setting boundaries between children and pets

Inspired by one of my best friends, I wanted to update you guys on the relationship between Cookie and Johanna and my role as the relationship “monitor.” My friend recently asked me a question that only a pet owner would understand, “Do you think when you had Johanna, it made you realize that Cookie is a dog?” My answer, “Yes!” The reason I say that only a pet owner would understand is because without children we often think and treat our pets as if they are human beings or another member of the family. We don’t think of them as just a dog and therefore we don’t incorporate things such as boundaries that we typically would without children in the picture.

Before I had Johanna, Cookie was spoiled rotten. I had no rules for her, no boundaries set, she had free roam of the house and the yard and 100% of my attention. I will say, Cookie is a really good dog if you take away her separation anxiety. I got Cookie when she was almost 4 years old and she developed some separation anxiety. Naturally, I treated her more like a baby than a dog and her anxiety began to get worse. Luckily, it was able to be treated before I was even pregnant with Johanna. Her separation anxiety has been maintained but this was definitely something I worried about before giving birth. I thought her anxiety would increase more because I would no longer be able to give her all of my attention or she would create such a tight bond with Johanna that her separation anxiety would then transfer from me to the baby. So far so good, but I know that the older Johanna get’s the more changes will occur. 

My friend just recently adopted a dog and although there are many similarities, her situation is a complete reverse from mine. She has a 2 year old daughter and a cat. Instead of introducing a baby to the family, she is introducing a dog to the family. She has been a dog owner all of her life but now that she has a new dog with a baby and a cat, the anxiety about creating the perfect family can sometimes be overwhelming. If you’re a Mama and a dog Mama then you will understand what I mean by that! Listen, there is no perfect scenario for how the relationship between pets and children should or shouldn’t be. It is a learning process and it takes time! I have by no means figured out how Johanna and Cookie will be in the future but I can assure I do my best everyday to make sure that both of them are comfortable. 

Hands down, the most important thing to do when introducing a dog to the family or a baby to the family is to set boundaries. It can be so hard, I know but research shows that both children and pets do much better when there are boundaries and rules established within the household. In the beginning, I went with the flow of things. As Johanna gets older and more curious, things have changed for both of them. The biggest thing about setting boundaries is to be patient, stay consistent and make sure you set boundaries for both the pet and the child. 

I will give you an example and remember Johanna is only one year old. The other day Johanna pulled Cookie’s tail. Cookie yelped but turned around and licked Johanna in the face (excellent response to having a limb pulled to the point of pain). Either the yelp or the lick scared Johanna so she began to cry. The first instinct is to pick the child up and console them but what about the dog who just experienced aggression from the child and responded with love? Instead of doing the instinctual thing, I consoled Cookie. I sat down on the floor and began talking to Cookie in my best dog Mama voice. I pet her tail, told her she was a “good girl” and told her “it’s okay.” Listen, it seriously broke my heart into pieces that I left my crying Johanna to stand their alone and watch me give my affection to my “other child” while she was the one upset. But you have to remember this, dog’s have personalities, emotions and feelings too! They see and learn things just as a human child does. After some time, I called Johanna over to us and she sat down. I explained to my ONE YEAR OLD that we can’t hurt the dog. I placed her hand flat on Cookie’s back and said “good job.” I tried my best to teach her that what she did is not acceptable and will not be rewarded with my love and affection. Then just like that, it was over and they were back to being best friends.

While we’d all like to say, “it’s just a dog,” it is so unhealthy to think and act this way. Why? You are building resentment, jealousy and overall teaching bad behavior for both the child and the dog. One of my favorite quotes written by an unknown source is, “Teaching children to be kinder to animals today, is our only hope for a kinder world tomorrow.” I believe from the bottom of my heart a child learns to love compassionately by first loving animals. Johanna has to learn what is okay and what is not okay when it comes to Cookie. Some more examples of this are that Johanna is not allowed near Cookie while she is chewing her bone or playing with her toys (minus the tennis ball which they play with together), Johanna is not allowed near Cookie’s food bowl or on her bed and Johanna is not allowed to hit her or pull her limbs or her mouth (more on this one later). The reason that Johanna has to have these boundaries is because Cookie was here first. At the end of the day, Cookie has been used to these things alone for a very long time. It would not be fair to make Cookie adjust to having her personal things and space invaded that way just because she “is just a dog.” Again, it builds resentment, jealousy and behavioral problems. Dogs need their space just as humans do!

Now, Cookie definitely has to learn that she can’t always get what she wants now that Johanna is here. Some boundaries that I’ve set for Cookie are that she can’t be in the living room when she is hyped up. Sometimes when we get home, she is so excited she literally cannot contain herself. Since the living room is gated off, I do not allow her in the same space as Johanna when she is acting like that. Once she calms down, she is invited in to “play.” Cookie is also not allowed to play with Johanna’s toys. This prevents any future territorial problems and overall is just gross. Don’t get me wrong there are definitely boundaries we are still working on. Cookie has a “licking” problem and really likes to get in Johanna’s face and lick her especially when we get home from being gone all day. While I try my best to stop this from happening or give a 2 lick minimum, Cookie really doesn’t care what I have to say about it. Over the last few weeks, Johanna really hates when Cookie licks her in the face. I must admit, I need to do a better job at monitoring and conquering this bad habit of hers.

Another boundary that we've set outside the home is car rides! When Johanna was just a baby, I didn't trust Cookie to sit in the back seat. Not because I thought she was going to be aggressive but I wasn't sure how she would respond to a baby taking over "her" back seat. Up until Johanna was about 6 months old, Cookie rode in the front seat. Again, setting boundaries for Cookie to respect space. Now that Cookie is allowed in the back seat with Johanna, she knows that she can't lick Johanna in the face or anything of that nature while I am driving. She sits in her seat and either looks out the window or lays down. This is a learned behavior by enforcing a boundary. Now the walks with the strollers is something we're still working on but remember, one step at a time. 

While setting boundaries is so important and has to be done, there are some things that will not work out the way you think or hope they will. Another example, I planned on teaching Johanna that she can’t touch Cookie’s ears. Again, another limb that just shouldn’t be pulled. However, Johanna actually likes to put Cookie’s ears in her mouth or simply stick her fingers in them. Surprisingly, Cookie doesn’t mind her doing these things. I’ve witnessed Cookie lay in Johanna’s lap just for her to do something to her ears. You see, these types of things are going to happen. My best advice is to observe closely, figure out what each of them can and can’t tolerate and go from there. Once you observe a pattern of behavior (more than 3 times of doing something) that you don’t like, start enforcing those boundaries. Don’t forget what I said earlier about there needing to be consistency and patience involved in the process. I will tell you just as I told my friend, “You will figure this out, I promise. It will just take time and patience and consistency. You now have another kid and you just have to teach them, that is all.” By no means am I perfect with this, I still have a lot of learning and a long way to go! By the grace of God, Johanna and Cookie are really bonded. They love each other and for the most part respect each other. I am extremely blessed to have such an amazing dog and I am so very proud of her for adjusting the way that she has! 

​Before I forget, another thing about teaching these boundaries to your child is that when they come across another animal that they do not know, they will be able to respect this dog. It’s extremely important to make sure this happens because other dog’s may not respond to children the way yours does!

As always, you’re doing a great job Mama’s!

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