The Social and Emotional Benefits Dogs Offer Children

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

benefits of dogs to children

Story at-a-glance -

  • Preschool-aged children with dogs have a reduced likelihood of conduct problems, peer problems and total difficulties than children from families without a dog
  • Children between the ages of 2 and 5 who participated in family dog walking at least once a week and actively played with their dog three or more times a week had increased prosocial behaviors, while walking the dog with the family at least once a week lowered the likelihood of total difficulties
  • Pet ownership is linked to greater autonomy, self-esteem and prosocial behaviors in elementary school children
  • Adults’ self-concepts may even be related to the age when they had their first pet, with greater social competency and positive self-concept when pet ownership began prior to 6 or after 12
  • Children younger than 5 can’t be expected to handle the responsibility of caring for a pet, though they can certainly participate in family walks and supervised playtime

A family dog can provide immeasurable benefits for those in your household, including some of the youngest. Even preschool-aged children just 2 to 5 years old can benefit from the interactions that having a pet provides. Many young children are naturally drawn to animals, and the soft fur, sloppy kisses and wagging tail of a dog may be irresistible to preschoolers.

At this age, it’s important to supervise interactions with pets, as children can be unintentionally rough and may startle or injure a pet — and vice versa. In most cases, however, the benefits of dog ownership far outweigh the risks for children, including offering unique benefits to social and emotional development.1

Dogs Provide Social-Emotional Benefits to Preschoolers

Researchers from the Centre for Child Health Research at The University of Western Australia surveyed 1,646 parents about dog ownership and pet-related activities, such as family dog walks and how often their child actively plays with their dog. Just belonging to a dog-owning family had benefits, with such children having a reduced likelihood of conduct problems, peer problems and total difficulties than children from families without a dog.

Prosocial behaviors, which may include things like sharing, cooperating and showing empathy, also occurred more often in the children of dog-owning families compared to non-dog families. Children from families with a dog who walked or played with the dog more often had even better prosocial behaviors.2

Specifically, children who participated in family dog walking at least once a week and actively played with their dog three or more times a week had increased prosocial behaviors, while walking the dog with the family at least once a week lowered the likelihood of total difficulties.3

“Due to the high level of pet ownership in households with children, these findings suggest having a dog and interacting with it through play and walking may be important mechanisms for facilitating young children’s social–emotional development,” the researchers noted.4 Part of the benefit could be due to increased physical activity, which provides important developmental benefits.

Past research has shown, for instance, that dog ownership may contribute 29 minutes more walking and 142 minutes more physical activity per week, on average, among children, compared to those without pets.5 There are likely other factors at play as well.

Dog Ownership Improves Self-Esteem, Empathy

Children with pets gain positive opportunities that may help shape their development in a positive way. This is especially true when they’re involved in dogs’ care and playtime.

Among third to sixth graders, pet ownership was linked to greater autonomy, while fifth and sixth graders with pets had higher levels of self-esteem6 in one study. Other research also found elementary students who owned dogs were more empathic and prosocially oriented than non-owners.7

Quite simply, a positive relationship with an animal encourages nurturing behavior in children, teaches compassion and also provides a sense of responsibility. In an analysis of survey results from over 1,000 7- to 12-year-olds, researchers noted benefits for the children and the animals alike, which may translate to positivity for society as well:

“[A]ttachment to pets is facilitated by compassion and caring and pet-directed friendship behaviors and that attachment to pets significantly predicts positive attitudes towards animals. The findings have implications for the promotion of prosocial and humane behavior.

Encouraging children to participate in pet care behavior may promote attachment between children and their pet, which in turn may have a range of positive outcomes for both children (such as reduced aggression, better well-being, and quality of life) and pets (such as humane treatment).”8

Most research into pets and children involves older kids, which is why the featured study, which involved 2- to 5-year-olds, was notable in suggesting pet ownership may even be beneficial from a very young age. It’s even been suggested that adults’ self-concepts may be related to the age when they had their first pet,9 with greater social competency and positive self-concept when pet ownership began prior to 6 or after 12.

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Best Pets for Young Children

It’s estimated that while 4 in 10 children are born into a family with pets, up to 90% will live with a pet at some point during their childhood.10 If you’re considering a pet for a preschooler, be aware that children younger than 5 can’t be expected to handle the responsibility of caring for a pet, though they can certainly participate in family walks and supervised playtime.

If you’d like a pet your child can get involved in caring for, children as young as 4 or 5 can help with a hermit crab, which are quite intriguing to watch as well. Dogs also make great family pets, but you’ll need to closely supervise until your child learns how to safely initiate interactions.

While all types of dogs, including rescues, can be good with children, certain breeds, such as Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Newfoundlands and beagles, are known for being especially family friendly. No matter the breed, if you have a puppy, this is the time for proper socialization, including experiences around babies and toddlers, so he’ll learn that being around children is fun, not frightening.