Dot­ing on dogs makes all the dif­fer­ence

Study finds chil­dren close to pet ca­nines have bet­ter hu­man re­la­tion­ships


LIKE to think I have a great re­la­tion­ship with my chil­dren. While I can’t brag that my 19 years with my son and 16 years with my daugh­ter have been per­fect, I can chalk them up as pretty darn good. Is it be­cause I’m (ahem) a great mother? Or, rather, should I be thank­ing our fam­ily dog?

A re­cent study found that chil­dren who feel close to their pet dogs are also more se­curely at­tached to their par­ents and have bet­ter bonds with their best friends. Re­searchers at Kent State Univer­sity looked at 99 chil­dren ages 9 to 11 who owned pet dogs. These chil­dren an­swered ques­tion­naires about their re­la­tion­ships with their dogs, par­ents and friends.

The study found if one type of re­la­tion­ship was strong, it’s likely the oth­ers were, too. In gen­eral, chil­dren with strong bonds with their dogs also had strong bonds with their par­ents and best friends.

But which came first?

Kathryn Kerns, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Kent State and one of the lead re­searchers, says they don’t know. It could be that car­ing for pets makes chil­dren feel closer to the sig­nif­i­cant hu­mans in their lives, or it could be that their hu­man re­la­tion­ships model how they should treat their pets. It could also be a re­cip­ro­cal jum­ble: A pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence with the pet leads to be­ing more co-op­er­a­tive with par­ents, and that pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence with par­ents leads to be­ing closer to the pet, and so on.

The re­searchers also watched how the chil­dren in­ter­acted with their dogs. They found that those who had more phys­i­cal con­tact with their pets had bet­ter re­la­tion­ships with their moth­ers — but not nec­es­sar­ily with their fa­thers (or friends).

“Given that moth­ers play a bit more of a role as a safe haven, as the one to go to for com­fort, than dad, per­haps that’s why we found that ef­fect,” Kerns says.

“The close re­la­tion­ship with the mother might be more of a model for close­ness with oth­ers, in­clud­ing the dog.”

Kerns and her team also did an­other study: How do pet dogs af­fect chil­dren’s emo­tions dur­ing stress­ful events?

The same 99 pre-ado­les­cents were asked to de­liver a five-minute au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal speech. The speech would be watched live by the ex­per­i­menters and,

Ito up the stress fac­tor, video­taped to be sup­pos­edly eval­u­ated later. Half of the chil­dren had their dogs in the room, while half didn’t. “Kids who had their dogs present felt much hap­pier through­out the whole process,” Kerns says. And hav­ing phys­i­cal con­tact with the dog — its chin on the child’s lap, or the dog lean­ing against the child’s leg — made the ex­pe­ri­ence even less stress­ful.

“When peo­ple are around pets and pet­ting them, of­ten­times they just feel calmer in­side,” Kerns ex­plains. The chil­dren may be in a bet­ter mood around their pets, which helps them cope bet­ter with stres­sors. The child may have had past calm­ing ex­pe­ri­ences with his or her dog, which now makes it eas­ier to re­lax. With a loyal buddy at the child’s side, the sit­u­a­tion may feel less threat­en­ing.

In an un­re­lated study, chil­dren did a sim­i­lar stress test ei­ther with a pet dog, with a par­ent or alone. The stress level was low­est when the chil­dren were with their dogs. Then there is a study on adults, who per­formed a stress­ful task with a pet dog, with a friend or alone. They were least stressed when they had their pet dogs with them. When alone, the stress level went up. And when with a friend, the stress level was high­est of all.

Why can dogs of­fer bet­ter sup­port than hu­mans? “Hu­mans can be judg­men­tal in a way that dogs aren’t,” Kerns says. While we might worry a friend is silently eval­u­at­ing our per­for­mance, we know a dog couldn’t care less.

So might other pets have sim­i­lar ef­fects? Kerns and her team de­cided to study dogs be­cause they have char­ac­ter­is­tics dis­tinct from other pets: the abil­ity to read emo­tions, loy­alty and an affin­ity for phys­i­cal con­tact. While other an­i­mals that al­low for phys­i­cal con­tact may of­fer sim­i­lar ben­e­fits, such as cats or even horses, the re­sults prob­a­bly wouldn’t hold up for more dis­tant pets, such as a fish.

As for ex­trap­o­lat­ing the re­sults to chil­dren of other ages — for in­stance, my teens — Kerns says she imag­ines it would work sim­i­larly: “We fo­cused on pre-ado­les­cents be­cause that’s a time at which chil­dren are es­pe­cially likely to talk about their pets in terms of them be­ing friends. But I don’t know that I would ex­pect it to be so dif­fer­ent for older ado­les­cents, for ex­am­ple.”

If you’re dog­less, though, don’t run out and buy one un­less it has been a long­time fam­ily goal.

The stress of own­ing a dog — from ex­penses to daily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties — may not be worth the ben­e­fits. “They’re not al­ways charm­ing and fun,” Kerns says.

Also, they won’t help com­pen­sate for a child’s poor hu­man re­la­tion­ships. “If your child doesn’t have a friend, then (think­ing you can) get them a dog and that will make up for it: I don’t think we found any ev­i­dence of that.”

But if you do have a pet dog, take ad­van­tage of it. On the drive to the first day at a new school, let your child sit in the back seat of the car with your dog. If you’re go­ing to an­nounce a big move, make sure the dog’s at the fam­ily meet­ing, too.

It isn’t just hav­ing a dog that re­duces stress: It’s hav­ing the dog with you. Be­cause all the chil­dren in Kerns’s study had dogs, it wasn’t own­er­ship alone that re­duced stress. The im­por­tant fac­tor was the dog’s im­me­di­ate pres­ence.

As for strong re­la­tion­ships, as a mother I like to think my bond with my kids has made them closer to the dog, not the other way around. But it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter who gets top billing. What mat­ters in the end is that we’re all tightknit.

Hav­ing a pet dog nearby for stress­ful events or news can make it eas­ier on chil­dren, re­searchers say.

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