Little Kids Benefit from Having a Family Dog, Study Finds

Walking and playing with the family pooch helps preschooler behavior.

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Hispanic girl hugging dog
The more little kids walk or play with their dogs, the more they benefit. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

They lick your nose, snuggle with you on the couch, and maybe gnaw the occasional shoelace. But family dogs also boost the physical and emotional health of their youngest human family members when kids play and go on walks with them, according to a new study.

Australian researchers found that kids ages 2 to 5 who had dogs in the home were less likely to have conduct problems or issues with their peers and more likely to show pro-social behaviors, such as sharing and cooperating. The more the children walked or played with their dogs, the more obvious those benefits were.

For the study, published in Pediatric Research, scientists from the University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute collected data from 1,646 parents to find out whether they owned a dog and, if so, how much children interacted with the family pet. They also completed a questionnaire that measured children’s social-emotional development and answered questions about screen time, sleep, and the parents' backgrounds.

“We’re increasingly learning that pet ownership within families can have fantastic benefits for children’s physical and social development,” senior author Hayley Christian, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute, said in a news release.

“Our previous research showed that pets can be particularly helpful for school-aged children, but this latest research shows the benefits begin even sooner — right from early childhood.”

Benefits of Walking and Playing

Having a dog in the family had some pretty measurable benefits, the researchers said.

Children who had dogs in their homes were 30% to 40% less likely to have conduct or peer problems than kids without dogs. They also had 23% fewer total difficulties and were 34% more likely to have pro-social behaviors than children without dogs in their homes.

Researchers found that walking the dog together as a family at least once each week and actively playing with the family pooch three or more times each week increased the likelihood of pro-social behavior by as much as 74% and reduced total difficulties by 36%. There was no association between having a dog and hyperactivity or emotional difficulties.

“While we expected that dog ownership would provide some benefits for young children’s well-being, we were surprised that the mere presence of a family dog was associated with many positive behaviors and emotions,” Christian said.

The findings add to the increasing body of research about how pets benefit physical and emotional health. Studies have found they help with everything from stress to social skills, fitness to longevity.

And this newest research suggests the tiniest family members can benefit too.

“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,” Christian said. “Our research suggests family down ownership could be a valuable strategy in achieving this.”