Those boys need a dog: the link between kids, pets and healthy development

The link between kids, pets and healthy development

By Dorianne Sager

“Those boys need a dog,” my dad said as we sat in the backyard and watched my then, ten-year-old son, throw a tennis ball while his six-year-old brother raced after it on his hands and knees and tried to pick it up in his mouth. I pulled out my arguments against dog ownership: they’re messy, they cost too much, they keep you up at night, they eat stuff off the floor, until I realized they were the same arguments I used with my husband about parenthood so obviously, a dog was destined to become part of our family. Still, it took me four more years to cave. I remained steadfast against the cries of: “I just want something to love and my brother doesn’t count!”; their indignation over friends’ collective pet ownership: four dogs, three cats, a hedgehog, two gerbils, and three iguanas; and the power point presentation on the best breeds for mothers with allergies.

It wasn’t until my oldest son turned fourteen and tiptoed into the minefield of adolescence that I realized we needed a different sort of unconditional love in the house, something strong yet cuddly enough to withstand the pains and pressures of being a teenager. We finally joined the 57% of Canadians who own a pet when my friend’s son, who was in his last year of high school, said to me, “I come home and my dog is always there, I know he loves me no matter what. It just makes everything feel right, even when nothing is.”

While my decision to get a dog was motivated by emotion (and the fear that my kids were growing up too fast), it appears that science backs me up: pet ownership really is good for kids.

A recent large-scale review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at 22 different research studies on the effects of pet ownership on kids’ development. The authors of the review were quick to point out that the majority of research has focused on the relationship between kids and dogs. Given canines’ higher level of interaction and reciprocation (we’re looking at you, Kitty) this is hardly surprising, and while many families have bonded over a toilet-side memorial service for a goldfish, it’s clear that the significance of children’s bonds with all kinds of pets is an area that needs more study. But for now, the review of the current research confirmed that yes, pet ownership is linked to higher self-esteem, cognitive development and social skills in kids – to which kids everywhere replied: “So when are we getting a dog?”

Why kids need a pet: the science says so

• Pets can increase kids’ self-esteem, particularly in adolescents.
• Feeding, caring, training and walking a pet encourages responsibility and empathy while giving kids valuable caregiving experience.
• Pets can reduce loneliness and social anxiety.
• Pets can be trained to help with behavioral modification for kids with ADD.
• Pets can actually reduce a child’s risk of allergies or asthma.
• The strong desire for a pet can improve kids powerpoint presentation skills when appealing to parents (okay, maybe that was just my experience).

Sadly, my dad did not live long enough to see his grandsons play fetch with a real dog. But as I watch my sons now 16 and 12, still boys but in the bodies of young men, sprawl on the couch while their dog takes turns resting her head on their knees, I know what my dad would say: “Those boys need two dogs.”


Do you have a story to share about kids and their pets? Maybe a story from your childhood? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!