In a recent article entitled, “Why Do Dogs Put Their Paw On Your Pregnant Belly? An Expert Weighs In”, the author considered just how much a dog might know about us. Over the past years, I’ve constantly explored dog learning, dog training and relationships between humans and dogs. Through it all, I am constantly discovering (and reminding) readers that dogs are some of the world’s keenest observers. We are only now realizing how much they can learn and remember (with Chaser being my latest fixation – oh, she of the one thousand-plus word vocab).
Yet, how much can they intuitively know.
I won’t lie, Janice and Leroy know when I am sad or under the weather. Leroy tries to smother me with love, which is about the most wonderful way to overcome the blues (just try to shift a 65 pound dog off of your torso when he really, really wants to give you a kiss). Janice, bless her, becomes a nurse who keeps me warm, looks at me with intense concern if I sniffle, blow my nose or sigh, and just seems to be saying “What can I do? What’s wrong? Let’s snuggle!”
There are a billion stories from other dog owners that sound nearly identical, with pets reading their owners like the proverbial book, and even knowing how to manipulate as well as soothe.
So, it does make sense to wonder if dogs actually know what they are doing when they boop a baby bump, and (spoiler alert) the article doesn’t precisely nail that down.
Do They or Don’t They?
The article opened with a very accurate assessment of dogs in general, claiming that some have “an innate ability to sense when someone is feeling blue”among other emotions, including feeling a bit sad or overjoyed. The author also mentioned dogs with the ability to sniff out diseases like cancer, and some that can detect pregnancy.
We all know of dogs that somehow sense when an owner may be about to have an epileptic seizure or if their blood sugar is too low. Most experts seem to believe it is their remarkable sense of smell that makes all of these things possible.
Yet, it doesn’t precisely answer the question posed in the title – why would a dog touch a baby bump?
One Set of Experts
The AKC says that there is no definitive prove that a dog actually understands or even knows when a woman is pregnant, but does express a belief that a dog might understand hormonal changes in a pregnant woman’s body, evening knowing of a pregnancy before the woman herself!
They have “60 times as many smell receptors as humans, and 40 times as much brainpower dedicated to smell, allowing them to differentiate 30,000 to 100,000 aromas,” one expert noted, and it is this ability that could, technically, allow them to recognize the scent of pregnancy hormones. However, that same expert posits that “Although your pup can detect a change in scent, it’s unlikely he comprehends the reason for the change.”
Another Set Weighs In
And while many agree with the idea that dogs’ sense of smell enables them to know something about a pregnant woman has changed, and that the reason for the change may be a mystery, there are further theories.
For example, another set of experts say that dogs can notice expanding waistlines, changes in gait or balance, and react to these changes. For instance, a wobbly gait may trigger your dog’s protective instincts, and this may be why they are suddenly at your side around the clock. They may suddenly take up residency on your lap because they notice that your walking is unstable.
Yet another group says that it is the change in routine that may alert your dog to something amiss. They are “students of our routine,” says one, and any changes may cue different behaviors. Redecorating a room, getting up at all hours of the night, struggling with sleepiness or wakefulness…these too can trigger different behaviors.
On top of that, this same group posits, your emotional reactions may vary quite widely due to hormonal changes in pregnancy. Because of that, a dog may react to your new ways of expression upset, happiness, anger and so on. As they so aptly stated, “if pregnancy has you riding the emotional roller coaster, your dog is probably along for the ride, too.”
Even further, experts who agree with the “pack theory” of domestic dog life say that a dog might detect scent changes, but also a shift in the pack order. As a simple illustration, a pregnant woman who was once the alpha or leader may suddenly be tired and even vulnerable. The partner may suddenly be the “take action” and dominant individual, which can make a dog protective of the once dominant female.
And what about hearing something? Can dogs hear that there is a whole other person inside of a pregnant woman? One veterinary technician went on record saying he believes that the lower tones that dogs (and rabbits) can hear make it entirely possible that they hear a fetal heartbeat and know about the baby in vitro.
Of course, some dogs never seem to notice that there is a baby bump at all, nor that changes occur in “mom’s” scent. And yet, some sit up and take notice the moment a woman goes into labor! In fact, a lot of women indicate that a dog may or may not have paid any attention to the baby bump, but sure gave signs of something about to happen in the days or hours before the mom noticed labor pains beginning.
Cesar Milan even drafted an article about it, sitting firmly on the fence and stating that it is due to changes in scent and changes in behavior that cued dogs into that seemingly eerie ability to detect labor or pregnancy.
What it Means
Yet, what I see in all of this is pretty simple – dogs, just like all other sentient beings, are each unique individuals, and will react differently to any number of scenarios. Just consider that a paw to the belly may be cued by visual signals a woman sends without knowing.
