A Family Dog is Much More than a Child’s Pet

As television stars, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin showed audiences in the 1950s that dogs can improve the lives of little boys – as well as save their lives.

A growing body of scientific studies suggests that the family dog can prove to be positive force in a child’s development, according to an examination of the research by Nienke Endenburg and Ben Baarda, instructors at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Having a dog can enhance a child’s social, emotional, cognitive growth, the authors contend in their paper, "The Role of Pets in Enhancing Human Well-Being: Effects on Child Development."

Parents and children typically share in taking care of pets. Studies have shown that these shared responsibilities teach children at an early age how to care for and nurture a dependent animal. A 3-year-old child probably cannot walk a dog, but can help feed or give the dog water, the authors note. School-age children and teenagers can manage many tasks of caring for a dog without supervision.

For young children, participating in such important responsibilities builds self-esteem and that is an important part of emotional development.

Endenburg and Baarda note that dog ownership contributes to another aspect of social-emotional development: empathy, the child's ability to understand and appreciate the feelings of another person. One study found that children of the ages of 3 to 6, who own dogs, achieved higher empathy scores than their counterparts who had no pets. Companion animals can provide emotional support, the authors said.

"Pets can make people feel unconditionally accepted, whereas fellow humans will judge and may criticize," they wrote.

Other studies suggest that a dog can elevate a child's self-esteem by helping the child feel accepted by his or her peer group, the authors note.

One study concluded that the attractiveness of a child’s pet to other children may boost the attractiveness of that child as a friend or playmate. Another study found that 84 percent of the 10-year-old children interviewed said they met other children and adults while exercising their dogs. Pet-owning children also were found to be "significantly more popular with their classmates," the authors said.

The family dog can contribute to a child’s sense of family, the authors add.

A survey of families with dogs found that 52 percent experienced an increase in the time the family spent together after acquiring their pets. As many as 70 percent said their family was happier and had more fun after bring a dog into their home.

"These subjective data have limitations," the authors admit, "but suggest that people believe, or at least would like to believe, that their pets enhance family cohesion and increase the time spent with each other."