Kids & Dogs: Why Children Should Have a Dog
Study finds dog ownership significantly benefits the social–emotional development of young children
Kids and dogs are a natural fit, but you might not know that your dog is benefitting the youngest members of your family in more ways than you may expect.
Research from a recent Australian study revealed that dogs are good for children’s social and emotional development—and that compared to young children without dogs, young canine owners were significantly less likely to have behavioural problems or problems with their peers.
Published in Pediatric Research, the official publication of the American Pediatric Society, the European Society for Pediatric Research, and the Society for Pediatric Research, the study highlights the physical activity and social-emotional developmental benefits of family dog ownership for young children.
Scientists collected data from parents of 1,646 two- to five-year-old boys and girls, including the frequency per week their child went on family dog walks or played with their dog.
“Our findings suggest dog ownership and interactions through dog play and walking are important mechanisms for facilitating preschool children’s social-emotional development,” says the study’s senior author Hayley Christian.
“Children’s social-emotional development is a critical part of their overall development and well-being,” Dr. Christian told Modern Dog. “Physical activity is important for young children’s social-emotional development. Our findings showed that young children who walked or played with their family dog more were more likely to have pro-social behaviours such as sharing and cooperating.”
Howie the Labrador Retriever likely taught three-year-old Henry to share, says Henry’s mother, Jen Kramer of Pensacola, FL. “Henry will have two toys, and give one to Howie. And no matter how much we try, we can’t stop him from throwing food on the floor to the dog,” she jokes. “I think that overall, Howie makes our son less shy, friendlier, and more comfortable with people other than just his father and (me).”
It doesn’t take much time to reap important social and emotional benefits, says Dr. Christian, an associate professor and senior research fellow in the Centre for Child Health Research at The University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute. Children who walked a pet dog with their families at least once per week and played with their dogs at least three times per week had higher prosocial scores than those who did so less often. This is important because healthy development helps children to reach maturity and participate in economic, social, and civic life.
The results were noticeable. Dr. Christian says the “preschool children from dog-owning families had 30 percent fewer peer problems and conduct problems, and more prosocial behaviours than children from non-dog-owning families; preschool children in dog-owning families who walked or played with their dog more often were 34 percent more likely to have pro-social behaviours”; and that “the findings highlight that the social-emotional benefits of owning a dog may begin very early in childhood—as young as two years.”
Researchers decided to focus on a younger age group for this study, but older children would benefit from dog ownership as well, says Dr. Christian. “In older school-aged children, we have shown that dog ownership is associated with increased physical activity, increased likelihood of meeting physical activity guidelines, and more outdoor play.”
Dog ownership also teaches children empathy by “being kind to animals, not mistreating them, and understanding their body language signs,” and responsibility “through the day-to-day routine of feeding, exercising and general care for a family dog,” says Dr. Christian.
In Schererville, IN, the Metz family’s dogs, Lola and George E. Clooney, a Lhasapoo and Shih-Tzu-Maltese, taught the family’s two children, Torey and Mark, about responsibility from the time they joined the family when the children were ages three and two respectively, says their mother, Nanette Orr Metz.
Despite obstacles—Torey, now 18, has intellectual disabilities, and Mark is on the autism spectrum and is legally blind—the kids have always helped with feedings and water, as well as cleaning up after the pets, says Nanette. After Lola’s death, the family adopted senior dogs Stan and Millie, who had kidney failure and required diapers.
Although both Stan, a Poodle-Chihuahua mix, and Millie, a Yorkshire Terrier-Poodle mix, were a huge undertaking—especially with Millie craving water and urinating in the diaper—the kids stepped up, says Nanette. “They took on the responsibilities with love and pride.”
The long list of benefits of dog ownership to children continue. Dr. Christian says other research show that pets may be helpful for children’s self-esteem, autonomy, and building trust and confidence. “For many children, pets are a source of unconditional love and loyalty,” she says. They can also be social enablers. “Should I get a dog for my only child” is a common Google query. With more one-child families in today’s world, having a dog may even be able to partially replace the social and emotional benefits of having a sibling, says Dr. Christian.
Dogs can “probably” but “not fully replace” the presence of brothers and sisters, says Dr. Christian. “Our recent longitudinal study with school-aged children showed that dog ownership was associated with better social-emotional development, and for children without any siblings, dog ownership was associated with better prosocial behaviour.”