For instance, belly tapping could be caused by a pregnant woman’s entirely unconscious rubbing of her belly, cueing the dog to take notice and tap the belly to get her attention. It could be caused by jealousy, or even territoriality (in which a dog wants to reassert their place of attention in the pregnant woman’s perspective). The woman rubs the belly instead of the dog, and this might lead to the same sort of pawing a dog will do to the newspaper, the book, the phone or other items keeping a human’s attention.
So, for those of us who love dogs, have them in the family and are wondering just how much they know about us – including whether we have a bun in the oven – there are many different answers. The key to remember is that you must never “pigeon hole” any dog and think or expect specific reactions, responses, behaviors or abilities. Each is an individual, and we know that dogs do have some reasoning, which is often tied to their life experiences, training and current status.
The best thing to do if a dog puts its paw (gently or roughly) on a baby bump is to avoid creating a negative association with any part of the behavior. This could actually reinforce the behavior. Instead, consider what your dog is attempting to communicate with that unrequested touch.
Is It a Needy Behavior?
One fact that always brings me to tears is that the second most common reason for dogs to be surrendered to shelters is because they have separation anxiety or some sort of extreme neediness. The first reason is financial pressure, if you were curious.
A dog that has never been needy and then who suddenly becomes needy may be reacting to a lot of the changes a pregnancy causes. As I’ve already noted in this article, lots of pregnant woman are unaware of just how differently they are behaving as their pregnancy progresses, and a dog may feel slighted or upset at your “absence”, even when you are sitting side by side.
If you are to easily introduce your dog to the new baby, you have to be sure that your dog is still confident in the relationship between the two of you. Begin by assessing if the dog is showing needy behaviors. I’ve done an article about just that issue in the past, and I encourage you to revisit it now and ensure that you know how to identify and train away those behaviors.
Bringing Home Baby
As Cesar Milan (and I, a bit earlier) indicated, “dogs are very in tune with us, so with an event as monumental as a pregnancy, your dog has already sensed that something is up. But just because she has picked up on the new feelings hanging in the air, doesn’t mean that she understands what they mean.”
This means that a dog patting your belly could be showing signs of neediness, attention seeking, or even flat out knowledge that there’s a baby in there. No matter what, you have to prepare that puppo for all that is about to happen. After all, when the baby does arrive, you’ll have zero time to institute any sort of serious training…at least, for a while.
That means you have to be sure you are still firmly established in the role of pack leader (or that your partner is firmly in that role and can ensure that dogs remain calm around the new baby).
You must also be very aware of how you (or the pregnant mom) is feeling and behaving. Dogs, as mentioned, are astute students of human routines and behaviors. Though a pregnant woman should never reign in her emotional roller coaster for the sake of the dog, do try hard to remember that dogs are a mirror to your emotions. Get a bit over anxious or wildly angry and your dog is going to react accordingly (either with protective aggression or hiding).
Create rules around the nursery even before the baby is born in order to make life much easier when that little noise-making, wonderful (most of the time) smelling creature enters the space. Dogs will be very curious about the baby and try to enter the nursery. You want to make that a no-go zone for safety’s sake. So, do as the experts suggest and condition dogs to see the doorway as a sort of see-through barrier that they are not allowed to cross without first getting a verbal or physical cue from you (or a partner) that this is allowed.
And even when you do let the dog into the room, be sure that they leave on command. Be sure that you have got this one down pat before bringing home the baby because it can be tough to instill this if a baby is crying and a dog is worried or overly curious. In other words, this space has to be the alpha’s or pack leader’s and that boundaries have to be recognized, even if the dog is within the space.
Introduce via smell before bringing the baby home. One of the best things you can do is to bring a piece of the baby’s worn clothing home from the hospital before you bring the baby home, too. This lets you set the clearest boundaries. Start with a whiff at a distance, while you hold the garment. This helps the dog to know that the item (baby) is yours, and that the dog cannot over assert themselves when the baby does enter the home.
And when you do bring home the baby, don’t forget that your dog needs to be kept as a member of the pack. They need their old routine to remain as much as possible, and this can reassure them that they can relax about the baby because it is not shaking things up too much.
Do dogs know about the baby long before you? Do they know what’s going on inside a woman’s womb? Do they detect labor days or hours before a woman feels it? We can never know. I think it depends on the dog. Just as some people are more empathetic than others, dogs probably are, as well. We cannot conceive of all that they hear, see or smell in a single day. If they know about our babies and want to communicate by touch, that would be wonderful. Even if bopping the baby bump is just a way to ask us if we still love them as much, it is still endearing and a good reminder that your dog will still need you to be its parent, too, long after the baby comes home!