So much has changed since I went from being a dog mom to a human mom: after I got through the initial newborn boot camp and figured out how to make my five-year old Chocolate Lab, Gus, feel more comfortable around my son, Noah, there was a brief period of peace when they would happily sit side by side (perfect Instagram posing).
And then—as with all little ones—things changed! My sweet baby became an adorable but needy toddler and began demanding more of my attention. Gus, in typical monkey-see, monkey-do behavior, did the same.
Don't get me wrong — when I come home from work and they both literally run to greet me at the door, it's the best feeling in the world. But most nights I find myself frustrated with Gus, who doesn't understand that I only get a precious hour with Noah before he goes to bed (then it's all snuggles on the couch with him for the rest of the evening). When I sit down to build a block tower with Noah, Gus will plop himself in between us. Or if he feels I'm not paying enough attention to him — which is most of the time — he will sit and stare and whine at me.
Experiencing yet another hallmark of motherhood (guilt!), I reached out to trainer Rachel Maso of Brooklyn Dogtime for some advice on how I can simultaneously keep my pup and tot happily occupied.
Tire them out
If this isn't a golden rule for toddlers and dogs, I don't know what is. I go for a walk with both of them every morning in Central Park, where they can run around to their little hearts' delight. Gus gets walked during the day and at least once more at night, but he still needs more — did I mention he's a Lab? Per Maso's advice to sneak in some extra exercise, my new thing is to have them "race" back and forth in our hallway when I get home (hopefully our neighbors don't mind this few minutes of noise a day!).
Make food a game
It already is for Noah, who thinks throwing food is so much fun these days. Although Gus definitely reaps the benefits (who needs a vacuum cleaner with a dog?!), Maso says I should make mealtime more of a game for Gus too. She suggested putting his food in a puzzle toy or splitting it up and giving him the second half in a Kong toy when I get home. I give him freshly cooked food, so he's always super excited to eat it, whether it's in his bowl or not.
Ignore the whining
Once again, the toddler and dog similarities are striking: don't respond to behavior you don't want to encourage! "Dogs repeat what works, so if whining in your face or getting between you and your baby gets him some attention, even negative attention, it's guaranteed to become a regular habit," explains Maso, who advises me to ignore Gus when he whines. And before he has a chance to get in between me and Noah, I should give him another rewarding activity to do, like chewing on a toy. "He has to learn that he only gets to be with you if he can relax," she says.
Find some downtime
If you're reading this, you probably know that toddlers aren't exactly known for being calm — there are a lot of high-pitched noises and flailing limbs happening most of the time. "Frantic energy can be overwhelming for a dog, even if he always seems to want to be in the middle of the action," says Maso, who suggests carving out some quiet space for Gus. "If things are too wild, have your pup hang behind a gate with a toy so he'll still be part of the action without being underfoot." This is admittedly a challenge in a small NYC apartment, but we do conveniently have baby gates, so I can keep him in the kitchen and within view while Noah and I play in his room.
Train them together
This has by far been my favorite tip! Maso recommended playing "inclusive cotraining games to teach your child and dog to interact safely." For about five minutes in the morning and at night, I've been practicing simple cues with Noah and Gus: I give my son a healthy snack like blueberries — also great for dogs! — and have him say "sit" and "down" to Gus, then reward him. I have to also say the cues, but they're both so engrossed, it's been the best way to keep them simultaneously occupied. "In time, Gus will learn to respond to Noah's voice, building their relationship and making him less focused on you," she says. Treats for everyone!