For many owners, their furry companions are more than just pets – they are family members who provide love, companionship and even emotional support. However, this pet–owner relationship can change when a new baby enters the picture. Data on the impact a new baby can have on the dog–owner relationship is limited. However, this article will explore some of the available information and ways veterinary staff can support their dog-owning expectant and new parent clients. Some findings are from the author’s research.
What impacts the dog–owner bond?
A key factor in the creation and maintenance of a strong dog–owner relationship is frequent reciprocal interaction (Voith, 1984). Yet those staying home to care for family are, typically, also the main dog carer (ACAC, 2013). Parents may experience work pressures as well as engaging in 60 hours of weekly childcare plus other duties – all of which may influence the frequency and quality of dog–owner interactions. This could have a knock-on effect on their bond as owners who spend more quality one-on-one time with their pets rank higher for attachment and report fewer behavioural problems (Dotson and Hyatt, 2008).
Carlisle-Frank and Frank (2001) propose that many owners view their pets as family, but society’s message that pets are property may facilitate the “switching” of cognitive schemas when it is beneficial to owners. For example, Blouin (2013)found owners reported their pet to be their “baby” before having children, but this attitude lessened once children arrived.
Many owners view their pets as family, but society’s message that pets are property may facilitate the ‘switching’ of cognitive schemas when it is beneficial to owners
Parental status may also influence attachment to the dog: Salman et al. (1998) found 11 percent of 4,773 respondents cited “owner pregnant” as a cause for relinquishment in a survey. Other variables for surrender include lack of time/attention needed for the dog (Weiss et al., 2015) – an issue likely applicable to parents of young children.
Research also indicates that human emotions and related behaviours can trigger similar responses in dogs. In fact, physiological stress in response to an infant crying has been documented in dogs and humans (Yong and Ruffman, 2014). New parents can also experience increased stress from tiredness/frustration linked to infant sleeping patterns (Wolfson et al., 1992), financial pressures (O’Callaghan, 2013) and hormonal changes (Myrskylä and Margolis, 2014); these are all factors that could affect empathy levels towards a dog.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that dogs exhibit behaviours akin to jealousy around infants, such as pushing/touching the owner when affectionate towards another (Harris and Prouvost, 2014).
While behavioural literature discusses laying the groundwork to help dogs adjust to a new baby, much of this is aimed at veterinary professionals and trainers. Therefore, proactive owners must seek out information, possibly turning to lay and unreliable sources, such as the internet and friends, for behavioural assistance (Bergman and Gaskins, 2008).
While healthcare professionals are advised to provide parents with information about dog–baby preparedness (Institute of Health Visiting, 2023), data on what resources are used and their validity is unpublicised, and owner compliance is unrecorded.
Does having a baby alter the dog–owner relationship?
The lack of data relating to the dog–owner relationship pre- and post-partum and dog–baby preparedness gave the author an opportunity to examine what happens when a real baby surpasses the dog surrogate. The study involved 342 participants (first-time expectant parents and post-partum parents with children under five years old). Some of the highlights include:
1) Parents spend less time interacting with their dog
Significant differences were found in the time expectant and post-partum parents spent interacting with their dogs. The greatest variation was the frequency dogs were walked and played with.
Just as raising a child involves non-monetary costs, so does dog ownership. Time spent feeding, grooming, playing and walking may have a high value, conflicting with owners involved in hours of childcare/other child-related duties, resulting in reduced levels of dog care.
2) New parents feel guilty
Over half of the respondents expressed guilt about the lack of attention their dog received once the baby arrived. Frustration was also sometimes directed towards the dog, adding to the guilt. Petting and giving treats were provided by most daily; both of these require the least effort, are delivered swiftly and may be perceived as an expression of love or ease guilt. Other interactions are less easily fulfilled when children are present.
