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Why Are Dogs Protective of Babies?

 
By Matthew Nesbitt, Journalist specialized in animal research. April 16, 2020
Why Are Dogs Protective of Babies?

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The saying claims that dogs are ‘man's best friend’. By ‘man’, the phrase means humans and this includes people of all ages. A well-educated and positively reinforced dog often creates a very strong bond with their human family. Some are particularly fond of children and babies. While they may be willing to provide lots of affection, many dogs will develop a protective instinct towards their human companions. This means they want to safeguard their well-being.

While many people put a lot of stress on breed-specific behaviors, every dog is an individual. Some will be naturally more protective than others. AnimalWised asks why are dogs protective of babies? We look at the reasons dogs protect human babies as well as what might prevent them from doing so.

You may also be interested in: Can Cats Protect Their Owners?

The protective instinct of dogs

Despite the fact that the domestication of dogs has been ongoing for millennia, the animal still retains some aspects of their wilder nature. There are certain behavioral aspects which relate to their survival instincts and pack mentality. Some instinctive behaviors are problematic, particularly if related to hunting or aggression. Others may be beneficial as long as they are channelled properly.

When a dog is adopted into a human family with young babies and children, they may feel the need to protect them. The dangers they feel the need to protect babies from can vary. Some may think that any unknown person is a potential threat. Others may be more selective and might also protect against other dogs or animals. However, this will only happen if the dog has been allowed to interact with the baby and considers them family.

All dogs have the potential to express this protective instinct toward babies and children. However, some breeds may be more inclined to express it than others. These include the German Shepherd, Rottweiler and Doberman. Part of the reason for this is that these dogs have been bred specifically for their guarding ability. These traits are encouraged in these breeds and it is understandable that such protectiveness would extend to the human babies they consider family.

The differences in breed behavior has lead to some calling certain breeds ‘nanny dogs’. While there is some truth to this trait, we also need to be careful. All dogs are individuals and breed will only play one part in their behavior and temperament.

Do dogs see babies as babies?

Some researchers claim that dogs recognize humans as part of their pack, i.e. a canine family. Others claim that dogs identify humans as part of their social group, rather than perceiving humans as the same animal. From their social groups, dogs receive affection, food and care. When faced with a potential threat, the group will protect each other, with adults being particularly protective of puppies.

As we have stated above, certain breeds are more likely to be protective than others. Recent studies have shown that the process of breeding during dog domestication has lead dog brains to differ in terms of their neurological makeup[1]. While this doesn't mean we can assume each dog of a given breed will behave in the same way, it does show that humans have had a dramatic impact on how dogs think. It may be possible to extrapolate that protection of babies is part of this process.

Dogs can also perceive hormonal changes in humans, so they may be able to perceive fear and anxiety around the most vulnerable of their social group. They may also sense the fact that babies are the most vulnerable members of said group. When they see that the babies are dependent on their parents for survival, it may trigger their instinct to also provide protection.

Another reason we might be able to know why dogs are protective of babies is due to a different aspect of neurological programming. Studies have shown that human beings react to the ‘schema’ of babies and puppies[2]. This means that ‘cuteness’ appears to appeal to our instincts. It is one reason to attest for our love of puppies and kittens, despite the fact they are not of the human species. We naturally feel protective and affectionate towards them. While it is difficult to determine, it is possible dogs respond similarly to the schema of babies as they would to vulnerable puppies.

For this reason, dogs seem to recognize babies as babies. This means they see them as vulnerable and in need of protection. When out in the park or when a stranger comes in the home, the dog may feel the need to protect the baby if they perceive someone or something as a danger. We often see dogs sleeping next to babies and children because they not only feel protective, but loving towards them.

Such affection toward human babies occurs because the dog has been socialized properly. If they were not socialized properly, it is possible the dog may make the wrong association with them. A baby may even be able to set off the prey-drive of a dog if they have not been properly socialized. Since babies like to tug on things, it is also possible a poorly socialized dog will snap or try to bite a baby if they perceive them as threatening. Finally, if a dog sees them as a threat to their security, it is possible they will become possessive.

Why Are Dogs Protective of Babies? - Do dogs see babies as babies?

Strengthening the bond between dogs and babies

Building and reinforcing a positive relationship between a dog and babies in the home is crucial to the well-being of both. This means we need to encourage their protective instinct and encourage a positive relationship. However, it is also possible for a dog to become too overprotective, so we need to encourage such a bond in a healthy way.

Part of this socialization will depend on the circumstances of when the baby comes into the family. The baby may have arrived first and the dog is introduced later. Many families will have a dog before they have a baby. In both circumstances, it can be difficult since dogs are animals of habit and routine. It is possible the arrival of a baby in the family will cause the dog to feel threatened or insecure, especially if they don't receive as much attention as they had previously.

In any case, the dog and baby will need to be introduced slowly and with constant supervision. Under no circumstances should they be left alone together, even if the dog is even tempered. You don't need to use treats to reinforce the bond. Reassuring voices and petting should be sufficient. To learn more, you can read our article on how to introduce your dog to a new baby.

As the baby begins to walk and crawl, it is likely they will want to tug on and play with the dog. This is part of the baby's exploratory behavior which is necessary for them to develop motor skills and cognition. However, we need to be sure to try to avoid such incidents as the dog may misinterpret them. Some dogs will have a very high tolerance and will understand the baby's motives. However, it is best to err on the side of caution. Once the child grows, we can teach them proper interaction.

We also need to know that it is vital we don't scold the dog in front of the baby as it is possible the dog will make a negative association. In these cases, it may even encourage aggression towards the baby.

Over the years, as the baby develops into a child, they and the dog can develop mutually beneficial bonds. Dogs help children to understand responsibility and care. On a more fundamental level, the love and affection children and dogs share can bring happiness and well-being to them both.

If you want to read similar articles to Why Are Dogs Protective of Babies?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

Tips
  • If you ever see any aggression in a dog towards a baby or child, speak to a vet or canine behavior specialist immediately.
References

1. Hecht, E. E., et al. (2019). Significant Neuroanatomical Variation Among Domestic Dog Breeds. Journal of Neuroscience, 39(39), 7748-7758.
https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0303-19.2019

2. Borgi, M., et al. (2014). Baby Schema in Human and Animal Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Gaze Allocation in Children. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(411).
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4019884/

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