You know, I’ve been a dog trainer for a long time now. It’s been about ten years doing it professionally, and another ten before that just for my own pleasure. The truth is, though, that when I had my daughter, Maggie, in 2016, things really did change a whole lot. My schedule changed, my priorities changed, even my career changed. I switched from being a full time Special Education teacher to being a full time Dog Trainer so that I could work from home and stay with the baby.
As Maggie grew and flourished, changing from a sweet and helpless newborn to a curious and inquisitive infant, and now a busy and precocious toddler, I’ve come to personally experience many of the issues that I’ve coached clients through in the past, and have to personally find solutions for them in my own home. One of the MOST important things that I’ve found to keep the peace and harmony in a home with a toddler, two cats, two dogs, and a parrot, is Safe Spaces for everyone.
What Are Safe Spaces?
A fair question. A safe space is exactly what it sounds like: a place where child or animal can go, with the expectation that they are not going to be harassed, disturbed, or forced to engage in an activity that they don’t want to be a part of. Wouldn’t be nice if moms could have safe spaces too?
For my cats, it’s under the bed or high on the windowsill. Cats are pretty self-sufficient in taking care of themselves, so I don’t worry about them.
For the parrot, her cage is her safe space. Everyone who lives here, including the other animals, knows that you will face the wrath of Sarah if you put your fingers (or nose) into that cage. Not to mention the wrath of Sassifrass herself.
For the dogs, though, things are a little bit different. The dogs live on the same plane as we do, and they don’t have the built-in safety of a cage to hide behind. For the dogs, we must mindfully set up a space where they can feel safe, undisturbed, and unwind from the stress of being your little one’s best friend.
Why Do Dogs Need a Safe Space?
As I mentioned above, a Safe Space is a spot where your dog can unwind. Where he can feel safe, relaxed, and just rest awhile without worrying what trouble is headed his way. With young children in the house who are always looking for a playmate, a game, or a fun new distraction, your dog needs a
space to call his own where he can get away from all of that for awhile.
The reason behind the “why” goes a little bit deeper than that, though. When your dog is spending time with your baby or your toddler and your little one crosses a line of canine propriety (pulling fur too hard, jumping on the couch where he is resting, running madly up behind him and swatting him with a toy, the list goes on and on), your dog may react in a way that is natural for dogs, but not so natural for people. In a dog’s mind, especially a dog who is stressed or tired from so much time with the baby, such behaviors require a correction (and he’s right, they do…just not from him!). When a dog corrects a puppy for similar behaviors, it involves a growl and a quick snap of the teeth or grabbing of the puppy’s nose or scruff to get the point across that this isn’t acceptable. When a dog corrects a baby in the same way, tragedy strikes. Babies do not have the fur and thick skin that puppies do, so even a gentle correction will leave a bruise or a cut. If a correction is NOT so gentle, it can leave a lot more damage, both physically and emotionally.
And so, to avoid the stress and anxiety that leads up to a dog feeling like he has to correct a baby or toddler’s bad behavior, we set up spaces where your dog can feel safe from the baby, and where the baby understands that the dog is off limits.
What Do Safe Spaces Look Like?
Safe Spaces can look different in every home. My dogs are crate trained. They love their crates already – it’s where they eat their food, where they rest during the day, and where they sleep at night. When they are hanging out loose in the house, they will often wander over and lie down in their crates anyway, because they have such a great association with them. Therefore, here at my house, my dogs’ Safe Space is their crates. (There are a million reasons why crate training your dogs is an important skill for them to have, and I go over a few of them in this post.)
Crates or kennels also have the added benefit of having bars and latches on them, so when your child gets a little bit older and is really into sneaking around so you don’t know what mischief they’re up to, you can feel a little bit more secure in knowing that they can’t harass your dog more than a little bit before you get there to put a stop to it. It’s a big comfort to me knowing that, although Maggie may be dropping pieces of dropped dog food into the crate for them, she’s not able to push, pull, or pinch them through the crate walls.
If your dog is not crate trained, it’s not the end of the world. You just get to be a little bit more creative in how to set up a baby-proof spot for your pup to relax in. Some people teach their dogs to go into their bedrooms and lie down on the bed, out of reach. Some dogs have a little den underneath a desk or a bed. Wherever you and your dog choose to have a designated safe space, you’ve got to follow two basic rules regarding it:
- The dog should go there (either you bring him there, or he goes by himself) when he wants or needs a break from the baby.
- The baby is not allowed to bother the dog while he’s there.
How do I Teach My Baby about Safe Spaces?
This is where they joy of parenting and setting limits comes in. Just as when your child tries to stick his hand onto a hot burner on the stove, you should be vigilant and have conviction that your child not be allowed to bother the dog in his Safe Space. I always tell my child that when the dogs are in their Safe Space, “they’re resting.” She understands what Rest Time is, since we do it every day (whether she wants to or not!), so that makes sense to her. However, making sense to her doesn’t automatically mean that she leaves the dogs alone, which is where the tough love parenting comes in.
When I tell her to leave the dogs alone and to walk away, she needs to do it. If that means that I pick up her screaming, kicking little body and escort her from the room, so be it. The first few times I set that limit for her, she fought me on it, just as she fought me when I told her that she wasn’t allowed to climb onto my desk and play with my staples. However, the consistency of setting that limit has paid off, and now she herself will tell me, “The doggies are resting now. Shhhhhh!”
In short, creating a space for your dog where he can feel relaxed and safe from your baby’s busy antics not only helps to maintain peace and harmony in your home. It helps your dog to understand that he doesn’t have to defend himself against your baby, or correct unwanted behavior. And it helps your baby to understand that your dog is not a toy, but rather a friend who deserves respect, and a little bit of rest when he needs it!