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Dogs could help toddlers learn social-emotional skills

CNN logo CNN 7/6/2020 By Kristen Rogers, CNN
a person standing next to a dog © Thinkstock

With our busy schedules and reliance on technology for entertainment, it's hard for little ones to get enough of the outdoor physical activity that's crucial for healthy development.

And during a pandemic when parents are especially crunched for time, it's even harder to ensure that happens.

But one solution could be lying right at your feet, said a study published Sunday in the journal Pediatric Research. Owning, walking and playing with a family dog could encourage your toddler's social and emotional development.

In fact, toddlers from dog-owning families who participated in the study were 30% less likely to have conduct and peer problems in comparison to preschoolers from families who didn't own dogs, the researchers found. Even at this age, toddlers could indeed benefit from interacting with a pet while supervised.

"Regular physical activity plays an important role during early childhood, contributing to young children's development and decreasing their risk of developing chronic diseases including obesity," said the study's senior author Hayley Christian, an associate professor and senior research fellow in the Centre for Child Health Research at The University of Western Australia.

But for reasons involving the individual child and their family and environment, Christian added, less than a third of children ages 2 to 5 get three hours of physical activity per day — contrasting the global recommendations that preschoolers be active throughout the day.

Dog ownership has been linked to responsibility, positive identity, empathy and trust. But these studies were mostly on older children and adults, and concluded that the positive influence of pets on development was greatest just before adolescence.

Given the value of movement for childhood development and prior research on how dogs might help, the authors thought these same associations might be possible in early childhood.

How preschoolers benefited from dogs

They analyzed data from the Australian Play Spaces and Environments for Children's Physical Activity and Health study. This investigation looked into which aspects of early childhood education and care and home and neighborhood environment influenced preschoolers' physical activity, health and development.

Participants involved children from different socioeconomic backgrounds who attended ECEC centers in Perth, Australia.

Via questionnaires, parents reported scores of their children's well-being in a few different areas: Conduct problems described how often children lost their temper, misbehaved or fought with other kids, explained Christian, who is also a research fellow at the Telethon Kids Institute, the medical research institute behind the study.

Peer issues included how they got along with other children and if they preferred to play alone. Prosocial behavior considered how much the children were considerate of others' feelings and helpful if someone was hurt, upset or sick. The surveys also measured emotional symptoms, hyperactivity and overall difficulties.

Toddlers from dog-owning families were more likely to exhibit higher levels of prosocial behaviors, and they had lower overall difficulties. Children who walked a pet dog with their families at least one day weekly and played with their dogs at least three times a week had higher prosocial scores than those who did so less often.

"These results highlight that even a small to moderate commitment to involving preschoolers in time spent walking with the family dog may provide important social and emotional benefits for young children," the study said.

One current worry about children's development and loneliness in the absence of friends and activities during the pandemic "fits nicely with the positive effects of dog ownership for young kids," said Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Center for Human Growth & Development at the University of Michigan, who wasn't involved in the study.

At preschool age, children's frontal lobes are still developing, Radesky added. That means preschoolers haven't yet fully formed the ability to regulate behavior or control strong emotions and impulses, so people have commonly held the belief that toddlers wouldn't benefit from having a dog because they wouldn't know how to interact with it.

"This was a nice example of how, even in the youngest kids, a dog can be a positive influence on their behavior," she said.

Building empathy skills

As separately studied in adults, the children might have experienced "vicarious pleasure" and happiness when playing with the dogs, which can also lead to better prosocial behavior.

Animals are sentient beings with feelings and thoughts, but they can't talk with us, Radesky said.

"You have to work to read what your dog is thinking and respond to their behavior. That gets kids out of their headspace and more thinking about what another being is thinking," Radesky said. "That's [the magical factor] of empathy and social reciprocity, meaning the back and forth of relationships that helps us heal during times of stress."

Healthy development enables human capability, Christian said, "allowing children to reach maturity and participate in economic, social and civic life."

Pets "can be social enablers and help teach children about responsibility through caring, training and looking after their pet," she added.

What to know before getting a dog

Because the researchers didn't have many details on family structures, it's possible that the findings may represent families who were able to provide more nurturing environments for their children, the study said. The value of getting a dog is an individual decision, Radesky said.

A dog comes with a number of significant, costly responsibilities related to caring for, feeding, exercising, vaccinating, training and socializing it, Christian said. And if your child is toddler age, you'll be the primary caretaker for the long haul. Dogs, with an average life span of seven to 14 years, stick around for a long time — so consider how one would fit into your family's lifestyle and coexist with children of different ages or other pets.

There's a surplus of recorded benefits of pet ownership, though: Pet owners are less likely to die early; have heart attacks; suffer loneliness, stress and mood disorders; experience sleep problems; and have low self-esteem. Walking your dog benefits both you and your furry friend.

But science hasn't yet reached a conclusion — at the same time, some studies have found pet owners are more likely to be lonely, depressed and have other health problems.

Additional studies that measure more diverse family dynamics and environments would tell us more about how pets might boost children's development.

Who knows whether the same benefits might be found in your child's interactions with the classroom pet bearded dragon you've been stuck with since schools closed in March?

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