So you are at that stage in your life where it is time to start a family. And with all of those best laid plans, it’s not happening as quickly as you might like. Whatever the reasons and whatever the plan, you’ve reached the stage in your journey where you have decided, it’s time to shift focus and realise that other burning ambition – to get yourself a dog! Some say it helps in the conception process. For me the jury is out on that one. Having had to reduce the miraculous process of conception to its most scientific form, as far as I am concerned, conception is a glorious symphony of science mixed with pure chance – no-one can control it, predict it or affect it, but the distraction of a furry creature on four legs can definitely make the agonising process more tolerable. For me it is a point on the journey where two ambitions coincide.
For us we had just reached the point on our particular journey where we just weren’t going to put life on hold for any longer. It was Christmas 2008 – we were talking about the future and for us 2009 was going to be the year of saying ‘yes’, not ‘let’s wait’! The first ‘yes’ we said was to the lady who offered us the chance to come and see the remainder of her springer spaniel litter in January. I had my heart set on a bitch, but she only had dogs left. But ‘yes’, we said, and there he was! Duncan! Already a chaotic bundle of adorable puppy, and most definitely a ‘yes’!
Back in the real world, we were still on the unending IVF merry-go-round, and had just completed our least ‘fruitful’ cycle to date. Our hopes were low, but at least we had the impending arrival of Duncan to focus on. And in timely fashion, our pregnancy test was due the day before we were due to collect him. Of course, the inevitable happened! We were pregnant! Well wouldn’t you know it! The start of two enormous adventures at once.
I of course spent my entire pregnancy paranoid that my gorgeous puppy was instantaneously going to turn into Kujo the moment our baby was born and consume her in one mouthful. My joy at finally having a bundle of joy to call my own was tempered by the fact that I was going to have to do my utmost to stop him savaging bundle of joy number two from the moment she hit the planet. I had sleepless nights, read every book on the subject, talked to dog trainers. I even bought a doll as recommended by one ‘expert’ so that the dog got used to having a baby shaped thing around and didn’t eat it. But frankly that just freaked me out so I focussed on more practical means of separation.
And so to my first word of wisdom if you ever find yourself in this position. Never underestimate the amount of dog or stair gates you might need to achieve perfect peace of mind. Having worked in a bigh security prison, I can speak with authority on the subject – double gating is the answer. Then if one fails, you have a back up!
Perspective is also good at this point. I have a springer spaniel. They are bonkers. Most puppies are a bit bonkers, but springer spaniels are bonkers for most of their lives. They are enthusiastic rather than aggressive, but can be possessive and that is the one to watch out for. If they have a sock, they don’t want you having a sock, and you have to teach them who’s boss! That is when you get the professionals in, which is what I did. Don’t be afraid to do it. They know what they are talking about, but there are so many schools of thought, you have to find the right approach for you.
But back to that perspective. In my experience, dogs seem to have an awareness of the natural order from the start. Whether it’s the fact that from the moment you return from wherever you went for a few days with a new pink alive thing, and effectively ignore them from then on, or whether they it’s just mother nature, who can say. But Duncan certainly knew his place when it came to Ella. I think most dogs if really really pushed might nip at the worst, but the cases you read about in the papers are rare and usually down to human error.
Guilt will visit you frequently too. Guilt is of course a right of passage as a parent – you will feel guilty often and always about decisions you have made, things you may have not done according to the ‘perfect parent manual’, or just crazy stuff like sneaking a chocolate biscuit when banning your child from all form of sugar. But the guilt you will feel towards your dog is unique. I am sure mothers of more than one child feel it, but at least you can explain it to a human child at some point. Try explaining it to a dog.
I remember sitting by Duncan’s cage the night I came home from hospital, sobbing, apologising for ruining his life by having to focus my attention elsewhere. And that was just the beginning, because there will be days…many of them, when you simply will not be able to handle the logistics of getting child and dog from A to B and dog out for a walk. There will be lots of them. Whether it’s because of the weather, or somebody is ill, or just because something totally unpredictable has occurred, explosive nappy probably, there will be days when you just won’t make it out. I can reassure you that it is not the end of the world. Not only did Duncan occasionally miss walks, he actually broke his leg (unrelated to baby) 3 times and had to be put on cage rest for several weeks on each occasion. This equals ‘no walks’! Obviously dogs need their exercise and you should always plan to give it to them, but on those days when it doesn’t happen, don’t beat yourself up. They will be fine.
There is also an all over arching set of unknown facts about trying to walk a dog – especially a chaotic one – with a small child, be it a new born baby that you can sling in a slingy thing, a sleeping baby that you can bundle into a pram, a ‘just walking’ toddler (oh joy), or a more curious and energetic pre-schooler.
