Recently I received a call from a woman (I'll call her "Kelly") in tears. She had given birth to a set of twins less than three weeks earlier and was feeling overwhelmed. Following my normal protocol, I spoke to her at length on the phone and inquired as to what, if any help she was receiving from family and friends. I provided her with a list of local resources and places to go for support. But even after all that was done, she could not stop crying.
As a doula, I have found that sometimes it takes a while for someone to tell you what is really bothering them - they may not even know themselves - and just listening is all you can do. In this particular case, I listened to Kelly for over an hour. She kept repeating how she knew childbirth should be a joyous event, but she was anxious. Finally, she confessed that she wished she had never gotten pregnant because the thought of losing Jack broke her heart.
Aha! I grasped at that last statement. Was Jack a friend who did not like children? Was he someone who had helped her throughout pregnancy and was now leaving her life? No. Jack was her beloved Rottweiler and companion for eight years. As Kelly explained it, she had adopted Jack from a local shelter when he was a puppy and they had been together ever since. Kelly had been with Jack for longer than she had been with her husband and was now terrified that the presence of children in the home meant that there was no place for Jack.
In the three weeks since the twins had been born, Jack had suddenly developed all sorts of undesirable behaviors. He had become destructive when left alone and even growled when Kelly or her husband held one of the babies in front of his face. The turning point really came however, when Jack snapped at one of the twins earlier that morning. Now Kelly's husband was insisting that the dog find a new home before one of the babies was injured.
I came over at 10am the next day to see if I could help. It was clear from the moment I walked in that Jack was feeling neglected and resentful. Like any new parents, Kelly and her husband had their hands full with their new babies and little time for anything else. When I inquired as to when Jack had last been walked, both Kelly and her husband looked sheepish. His normal walk was 7am, but on this particular morning, there had not yet been time to go out.
Kelly then showed me what had happened just before Jack had snapped at one of the twins. She had been holding one of the babies, trying to get the dog used to the scent. The dog has walked away during this exercise and gone into his crate. Kelly followed and tried again. The dog tried to leave the crate and Kelly crouched in front of the entrance, mistaking the dog's desire to leave as curiosity. As she stood up, she readjusted the baby in her arms so that the baby's face was right over the dog's head. The dog interpreted this as a threatening act and it was then that the dog snapped (but did not bite).
I began to understand the problem. First, Jack's needs were being pushed aside for the new babies. If the twins had a human older sibling who needed to be fed and helped to the potty, Kelly and her husband would have to accommodate those needs. It is no different with a dog. Jack's 7am walk could not be consistently forgotten and his lack of exercise was likely making him act poorly. (After all, an exhausted dog is too tired to destroy the house when left alone). I recommended a dog walking service in the area who could help take over the walks while Kelly and her husband developed a new routine.
More importantly, Kelly and her husband did not understand some of the basics of canine behavior. Jack's crate was his safe space. When presented with a situation that made him uncomfortable (a newborn baby being pressed against him), Jack had responded the only way that made sense. He had gone into his crate. This is the doggie equivalent of going into a room and shutting the door. And yet, Kelly had followed him and taken away Jack's one refuge in the apartment. Then, when Jack tried to find a new space to rest, Kelly had (in Jack's mind) blocked his exit and trapped him. Jack felt frightened and cornered and had snapped in a fear reaction.
I spent the rest of my visit helping Kelly and her husband learn safe ways to introduce the twins to Jack and providing them with local resources for dog owners and parents of multiples. I watched the twins for a bit so that Kelly could take Jack for a walk and some one-on-one time and her husband could nap. And I left them with tips on how to correct and prevent problem behavior in Jack. We scheduled my follow-up visit for a couple of days later.
This evening I called Kelly to check in and see how things were going. I was especially concerned about how Jack had been reacting to the twins. When Kelly answered, she was a completely different person than the woman I originally spoke to on the phone. She and her husband had hired a dog walker and started taking Jack to play at a local Doggie Day Care facility. They had stopped forcing interactions between Jack and the babies and, while Jack did not seem particuarly interested in the babies, he no longer reacted aggressively to them. Kelly's husband had agreed that Jack could remain in the home.
During the call, I asked Kelly what she was doing, as it seemed very quiet on the other end of the phone. "Oh," she replied. "I am snuggling with my baby on the couch."
"Which one?" I asked.
"Jack," she replied, happily.