3) Owners may not prepare their pooch
Over 29 percent of respondents did not “prepare” their dog for the baby’s arrival. They may have lacked awareness regarding responsible ownership practices, did not anticipate issues arising or already had management protocols in place.
4) Lack of support
Seventy-four percent of respondents received no advice about dog–baby safety or preparedness from their midwife or health visitor. Few owners sought advice from “credible” sources, such as their veterinarian (8 percent), compared to reading “general advice online” (61 percent). This result highlights the need for greater support from healthcare and animal professionals.
Few owners sought advice from ‘credible’ sources, such as their veterinarian (8 percent), compared to reading ‘general advice online’ (61 percent) [highlighting] the need for greater support from healthcare and animal professionals
5) Changes in behaviour
Some behavioural changes were recorded post-partum. Dogs “licking/nuzzling” the child was the most common (33 percent) and could be interpreted as attention-seeking, fact-finding or creating space from the infant (“lick to dismiss”). Owners also reported their dogs becoming “more protective” around others (eg barking, lunging or growling) (Figure 1).
What does this mean for veterinary staff?
Veterinary staff can have a positive impact on the dog–owner relationship by striking up conversations with expectant clients about dog–baby preparedness and providing guidance to help new parents keep their baby and pet safe.
Veterinary staff can have a positive impact on the dog–owner relationship by striking up conversations with expectant clients about dog–baby preparedness
Practising good hygiene and awareness of zoonosis
Providing owners with advice on maintaining a clean living environment may help reduce the risk of zoonotic infection.
Encourage owners to establish boundaries between their baby and dog, such as keeping the dog away from the baby’s sleeping area and avoiding the dog licking the baby’s face or hands.
Where clients are immunocompromised, avoiding contact with the dog’s saliva, urine and faeces is important. Ensuring their dog is up to date with vaccinations and preventive care is also crucial. Immunocompromised owners may benefit from consulting with their GP about specific precautions to take around pets, which can be an easy suggestion.
Baby-prepping to help their dog better adjust
Expectant and new parents can help their dog in various ways ahead of the baby’s arrival and afterwards. For example:
- By zoning the property (eg using baby gates, room dividers, baby/dog pens, etc) and establishing a “chill out” area for their dog to relax in
- Creating safe storage for baby items and keeping these out of the dog’s reach. They should ensure the dog has plenty of their own toys available and rotate these to create interest
- Desensitising the dog to baby sounds, which involves playing sounds at the lowest volume level while the dog is playing, interacting with food toys, napping or enjoying a gentle stroke. The volume should then be increased incrementally over time at a level the dog can cope with
- Getting the dog used to seeing the owner interact with a “baby” (using a doll or something similar) and rewarding the dog for calmness
- Helping the dog adjust to other stimuli associated with babies (eg prams, cots, baby monitoring alarms, car seats, products and toys)
- Creating a support network with friends and family, or engaging a dog walker or daycare in advance of the baby’s arrival
- Adjusting the dog’s daily routines, such as walks, feeding and play schedules, and including any new handlers to build resilience ready for when alterations occur
- Teaching independence via food enrichment toys and scent work – this is helpful when less time is spent directly interacting with the dog once baby arrives, yet the dog is rewarded in the baby’s presence
- Using calming aids (eg dog-appeasing pheromones and nutraceuticals)
- Honing general training skills, including teaching the dog to walk along with a pram, learning a stationing behaviour and refining leave and drop behaviours – key life skills when living with children!
- Employing a certified trainer or behaviourist to address any training or behavioural needs well in advance of the baby’s arrival
Providing guidance via additional resources
Veterinary staff can help direct owners to credible sources that provide guidance on dog body language and appropriate child–dog interactions. (These might include downloads from the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, Family Paws and other similar organisations that specialise in companion animal behaviour.)
By understanding the impact a new baby can have on the dog–owner bond and encouraging discussions that include practical advice on preparing pets for the new arrival, veterinary professionals can help foster positive relationships between their clients, dogs and children.