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Monday 21 January 2019

Teaching big dogs new tricks

Missy's a big dog, weighing in at around 10 stone, and until the baby's arrival, she was the centre of attention in Sorcha's household. Everybody adores her; she oozes gentle good nature.

When Sorcha discovered that she was pregnant, she was delighted, but she did have one concern: how would Missy take to the new baby?

Sorcha knew that their family's home life would be completely transformed, but she couldn't explain what was happening to Missy. The dog might feel that she was being pushed out by the new arrival, and there was a risk that she might feel nervous or frightened of the baby.

Sorcha did some research and she quickly discovered that there were some simple steps that she should take in advance of the baby's birth to increase the chances of things working out well.

Firstly, she did some extra work on Missy's obedience training. It's bad enough if a small terrier jumps up on a child, but if a St Bernard was out of control, there could be very serious consequences.

Sorcha did extra training with Missy, so that she reliably responded to simple commands such as "Here", "Sit", "Down" and "Walk to heel". Sorcha realised that a well-behaved dog would make life much easier when she was trying to care for the needs of her newborn child.

The second area that needed pre-baby preparation for Missy is known as "socialisation". Missy had never met a baby before, and it was important that she became familiar with little humans before one arrived into her own house permanently.

It so happened that Sorcha's sister-in-law had had a baby, Isabelle, almost exactly one year before Sorcha was due, and they were next-door neighbours. Sorcha took Missy to visit as often as possible, so that she was able to get used to the many different aspects of babyhood.

The big dog learned all about the sound of a baby crying, the smells associated with babies (from nappies to burps and soiled bibs) and many other aspects of infant care. As Isabelle grew older, Missy grew used to the fact that babies crawl on the floor, and then begin to totter around unpredictably on two legs.

Under close supervision, Isabelle even now takes Missy by the lead. Missy has always enjoyed as much attention as she can get and she has happily lapped up this extra affection from a human being who's so much tinier than herself.

It's a two-way street, of course. Just as Missy has benefited by becoming much more relaxed around children, Isabelle has also gained -- by learning to be comfortable with dogs. There can also be health benefits, with studies showing that early contact with animals may help to prevent asthma as children grow older.

During her maternity leave, Sorcha took Missy for a short visit to Isabelle every day. When Sorcha went into hospital for five days to give birth, her husband brought blankets and clothing home every evening, familiarising Missy with the combined scent of Sorcha and the new baby. The end result was exactly as planned: when Sorcha and Sophie Ava arrived home, Missy was not at all perturbed. She accepted the new baby with ease.

And as you can see from the photo, as Sophie Ava is growing older, she's beginning to enjoy her big dog "sister" in new and different ways. Who knows, her first memory may be riding around the living room on the back of Missy the 'nanny' St Bernard.

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Visit Pete's website at petethevet.com

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