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Nobody forgets their first dog: the childhood games, the companionship, and the undying loyalty between a kid and their pup. Now, researchers in Australia have found that bonding with a family dog can give even very young children much more than lifelong fond memories. A new study published in the journal Pediatric Research finds that even for children of pre-school age, having a dog in the family can improve social and emotional skills and reduce problematic behaviors, including trouble interacting with their peers.

The proven benefits of the child–dog bond

In fact, researchers have been finding evidence for years now of something dog lovers know instinctively: that bonding with and caring for a dog makes life better for kids. This is partly because dogs keep you on your toes—literally. Research shows that the increased physical activity that comes with having a dog improves not just children’s physical health but also their overall wellbeing and development. That’s a huge bonus, in a world where children in most developed nations are suffering from ever-greater levels of physical inactivity.

And that’s not all: “Other research shows 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,” says Associate Professor Christian, Senior research fellow with the Telethon Kids Institute and The University of Western Australia, which carried out the new study.

Until now, research had focused only on older children, but the new study reveals that the benefits of dog ownership begin very early in life—as early as 2–5 years, the age range considered in this study. And the more interaction a child has with their dog, the better: prosocial behaviors increased even more among young children who not only lived in a household with a dog, but engaged in active play with them and went on family dog walks. The behavioral differences include fewer problems with peers and fewer behavioral problems among children with a beloved pup in the home.

Tips from the trainers: keeping interactions between dogs and children safe

So how can parents foster a safe and loving bond between kids and dogs? Trainer Justine Schuurmans has made this question her life’s work. She founded her training service The Family Dog after having kids of her own, to fill the gap she found in kid-conscious dog-training services and information.

First and foremost, Schuurmans stresses that all relationships must be built around mutual respect. That means that the whole family, including the children, must learn to respect the dog or dogs, and vice versa. Teaching the dog to obey commands builds a sense of respect in the dog—but that must be met with respect from children and all family members for the dog’s body, feelings, space, and stuff, Schuurmans notes.

One simple way to foster respect, while boosting children’s social and emotional skills, is to encourage children to put themselves in the dog’s shoes—a technique Schuurmans uses in her classes. “They know what they like in a friendship,” Schuurmans observes. “So I say, if you really didn’t want to do something and really didn’t enjoy it, and your friend made you do it, how would you feel about the friend? It would ruin your friendship.” The children in The Family Dog’s classes respond well to this kind of reasoning.

Beyond respect, supervision is key. But what does “supervision” really mean? After all, it’s possible for a child–dog interaction to go awry even when the parent is in the same room.

“To me,” Schuurmans notes, “supervision equals teaching. All the time your kids and dog are together, you need to be teaching the dog or teaching the kid how to behave around each other.” And when they’re too tired or busy to supervise actively, Schuurmans encourages parents to put the pup in their crate. “Make sure your dog really enjoys the crate or another room,” she adds. “Make that their special place. With my clients I call it the VIP room. You put all the great stuff in there, and then you lock it without the dog in it, so the dog actually wants to get inside the crate, but they’re only allowed in it at certain times of the day.”

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Tips from the trainers: creating a bond between kids and dogs

Beyond safety, there are steps parents can take to strengthen the bond between children and dogs—and reap the social and emotional benefits for children of quality time with the dog.

Applied Animal Behaviorist and director of the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program Dr. Mary Burch notes that, with adequate supervision, children can be involved in caring for the dog in small, everyday ways from an early age. “Parents can teach a child to gently brush a dog, or throw a toy,” she told me. “Children can go along to take the dog for a walk. The dog can be invited to the child’s nightly bedtime story. And, when the family’s meal is finished, if the dog has waited patiently, the child can give the dog a treat.”

Justine Schuurmans agrees that it’s important to incorporate children into the dog’s daily routine. This makes children relevant to the dog and the dog’s needs, which makes the dog more likely to listen to commands from the children. Schuurmans recommends starting off by teaching children how to help dogs acquire an easy, fun skill, such as sitting, lying down, or playing a game.

And when it comes to the dog, parents should also always play bad cop to the kids’ good cop, Schuurmans adds. Since the adults are the natural authority figures in the household, dogs will tolerate less pleasant interactions with them, such as nail clipping. Meanwhile, making children the givers of treats, players of games, and even the dispensers of meals builds up a store of goodwill between the dog and the child.

Adding a dog to the family? Check out these resources for parents

In the days of COVID-19, many people are welcoming dogs into their lives. While in many ways it’s a great time for a new pup, with most people spending more time at home, the structurelessness and lack of social exposure of pandemic life can be difficult for both kids and dogs. Now more than ever, it’s important to think seriously about the reality and responsibilities of having a dog before you decide to bring one home.

If you decide dog ownership is the right step for your family, AKC’s guide to the best dog breeds for kids and resources on socializing puppies during social distancing.

And if you’re bringing a dog into a family with children, Justine Schuurmans’s online training program Peace Love Kids & Dogs is available to AKC members at a 50% discount. Just enter the code AKC50 at checkout.

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