When my husband, Jeff, and I picked up our brand new Miniature Schnauzer puppy on a snowy day in 2006, we learned her breeders had given her a rather unique nickname. “Persnickety is an interesting little lady. You guys are in for a wild ride!” they proclaimed. “But she’s a sweet and loyal one, that’s for sure.” In fact, the breeders felt so bonded with her, they often put her in their bedroom when potential buyers stopped by to meet the litter, not ready to part ways just yet. We drove home in wonder that she was ours, her body a nine-pound ball of silvery fur and rigid muscles as she balanced nervously on my lap. We named her Sydney, and within weeks she had firmly ensconced herself in our hearts. Jeff wrote in my Christmas card, “This is the year we became a family.”
As we got to know Sydney, we learned she indeed lived up to her early nickname. But we understood her fussy, particular nature, and the intense bond we felt with her more than made up for the challenges. We tried our best to train and socialize her, and we accommodated her less desirable behaviors with workarounds. We bought a gentle leader harness for walks, knowing she would go ballistic when she saw other dogs. We learned that while she disliked people she didn’t know coming into our home, if we instructed the new person to ignore her, she would gladly make friends on her own terms after a ten-minute adjustment period.
For eight and a half years, Sydney soaked up her only child status. We knew starting a family would pose some challenges because there was one frontier we’d never been able to conquer: Sydney’s undying, all-consuming hatred of children. She hates everything about them. Their high-pitched voices. Their fast, erratic movements. And, most of all, their complete disregard for her long list of eccentricities and protocols. We knew she had a serious problem with children, but didn’t have any idea how to fix it. We couldn’t exactly say to our friends, “Hey, can our aggressive dog work out her issues on your kid? By the way, she’s probably dangerous.”
When Jeff and I found out our baby girl was on the way, we spent quite a bit of time figuring out a Sydney game plan. We read up on the subject and combined the new knowledge with our understanding of Sydney’s inner workings. We had one hope: That Sydney would understand that the baby is part of our pack. We just needed to trigger her protection instinct–to make her see the baby as someone else to guard instead of a threat.
We played crying newborn sounds and held a baby doll in her presence during my pregnancy. When the baby arrived, we put the plan into action. We sent home a sleeper with the baby’s smell, a tiny piece of clothing intended to send a big message. Knowing introductions are hugely important for Sydney, we followed a very specific plan the day we came home from the hospital:
- Jeff’s parents took Sydney for a long walk before we got home to tire her out. We read that for dogs with an alpha personality, expelling their energy puts them in a more submissive, relaxed state.
- Knowing she missed us after five days apart, we both went inside to spend a few minutes with Sydney before coming in with Lyra.
- Jeff took her on another quick walk around the block while I fed Lyra to ensure she was quiet when we walked inside.
Then came the big moment: I walked inside holding the baby, armed with a pocket full of treats. Sydney didn’t notice Lyra until she made noises; at Lyra’s first squeak, she started barking crazily. I praised Sydney and gave her lots of positive attention, trying to send the message that everything was okay. But within a couple hours, things had gone downhill. Lyra was melting down with hunger and exhaustion. Sydney was barking maniacally, her hoarse voice not even slowing her down. I was more sleep deprived than I’d ever been in 30 years of living, and the noise level was beyond anything I could have imagined. I cracked. I started sobbing hysterically to Jeff, babbling incoherently about how I felt like my life had fallen apart. He instructed me to take a shower and lie down.
After two hours of fitful napping, I awoke to relative calm. Sydney sat beside Jeff and Lyra, stress-panting but quiet, her gaze focused intently on our new addition. Jeff said she’d been showing tremendous interest in Lyra, trying desperately to get close to her. She finally broke through Jeff’s protective embrace to get a taste of the new pup, planting a giant lick on Lyra’s forehead. For the next several weeks, she bonded with the baby by participating in our feeding sessions, sitting right next to me on the couch while I nursed Lyra. Eventually, she stopped reacting to Lyra’s cries and resumed her normal behavior patterns. I knew everything was going to be okay.
Lyra is six months old now, and Schnauzer-infant relations are stable. Sydney sometimes grumbles when Lyra gets too close, and I suspect toddlerhood will be a rough phase of their relationship, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. We will always have to crate her when other people’s children are over, but Sydney handled the most stressful event of her life with substantial grace, and I’m pretty proud of our little Persnickety.