can be a great solace for parents who otherwise feel that they’re confused and may not be doing everything correctly and they can’t remember when the last time they did X, Y, and Z was.

Jen: Yes, and I do think it’s good when the child sees that the parents are very respectful and protect the dog. Now that Ben’s in his toddler stage, I don’t let him have free rein with Jack, and I think Jack knows that also.

But because Jack has always been incorporated in Ben’s life, and Ben has observed how I am with Jack, he doesn’t terrorize Jack. At a young age, it was always “We don’t do that to Jack. We don’t do this to Jack; Jack is our friend. You want to pat the cats? You pat like this; you do not grab.” So now that he is starting to understand these things, I don’t have to go back and retread all that ground because it’s already been said.

Jen: They all learn by watching, all of them; and I think it’s very important for parents to realize that now you’re being watched by a lot of different creatures and it’s time for you to clean up your act.

Karen: Exactly. Everybody around us learns by what we actually do, and that goes for your child, your spouse, and your pet. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cat or a dog. Everything that they will do in return is completely consistent with what they’ve learned from watching your behavior.

StubbyDog: Karen and Jen, it has been a real pleasure to be part of your conversation, and hopefully other expectant parents can use your experience and expertise to make their own introductions between pit bull and baby a little easier. Thank you!

Jack Utley.

Part One of the interview can be read here.

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