The American Pet Products Association estimates that 44% of all households in the United States have a dog, and 35% have a cat. In numbers, that’s 78 million dogs and 85.8 million cats!

If you’re a household with a pet or two and a baby on the way, it’s wise to start preparing your furry friend(s) for the new arrival. Jessica Eden O’Neill, a Canine Behavior Expert, shows us how.

Charles: We have with us today Jessica O’Neill to discuss pets and babies! Jessica, would you be so kind as to introduce yourself to our readers and tell them a little about your work and experience.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Hello, my name is Jessica Eden O’Neill. I’m a Canine Behavior Expert with a Diploma in Canine Behavior Science and Technology. I’m also a mother of four and have spent much of my career working with families and their dogs to establish a variety of goals, including but not limited to, introducing new family members to a household pet.

Baby on the way? Draw up a plan.

Charles: That is excellent, thank you for the introduction, Jessica! I’m going to go ahead and jump into the thick of things here. What is the first thing a parent should consider when they already have a pet and are expecting a new bundle of joy in their lives?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Expecting families need to prepare by thinking ahead and developing a plan to ease the stress associated with introducing their new baby to their fur baby. Owners need to help their dog for the big changes ahead. Firstly, desensitize the dog to all of the new experiences he will be facing in the months and weeks ahead.

Charles: How can we best facilitate this? What differences will the dog’s level of training before starting this process make on the “desensitization”?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: The biggest challenges are faced when these skills are not taught prior to bringing home a new baby. With all the hustle and bustle associated with preparing your world for a baby, the dog is typically an afterthought. Of course, every dog will have a different variety of learned skills and cues. The most important aspect is the dog’s preparation for the changes, not necessarily the dog’s previous obedience training.

Charles: Excellent, so how do we go about preparing our canine friends for baby, what are going to be the major stressors for Fido?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Counter conditioning and desensitization differ from the standard obedience training operant conditioning, in that it focuses on the dog’s emotional state. The common problematic areas are:
1. Access to space – both personal and environmental
2. Sharing objects – toys, food, bed, etc.
3. Novel stimuli – sights and sounds

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Quite often, people believe it’s the actual baby that is causing the dog distress when in fact it’s the changes in how the dog accessing the things they want and the shift in rules. The earlier you begin implementing these changes the smoother the transition will be.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: “Quite often, people believe it’s the actual baby that is causing the dog distress when in fact it’s the changes in how the dog accessing the things they want and the shift in rules.”

Charles: I think we do indeed often forget the changes a human baby brings to a pet, the reduced attention they get especially in the earliest stages of our little one’s life. It is understandable, as the changes are monumental to the parents as well, but I do see how a dog’s life could be flip turned upside down to use an old line from the Fresh Prince of Belair.

The skills your dog needs in preparation for baby

Jessica Eden O’Neill: You are exactly right. Once the baby is home, your entire focus becomes the baby. This is why we suggest making these changes prior to the arrival, if possible. We always caution owners not to have unreasonable expectations. Perhaps your dog has met little people before and done very well. This is excellent news but it certainly isn’t preparation for sharing their home, space and humans with a baby everyday. Here are a few of the skills your dog will need to be successful:

  • Walking with a stroller (try a hands-free leash and walking harness)
  • Sitting quietly while you feed the baby
  • Respecting personal space
  • Conditioning to crying sounds
  • Engaging gently with tiny people
  • Greeting family visitors
  • Enjoying alone time (in a crate, behind a gate or on a tether)

Start practicing these skills months in advance. You will likely need to use audio recordings for sounds and a ‘fake’ baby or stuffed animals to ‘feed’.

Training your dog before baby arrives

Charles: So, with regards to the skills they acquire, is there any advice you can give us on actual training? Being inexperienced with dog training some of us would not know where to start.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: We tend to complicate things for our dogs and anthropomorphize (fancy word for humanize) them. In fact, the equation is very simple. Counter Conditioning (CC) essentially means pairing something pleasant with something not so pleasant. For instance, the sound of a crying baby can be an unpleasant experience, however if overtime the baby cries, freeze dried liver appears, the dog will begin to feel differently about the crying.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: “We tend to complicate things for our dogs and anthropomorphize (fancy word for humanize) them.”

Charles: Ok, so we are effectively pre-conditioning the dog to associate the baby crying with something pleasant. A bit Pavlovian but if it works …

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Most of us can relate to this in some way. I actually love the smell of mothballs! Not because the smell is specifically alluring but because my grandmother used to keep them in her cedar chest with her silk scarves and this reminds me of her.

Charles: That is a great example and on that note, I know our canine friends experience the world differently to us; smells and sounds are stronger cues than sight. Is this why we focus mostly on the changes to their personal space or freedom within the house and the sounds of a baby crying?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Counter Conditioning is not the only technique at play during this preparation time but it is an important one. Systematic desensitization is often used in tandem with CC. This means providing exposure in ‘baby-steps’ at level the dog can successfully tolerate. It’s the difference between locking someone afraid of snakes in a room with snakes and trying to throw the $20 bills through the door slot or holding a snake 20 feet away and have $20 bills fall from the ceiling. If you do the latter, eventually that person will want to play the ‘snake game’ and actually enjoy it!

Charles: I’m going to put myself out there here: as a father and a pet owner I have a very specific question, a problem I have not been able to solve. One of my dogs is a loving black retriever, as loving as he is, he is also clumsy, he is crate trained, loves my daughter, very obedient but I can’t seem to get the clumsy out of him. Do you have any tips?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Clumsiness is not something we can typically solve with behavior modification, but spacial awareness is. I’ve seen the most clumsy Great Dane have absolute awareness and composure with a Chihuahua because the Chihuahua set spacial rules for him. The point being, it’s more about your dog’s understanding of how space is accessed. Sometimes clumsiness is truly carelessness because the dog has not learned another way.

