How preschoolers benefit from having a family dog

Blog Image for article How preschoolers benefit from having a family dog

The relationship between human and hound goes back thousands of years and there are lots of reasons why pet pooches are still a big part of the modern family.

Dogs make us feel loved, relaxed and happy. They encourage us to exercise; support those with special needs; and teach our children important life lessons around responsibility, cause and effect, self-regulation and even mortality.

In the past, researchers have found that having a family pet may protect school-aged kids (and especially only children) from developing social-emotional problems; and now new research indicates that the physical and emotional health of preschoolers might be boosted by having a pet dog.

Here we explore the recent findings in more detail and learn how a BFF (best furry friend) can benefit ages two to five.

How did the research come about?

The Play Spaces and Environments for Children’s Physical Activity (PLAYCE) project has been looking at different influences on preschoolers’ physical activity, and this sub-study looked at the relationship between dog ownership and preschoolers’ social-emotional development.

To see the effect of a family dog in early childhood, Associate Professor Hayley Christian and her team surveyed 1,646 parents to ascertain whether families with preschoolers owned a dog, and if they did, how regularly their preschoolers actively played with the dog or went on family dog walks.

The parents also filled out a ‘Strengths and Difficulties’ questionnaire, so the researchers could measure each child’s social-emotional development. 

How does dog ownership positively affect preschoolers?

After calibrating all the data, the research team found that children from dog-owning households:

  • Were 30 to 40 per cent less likely to have conduct or peer problems (i.e. behaviour or friend problems)
  • Had 23 per cent fewer total difficulties and
  • Were 34 per cent more likely to have pro-social behaviours (e.g. sharing and cooperating behaviours) than children without a dog.

As an added bonus, this study suggests that the more time a preschooler spends positively interacting with their dog, the better pro-social behaviours they’ll have.

Specifically, the researchers found that if a young child walked with their dog at least once a week and actively played with it three or more times a week, then this increased the likelihood of their pro-social behaviour by up to 74 per cent and lowered their total difficulties by 36 per cent.

Did this come as a surprise to the researchers?

Yes and no, because although the researchers knew that pet ownership would be a positive thing for preschoolers, the strength of the results was unexpected.

Associate Professor Christian says, ‘While we expected that dog ownership would provide some benefits for young children’s wellbeing, we were surprised that the mere presence of a family dog was associated with many positive behaviours and emotions.’

The team says more research is needed to find, ‘The exact mechanism by which dog ownership’ brings these benefits in early childhood, but they’re guessing that it’s the attachment between child and dog that leads to positive behaviours – with more time spent playing and walking translating to a stronger bond.

How can the findings be used for motivational purposes?

National and international guidelines recommend that preschoolers should be moving for at least three hours every day, but in reality, many of our under-fives are less active and more sedentary than they should be.

For this reason, the PLAYCE team sees an opportunity to promote dog ownership as a way of encouraging youngsters to play, walk and move more in their early years. 

Associate Professor Christian says, ‘Given how important physical activity is to a child’s health and social and emotional development, we really need to make the most of any opportunity to get kids moving’ and she believes that, ‘Family dog ownership could be a valuable strategy in achieving this.’

Of course, getting a dog is a big decision and one that shouldn’t be rushed. A pooch will be part of your family for years to come, but if you do have the time and space to meet its needs, then this kind of BFF has many benefits in your child’s early years and as they grow.

In fact, it might be the paw-fect fit.


Telethon Kids Institute

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