These include the fact that, at the exact moment your dog decides to run after a squirrel, your child will also fall down face first into a pile of gravel, your dog will always decide to do its business just as you are trying to stop your child from falling into a ditch and despite stashing them in every orifice possible, yes including the baby, you will never have a pooh bag. And any idea you had of containing your child within the safe confines of a pushchair and going for a gentle and relaxing stroll will definitely be kyboshed by the fact that child will only tolerate incarceration in said pushchair for 1 minute and 30 seconds…maximum. One word of advice to prolong this phase. Snacks! Lots of them! Just keep shovelling them in! The child. Not the dog.
But in the end you will ditch the pushchair. You have no choice. And then about half way into your dog walk, your child will decide it doesn’t want to walk any more. You will have to carry him/her, usually juggling one or more full pooh bags to boot, all the way back to the car/house/cafe. I shudder at my most horrific memory – the moment the pooh bag burst as I lifted child on to hip! Worst ..moment..ever!
And finally to mealtimes. That other stressful part of the day. You have been slaving away over your Annabel Karmel trying to create the perfect mush for baby, or you’ve turned your back on the fish fingers of a home made delight. You finally get it in front of your hungry child, only to see another hungry face, remove it in one mouthful from his/her grasp. Not only are you left with a screaming and hysterical child, but you have to start all….over….again!!
Trust me, I am seeking to reassure you here, rather than alarm you, or rather trying to help you through the worst of it by creating a smile of irony or recognition. And here are my Top Tips for surviving Puppies and Parent Hood!
- Training! If you can go to puppy training classes – do it! I did it, and whilst we still have the most disobedient dog in the world, I know he knows what is what when push comes to shove and I have the confidence that he does. It teaches you basic psychology which can be darned useful!
- Ask an Expert. If you do have any worries about any aspect of your dog’s behaviour, don’t panic. You don’t have to assume you need to get rid of him. Ask the expert. There is almost always a logical solution. And sometimes it just helps you to focus and come up with a plan.
- Take all the help you can get! If you can manage it, get a dog walker, or a friend, certainly for the first few weeks. It gets one of them out from under your feet for a while at least, and you have one less thing to worry about while you cope with new baby.
- Have a think about segregation in advance of your new arrival. Obviously all dogs are different, but you don’t want to be leaving dog and baby alone in a room on their own at any time. And if they are in a room together, even with you there, you don’t want over exuberant puppy to be knocking baby bouncers or moses baskets flying. Crating is one answer, multiple dog gates another, but I had a spare cot downstairs that I used to pop baby in if I had to go and do something in another room. As they get older, you drop the base and they turn into playpens. My daughter only tolerated them for a nano-second but it meant I could answer the door or go to the loo at least.
- Consider your dog walking equipment. You will be amazed how quickly your baby grows and how their needs change. Yes, you probably will have a few blissful weeks of pushing them in a pram, dog in tow, but depending again on the breed, you might want to go for some more rural walks at some stage. Definitely invest in an all terrain buggy for maximum flexibility. It is so worth it. A baby back carrier is also a good idea so that you can walk unencumbered at the weekends with dad! But get your baby used to it early, or they will object!
- Research some ‘buggy/baby friendly’ walks – Facebook is great for asking people – and try and find some places that everyone can run around safely. As soon as your baby starts walking they will want to walk, but may be not very far, and then they will want to be pushing toy buggies, riding on trikes and all sorts of stuff and the juggling can be a nightmare!
- Find some partners in crime! Other people in the same situation are a God send. Safety in numbers is always a nice treat – it doesn’t feel anywhere near as stressful when you’ve got somebody else to laugh and cry with on those crazy dog walks. Plus you can juggle children between you! One can grab toddlers, while the other chases dogs. I think my record with a friend of mind was 4 dogs, and 3 children – all completely out of control…ah…how we laughed!!!
- Ditch the guilt. You can only do what you can do and doing the ‘first time parent’ thing with a dog and a baby means you have to expect the unexpected. Babies are tough enough arriving minus a manual – dogs…born survivors. So don’t worry. Days will come and go when dog does not get walked. It is fine. They will survive. What is important is that you do, with your sanity in tact, because you are the one that keeps everyone going!
And now for the good news! When they both get to about 4 years old, they will both want nothing more than to run around in the garden together playing with balls. At that point – you can boil the kettle, make yourself a cup of tea and relax. Did I say relax? Best friends forever! Duncan is now Ella’s alarm clock. He gets her up for school with a slobbery lick and our day starts with a giggle. It was all worth it!
PS. If somebody can invent a means of carrying a baby, pooh bags, leads and harnesses, snacks, changing kit, disguarded coats and clothing whilst also bending down to retrieve pooh, then please let me know. You are on to a winner!