Does having a dog at home make for well-adjusted kids?

New study finds behavioral benefits for preschoolers with pups

A young girl pets a Siberian husky dog outdoors

If you’ve hesitated to get a dog because your kids are very young, new research suggests that the preschool years might be a good time to add a furry friend to the family.

The study found that preschoolers with a dog at home had fewer problems with their peers or other behavior problems compared to youngsters without a family dog. Tots who walked and played with their dog more often were likely to be more social, too.

“Young children who walked or played with their family dog were more likely to have pro-social behaviors, such as sharing and cooperating,” said study senior author Hayley Christian. She’s an associate professor and senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute.

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Christian added that past research has shown that pets may be helpful for children’s self-esteem, autonomy, empathy, trust and confidence.

“For many children, pets are a source of unconditional love and loyalty. They can be social enablers and help teach children about responsibility through caring, training and looking after their pet,” she said.

Sanford Health pediatrician Jennifer Mullally, M.D., agrees that anyone with the time to care for a pet can gain something. “Taking care of another living being teaches humanity and responsibility, which we all could benefit from.”

Pets can be especially helpful for those struggling with mental health disorders, Dr. Mullally said, or even weight issues if having a dog encourages them to get more exercise.

The Australian study used data from a survey of more than 1,600 families with children aged 2 to 5. Many — 42% — of the families had dogs. The surveys were done between 2015 and 2018.

Behavior differences

Compared to children who didn’t have a dog at home, the researchers found that those with a family pooch were:

  • 23% less likely to have problems with emotions and social interactions
  • 34% more likely to practice kind behaviors like sharing
  • 30% less apt to engage in antisocial behaviors
  • 40% less likely to have issues interacting with other kids

Youngsters who went on dog walks with their family at least once a week were about one-third less likely to have poor social and emotional development than those who didn’t go on at least one weekly walk. Kids who played with their dog three or more times a week upped their odds of regularly engaging in considerate behaviors by 74% versus youngsters who played with their dog fewer than three times each week.

Christian noted that although the researchers considered factors in their analysis such as children’s age, sex, sleep habits, screen time and parents’ education levels, the study couldn’t prove a definitive cause-and-effect relationship.

More to learn

Psychologist Lori Kogan, a professor of clinical science at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University, said the findings are exciting.

“I’m an advocate for research on the positive benefits of people and animals working together. And here it looks like in families that have a dog, their young children may benefit in many ways from having and walking with the dog,” she said.

But, Kogan added, “I wonder about the things they weren’t able to control the data for. What was the walking experience like? Dogs are a catalyst for conversation. Maybe kids are interacting with people more. It may provide a different opportunity to socially engage. And is there something different about parents that choose to have dogs?”

While it looks as if there may be a benefit to having a dog at home, Christian and Kogan said kids can be just fine without one.

Kogan pointed out that while a dog can be a great companion for kids, now may not be the right time for some people during a pandemic.

Some things to consider

Families have a few things to consider when incorporating pets into the family, Dr. Mullally said. The most common pet question she encounters with patients involves allergies.

“The dander of dogs can cause allergic symptoms in some children, which may worsen eczema, allergic rhinitis or asthma,” she said.

Also, she cautions parents to always watch young children when they’re around a pet.

“Even a beloved family pet is still an animal,” Dr. Mullally said, “and a young child may not be as good at sensing the pet’s signals, causing an unfortunate bite.”

She also stressed that teaching kids the correct way to handle a pet and treat it humanely, without teasing or tugging, is key.

Dr. Mullally’s own 2-year-old German shorthaired pointer, Dakota, is a valued member of her family.

“She teaches our kids responsibility and humanity,” she said. “She is the most forgiving of our family members, has a huge personality and is the most playful. She definitely makes our family.”

Difference with a cat?

What about folks who prefer a feline friend? Would a cat offer similar social benefits to having a dog at home? Kogan said it’s hard to know for sure.

“It depends on whether cat people are significantly different than dog people. Plus, it’s not clear specifically what aspect of dog ownership is helpful. Is it the animal and additional bonding or connecting with the animal? Is it walking with the dog? Dogs are proactive about connection, and they encourage family dynamics. Even though they’re part of the family, cats may not be as present,” Kogan said.

Christian said that in school-age children, having any pet helps prevent social and behavioral problems. But she wasn’t aware of any research with cats and preschool-age children. She noted that the social and behavioral benefits seen in the latest study appeared to stem from playing and walking with dogs, which could be hard to duplicate with a cat.

The findings were published July 5 in Pediatric Research.

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Posted In Behavioral Health, Children's, Parenting

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