Having a family dog could improve your toddler’s social-emotional development

  • A new study has found that owning a pet dog can have beneficial effects on a child's development
  • This is one of the first studies looking at the link between dogs and childhood development
  • The study included questionnaires from more than 1 000 households

Dogs have been found to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as ease loneliness in people. And to add to the list of excellent qualities, a new study has found that having a pet dog can improve the social and emotional well-being of children.

The results of the study were carried out by researchers from the University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute and were published in the journal Pediatric Research.

What the study revealed

Although there is a large body of studies (2005, 2014 and 2017) looking at the effect of dog ownership among adults, the authors mention that few studies have investigated the relationship between dogs and children. “The development of physical activity habits in early childhood is important as these types of behaviours typically continue in adulthood,” they wrote in their paper.

The research team looked at the social and emotional development of children and the possible link with family dog ownership by collecting data between 2015 and 2018 as part of the Play Spaces and Environments for Children's Physical Activity (PLAYCE) study. A total of 1 646 households were included in the study, with 686 (42%)of these families owning a dog.

Parents of children aged two to five years completed the survey during this time, which included assessing their child’s physical activity and social-emotional development. After considering factors such as children's age, biological sex, their sleep habits and screen time, as well as their parents' education levels, the team discovered that children from dog-owning households were:

  • 23% less likely to have overall difficulties with their emotions and social interactions than children who did not own a dog
  • 30% less likely to engage in antisocial behaviours
  • 40% less likely to have problems interacting with other children
  • 34% more likely to engage in considerate behaviours, such as sharing

Associate Professor Hayley Christian, co-author of the study said: "While we expected that dog ownership would provide some benefits for young children's well-being, we were surprised that the mere presence of a family dog was associated with many positive behaviours and emotions."

Joining in on dog walks has benefits

The study results also show that those children who participated in family dog walks at least once per week were 36% less likely to have poor social and emotional development than those who walked with their family dog less than once per week.

Children who played with their family dog three or more times per week were also considered and found to be 74% more likely to regularly engage in considerate behaviours, compared to those who played with their dog less than three times per week.

"Our findings indicate that dog ownership may benefit children's development and well-being and we speculate that this could be attributed to the attachment between children and their dogs. Stronger attachments between children and their pets may be reflected in the amount of time spent playing and walking together, and this may promote social and emotional development."

Further research encouraged

According to the authors, this appears to be the first study that investigates the relationship between social-emotional development and dog ownership among two- to five-year-olds, as existing studies have observed these relationships in children eight years and older.

However, the researchers also cautioned that, considering the observational nature of their study, they were unable to determine the “exact mechanism by which dog ownership may benefit social and emotional development in young children” and for this reason, they encourage further research into the potential influence of owning not just a dog, but different types of pets on child development.

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