Setting boundaries for your pet

Charles: Actually, our pets are 1 Retriever, a Fox Terrier, and a Persian Cat. The cat did in fact set boundaries and the retriever has learned to respect them; of course, a newborn doesn’t quite have the same abilities as a Persian cat. How can we, as responsible owners, help our clumsier friends to not topple over the baby? To put things in perspective, the Persian Cat will actually cuddle up to the retriever but he won’t bound towards her, he waits for her to come to him.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Excellent question! No matter whether your child is a newborn or 8 years old, as the parents/adults/owners, we must be responsible for enforcing spacial boundaries. Older children can have some involvement through structured games set up for success, but ultimately the job is ours.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: This is best done silently with clear and controlled body language. We just talk way too much and humans tend to send confusing messages with our erratic limbs (which I call our monkey arms). Keep your body as much one unit as possible and claim space and objects by walking towards the dog. You want to mirror his movements. When he backs away, so do you. Reward him for making the choice to move away. What you are telling him is that that space, object, child, food is simple not available to him right now.

Charles: Ok, so to some extent it would look like a standoff?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: It’s important not to be angry, but instead be clear and calm.

Charles: I am assuming that if this is repeated for example with the baby’s crib area, it eventually gets reinforced? Is it recommended to do this before the baby arrives? Especially with areas you know you won’t want your canine friend accessing once baby arrives?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: You need to decide if there are appropriate times for the dog to interact with certain areas and objects or if it’s a cold hard never. Make sure all family members are on the same page. I’ve had a client tell me their dog is never allowed on the couch and when she left the room the husband whispered, “Only when she’s not home”. It is okay to allow the dog to sometimes have access when invited to do so as long as they willingly give it up when asked.
Charles: That is an excellent point, the couch is a perfect example! How can we ensure that they know this is only allowed either with one person or on command so to speak?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Make sure you are not engaging this behavior when he performs it without invitation. So, if he jumps up uninvited, you can not engage him. Lean towards him without talking and looking. When his paws are on the ground, invite him up. This way he will learn that this behavior is only appropriate when invited. Dogs do what works. It’s the best part of my job. The dog never lies. They tell me the entire story when I meet them.

Charles: Ok, so for example, my invitation to him is a tap on the arm. If he jumps up without invite (apart from yelling like a mad man, which I believe is not encouraged) the correct approach is leaning towards him in a way that he cannot jump up, and a stern no.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: You don’t need to talk. A sharp “No” would be appropriate IF the dog understands the rules. When you are teaching him a new way, it’s unfair to reprimand and in this case, it may actually have the opposite effect because he was able to get your attention.

When your dog’s bark ruins naptime…

Charles: I do have a question that I know is a big one for some parents, the big bark! So, you’ve just put your little one to sleep, the noisy neighbor arrives with his pets, doors slamming and your little Fido wants to say hello to everyone, he just doesn’t know that you just put baby to sleep. What’s the best tip for calming the dog and reducing the big barkathon they may have gotten used to having with little issue?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: If I had a dime for every time I’ve had that experience….

Charles: We can compare dimes someday; the terrier just doesn’t get that silence is oh so golden. I have learned to accept it as inherent in his character but maybe that is due to my lack of understanding canine behavior.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: The best advice is to get your dog on your schedule and be clever! Before nap time, put your dog in a crate or room with a delicious bone. Again, CC at play here. Set yourself and your dog up for success. Break times are super important for all of us including our furry friends. Confinement is one of those skills I listed above which will be HUGELY helpful when there’s a new baby in the house.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: “The best advice is to get your dog on your schedule and be clever!”

Charles: We have kept you quite a while; however, looking through your website I came across this quote which I fell in love with. I think it applies to how we deal with children also but keeping our focus on the canine side of the relationship, “It’s not how your dog behaves that determines if you are a good dog owner, but how you respond to your dog’s behavior that counts”. Jessica O’Neill, how can we improve and prepare ourselves for this moment in time? What should parents-to-be expect and how can they prepare for this moment? I ask you because as a mother of four and your considerable experience I think you can give us some unique insight.

Jessica Eden O’Neill: Thank you. I realized I was saying that on a regular basis to dog owners and fellow parents so I decided to make it part of our company’s philosophy. If I can leave the readers with a couple of golden pieces of advice:
1. When you cannot teach, manage. Management is a vital tool for learning.
2. Think before reacting. Even if you stop to take two breaths before making your next move.
3. Set the stage for success and have reasonable expectations. We are all superheroes but even superheroes need a plan.

Charles: It has been a pleasure having you here with us today and giving us some amazing advice! If you had to give one last piece of advice or if there is something that parents need to know; what would it be?

Jessica Eden O’Neill: When in doubt, reach out to a reputable expert. Know when to ask for help. I have dedicated my companies to helping people share their lives with dogs. Everyone needs a little help sometimes. If you feel like you are working hard and getting nowhere, you must find a new way. You can find us through our websites shop.jwalkerdog.com, petintel.ca. thecaninehabitat.com. Thank you Charles. It’s been a pleasure.

For more precious insight and tips from Jessica Eden O’Neill, visit here.

For more insight on dealing with kids and your furry babies, read more in this Dreaming of Baby segment:

Pets and a New Baby: Why Planning and Routine are Important

Tips for Parenting Dogs and Babies

Kids and Pets: Training, Obedience, and the Best Breed for a Young Family

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