Given the value of movement for childhood development and prior research on how dogs might help, the authors thought these same associations might be possible in early childhood.
How preschoolers benefited from dogs
Participants involved children from different socioeconomic backgrounds who attended ECEC centers in Perth, Australia.
Via questionnaires, parents reported scores of their children’s well-being in a few different areas: Conduct problems described how often children lost their temper, misbehaved or fought with other kids, explained Christian, who is also a research fellow at the Telethon Kids Institute, the medical research institute behind the study.
Peer issues included how they got along with other children and if they preferred to play alone. Prosocial behavior considered how much the children were considerate of others’ feelings and helpful if someone was hurt, upset or sick. The surveys also measured emotional symptoms, hyperactivity and overall difficulties.
Toddlers from dog-owning families were more likely to exhibit higher levels of prosocial behaviors, and they had lower overall difficulties. Children who walked a pet dog with their families at least one day weekly and played with their dogs at least three times a week had higher prosocial scores than those who did so less often.
“These results highlight that even a small to moderate commitment to involving preschoolers in time spent walking with the family dog may provide important social and emotional benefits for young children,” the study said.
One current worry about children’s development and loneliness in the absence of friends and activities during the pandemic “fits nicely with the positive effects of dog ownership for young kids,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Center for Human Growth & Development at the University of Michigan, who wasn’t involved in the study.
At preschool age, children’s frontal lobes are still developing, Radesky added. That means preschoolers haven’t yet fully formed the ability to regulate behavior or control strong emotions and impulses, so people have commonly held the belief that toddlers wouldn’t benefit from having a dog because they wouldn’t know how to interact with it.
“This was a nice example of how, even in the youngest kids, a dog can be a positive influence on their behavior,” she said.
Building empathy skills
“You have to work to read what your dog is thinking and respond to their behavior. That gets kids out of their headspace and more thinking about what another being is thinking,” Radesky said. “That’s [the magical factor] of empathy and social reciprocity, meaning the back and forth of relationships that helps us heal during times of stress.”
Healthy development enables human capability, Christian said, “allowing children to reach maturity and participate in economic, social and civic life.”
Pets “can be social enablers and help teach children about responsibility through caring, training and looking after their pet,” she added.
What to know before getting a dog
Because the researchers didn’t have many details on family structures, it’s possible that the findings may represent families who were able to provide more nurturing environments for their children, the study said. The value of getting a dog is an individual decision, Radesky said.
Additional studies that measure more diverse family dynamics and environments would tell us more about how pets might boost children’s development.
Who knows whether the same benefits might be found in your child’s interactions with the classroom pet bearded dragon you’ve been stuck with since schools closed in March?