“Compared to young children without dogs, young canine owners were significantly less likely to have behavioural problems or problems with their peers.”
Rachel Yuen, a mother of one in Baltimore, MD, found this was the case. Since COVID-19 hit and the family began sheltering in place, forgoing their usual outings and playdates, Rachel worried that her two-year-old son, Ethan, would be lonely without any siblings to play with.
“It’s such a crucial age,” says Rachel. “They’re exploring, they’re figuring out where they fit in. We were worried that not seeing anyone other than (us) would affect him, but our saving grace has been our dog, Leo.”
The seven-year-old Cocker Spaniel has proven to be a patient and gentle playmate for Ethan, says Rachel. “He can keep (Ethan) entertained for hours, and Ethan never tires of playing with the dog.”
Some of the group’s other research has also shown that dog ownership is associated with older children’s independent mobility (licence and ability to travel without adult supervision) and that the family dog should be considered an important form of non-adult accompaniment because of the company and perceived safety dogs can provide, says Dr. Christian.
That feeling of security is especially important now, in our post-pandemic world. “With all that is happening around us with COVID-19, we may be feeling more stressed or anxious than normal—especially children,” says Dr. Christian. “Research shows that pets provide children with a number of mental and developmental benefits. The benefits of pets for children include lowering stress levels, better self-esteem, greater trust and sharing, helping and cooperating behaviours, empathy for others, and decreased feelings of loneliness.”
Aidan Jean-Louis, an eight-year-old Grade Three student from Ottawa, ON, has found what his mother, Sheryl Jean-Louis, calls “a kindred spirit” in his best friend, a 13-year-old German Shepherd-Husky mix named Kellie.
“Aidan suffers from anxiety,” says his mother, Sheryl. “Kellie has become almost like his emotional support animal. When he is feeling anxious, she will offer a snuggle and help to calm him down. She has a really good motherly instinct.”
That support was in full force the night Aidan’s grandfather passed away. “Kellie did not leave our sides and would sit beside all of us and offer snuggles and support,” Sheryl remembers.
It’s not just the kids that benefit, either.
“Dogs especially are a great motivator for adults and kids to get moving every day. We know that being physically active helps us to also stay mentally healthy,” Dr. Christian says.
All signs point to dogs being beneficial. But should you get a dog for your child? While the group’s research suggests that the social-emotional benefits of owning a dog may begin very early in childhood, many families choose to hold off on acquiring an animal until children are a little older and can take on more responsibilities.
“Deciding to get a dog and choosing the right one for a family is an important decision to make that comes with a number of responsibilities related to caring for it, feeding it, exercising it, vaccinating, training and socializing it—these things all come with a significant responsibility and also cost money,” says Dr. Christian. “It is important to think about how a dog would fit with a family’s lifestyle, the age of children, and any existing pets they may have. You generally have a dog in your life for a long time.”
After acquiring a dog, a family also needs to supervise children when playing with dogs and teach them to read dog body signs and how to interact with them safely, especially at first. It’s a lot of work—and for parents who want the benefits for their kids, but balk at the added responsibility, it may beg the question of whether owning the dog their children interact with is necessary to reap the benefits. That may not have the same effect, Dr. Christian says.
“Based on our other research, it is important that children feel attached to their dog and they spend time with them each day for the health and development benefits to occur,” she says. “This generally happens through having the dog in the household (like another family member) and part of children’s day-to-day lives.” This means that a grandparent’s pet, or a visit to the animal shelter may not have the same effect. “There may be some shorter term social-emotional developmental and other benefits for children who spend time with and have a good attachment to dogs that may not be in their immediate household, but to my knowledge, this has not been examined for typically developing children,” Dr. Christian says.
Once the commitment to adopt an animal has been made, many young families will find that the hard work in dog ownership is worth it.
“For most of us, our dogs are important family members,” says Dr. Christian. “It is nice to have their company, their positive distraction from what is happening around us, and they can be a source of storytelling, fun times, and family bonding.”
Having a dog can teach children about responsibility, improve their health, and help them process their feelings.
The benefits of dogs for children include:
- Lower stress levels
- Less likely to develop allergies
- May experience fewer sick days
- Better self-esteem
- Greater trust and sharing
- An increase in helping and cooperating behaviours
- Empathy for others
- Decreased feelings of loneliness
- Help with processing feelings. Teaching children to confide in their dogs as if they were friends can help children recover from trauma.