Stella is our 12-pound Chinese Crested rescue dog. When I became pregnant, she curled up by my belly every night, right next to the baby.
We had been diligent about preparing our dog for baby, but it hadn't occurred to us to prepare our dog for a toddler that had erratic, unsteady movements and loud noises.
Toddlers, in general, can be a bit unpredictable and irritating to pets. In addition, our son had a few unique characteristics with his special needs that seemed to spike her anxiety.
We called a dog trainer out to our house. She was a great deal of help and ultimately made it possible for both humans and dogs to be happy and feel safe in our home.
I also modified some of her ideas to apply them specifically to our situation. The following is what we learned from our experiences.
Special needs kids can have flapping hands, waving arms, and a variety of jerking movements for numerous reasons. These movements can frighten some dogs or increase anxiety when they seated near one another or on the same piece of furniture.
We trained our dog with an "off" cue. Without your child in the room, sit on the couch or bed with your dog. Simply tell him/her to jump off while saying the word "off." When the dog's feet hit the floor, quickly reward with a treat. Let her jump back up on her own, and do it again. Keep your voice quiet and calm -- even monotone. No big deal. Ask her at random points throughout the day to jump down or away. Eventually, you'll be able to withhold treats and still get the same positive reactions. She'll feel smart, loved, and like she is fulfilling a task -- not rejected or pushed away.
Practically every special needs parent is aware of the growing amount of equipment, toys, and accommodations in the home. Gait trainers, exercise balls, standing boards, wheelchairs -- they all take up extra room. Your dog might feel like she/he is being pushed out of the house inch by inch, which can eventually contribute to aggressive resource guarding behaviors.
Give your pup a special space of her own. Select a blanket, bed, or pillow that she likes and place it in a family area. Unlike the first step where you reward her for jumping off, with this tip, you reward her for staying on. Provide high-value, yummy treats when she steps onto the mat, then when she lies down, and finally when she's resting. Give her lots of attention, including grooming her with long, calming strokes. Use the same cue word every time. Eventually, you can even bring the bed with you from room to room, or even the hospital (if they allow it).
Put treats in a drawer that your child can reach into and take out himself. Show your child how to drop a peanut-butter-filled Kong toy at the dog's feet. Our son was able to scoop the dog food himself and set it on the floor -- a big win for our family. With that little act of inclusion in routine, our dog went from tolerating our son to wagging her tail when she saw him.
While most days we can barely fit one more "to-do" in our routine, when you have a family pet, it leads down an incredible road of peace and ease when you continue to devote 1:1 time to your dog. Try taking her to a doggy daycare, a dog park, an agility course, or a dog bathing business. We know that many families with special needs kids have zero time or energy left for some of these activities. If this is the case, see if you can hire a neighborhood teen to help, reach out to your church or family members, or even a find a dog-watcher from the site Care.com and book an hour 2-4 times a month. A stressed out dog can affect an entire house.
Some children have a hard time understanding the concept of what a pet is and isn't. It can be hard to teach about a dog in real-time. So we found a large, stuffed dog toy and taught our son to pet with "fat hand" (your hand with all the fingers spread out, palm down). We showed him pleasing areas to pet, and we use a quiet voice. We found dog books from the library and we take pictures with the dog for our own "dog book" at home. This can help some children view the dog as a part of the family and not just a funny object.
Like I said earlier, some breeds of dogs are more prone to anxiety with children, and others simply have a disposition that makes it harder for them to understand and tolerate all the movements, noises, and changes. It's best to first check with your vet and a trusted trainer about your family pet. Make sure you learn as much as possible about the pet's history, and don't dismiss signs of aggression.
It should be encouraging to know, though, that many dogs who have shown initial signs of stress with a special needs child can still continue to be relaxed, cherished members of the family. Extra training may be required, but it's well worth it in the end and can be highly rewarding for children in the family, as well.
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