Marti Hohmann

Marti Hohmann is a Texas-based trainer and animal welfare worker.

Culture: Reviews
And Baby Makes Four
TFH Publications, 95 pp., 2007; $9.95

This friendly and attractive guide, written by a trainer and former adoption counselor at the Pasadena Humane Society, argues that pregnancy need not result in the surrender of the family dog to the local animal shelter. Most dogs can be prepared for the arrival of a baby, if the mother is careful to follow exercises in basic obedience, status reduction and desensitization. (Status reduction is a “leader of the pack” protocol that may raise a red flag for some; if so, this is not the book for you).

Although available elsewhere, the author’s advice brims with common sense: Take your dog to the vet to prevent the transmission of disease from dog to baby. Don’t come home from the hospital with the baby in your arms and expect your dog to greet you politely; have someone else hold the baby. Keep the diaper pail lid securely fastened; dogs are attracted to feces and eat diapers. Introduce your dog to other baby smells (lotion, powder, etc.) ahead of time. Let the dog get used to the nursery before baby arrives. Practice walking your dog on leash while you are pushing the stroller in advance of your delivery; if your dog pulls, try a head halter or no-pull harness. Teach a solid “leave it” command so the dog won’t snatch snacks from the baby’s hands.

Other advice is worrisome: Spray Bitter Apple into your dog’s mouth to keep her from chewing baby toys? If your dog and baby play fetch, it’s okay if they share saliva when they each put their mouths on the ball? Babies will remove their diapers and urine mark after the family dog pees? Dogs should never sleep in your bed (or bedroom) or they’ll start to get ideas about who’s in charge? In other places, Ms. Scott-Fox frankly contradicts herself: If dogs hate change so much, how come they don’t need a routine? Elsewhere, she’s needlessly political: While it’s true that dogs bite rarely, and bite parents more often than babies, when they bite children, it’s often serious. Nothing is gained by minimizing this fact.

That said, Ms. Scott-Fox presents basic information in a clear way, and she says things many trainers will applaud. Dog ownership is a lifelong commitment, and too many couples get a dog to experiment with what it will be like to have a baby. Then, when the baby comes, sometimes years later, the dog is given away or surrendered, perhaps with regret or tears, but abandoned nonetheless. How nice to propose that this choice is morally complicated—why do we take it for granted that the infant newcomer has priority over the four-legged resident?

Other knowledge is gleaned from hard work with shelter animals: Most rescue dogs are not abused; they’re undersocialized. Don’t punish your dog after the fact. If she “looks guilty,” it’s because she’s behaving submissively, not because she knows she’s been bad. Incorporate life rewards into your dog’s training. Don’t confuse real training with merely teaching him sit and shake. Training is work: progressive, goal-oriented, repetitious, and let’s face it, sometimes tedious, as is all real work.

Unfortunately, Ms. Scott-Fox gives short shrift to the complexities of training. She suggests you teach “over” simply by tossing a treat over a barrier placed between you and baby. Wouldn’t many dogs come leaping back over for another goodie? Also, she doesn’t teach the use of a marker word, a serious omission. In this dog-training utopia, owners need merely lift a cookie over the dog’s head, and the dog sits. For down, they must only move their hand from the dog’s nose to the floor, wait, and the dog eventually lies down. She also makes no distinction between showing and proofing behaviors. Pity the owner on the day her dog does not comply for the lifted cookie, since there is no help here.

Complicated behaviors are glossed over. Owners are told to teach a dog to play fetch, but this behavior doesn’t come easily to many dogs, and is in fact a complex behavior chain. Where is a how-to list of steps? What if the mom-to-be has a Whippet, not a Labrador?


Other omissions give me pause. No mention is made of resource guarding, a serious problem if a crawling baby goes for a toy or bone. No claim is backed by statistics or reference to work by others on the subject. (Peter Borchelt and Brian Kilcommons come to mind.) The author’s own pregnancy appears to have been the prototype for the book, and her home her laboratory. Ethically speaking, this should have been a memoir, not a guide. We cannot responsibly extrapolate from one pregnancy to advice for a nation.

Sadly enough, her “research and development” appears to be with five families, all from California, all clients. All give glowing recommendations, itself problematic because even the best trainer would never claim a 100 percent success rate. An anecdote of a failure would have gone a long way toward convincing me that this author was as interested in accuracy as in politics. You can’t convince me that babies and dogs are simpatico simply by telling me it worked for you.

The shame is, I know Ms. Scott-Fox’s research must have spanned more than five families. With her years of experience working at a humane society, couldn’t she have documented the thousands of cases she has shepherded during that time? Where are the notes, the records? One pregnancy and one interesting idea are not enough. As trainers, we must never cease to do what we least enjoy: make records of trials and sessions, describe where clients begin and where they end, and track dogs over time. I’d like for us to stop writing advice manuals that rehash what we have heard at a series of seminars. (This is why all dog training books have one voice, why we all desensitize “slooowly,” why all treats are “yummy.” We’re unconsciously quoting each other.) We’re on the front lines, and we have loads of experience—we just don’t write it down. If we did, when it was our turn to write, our advice would have a sample size of larger than one, and we wouldn’t have to rely on our recollection, or worse, groupthink. And think of the legacy we’d leave to those who come after.