I often say that I have two sons: One is a 2-year-old human, and the other is a 5-year-old Golden Lab. My husband always cringes when I call our dog our son, and he’s probably right that it’s not quite the right term.
My dog is more like my best friend than my child, and he’s definitely my child’s best friend, too. Our dog’s name is the first word out of my kid’s mouth every morning, and the two are partners in pantry pilfering crime.
Yes, he’s taught my child all about cookie theft, but a growing body of research suggests my dog is also a good influence on my little human. According to Yale University, dogs make kids happier, kinder, gentler and more independent.
Dogs make kids happy
It’s the first benefit on the list and also the most obvious. Dogs just make kids happy. Many parents (myself included, obviously), have noticed that canine companions can boost a child’s mood, and there’s a lot of science to support the link between dogs and human happiness.
One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners,” and another, out of the University of Cambridge, found that kids get more satisfaction from their relationship with household pets (especially dogs) than with human siblings. Yet another found that “having a pet dog in the home was associated with a decreased probability of childhood anxiety.”
According to Yale, the happiness kids feel around dogs is due to the hormone oxytocin (the same hormone thought to make mothers more responsive to their baby’s cries). This hormone is known for playing a role in how we bond with each other and its release makes kids feel more social and cheerful.
Dogs make kids more caring and independent
Many parents decided to get a pet to foster a sense of responsibility in their kids, but even when children are too young to be walking or feeding Fido themselves, research indicates that having a bond with a dog is doing them good, not by making them more responsible, but by making them more empathetic.
My toddler is much too young to be “responsible” for our dog, but he does act like he is. He loves to help when it’s time to fill the food dish, and he’ll often bring me the dog’s leash if he thinks it’s about time for a walk. (Maybe that’s why studies suggest children from homes with a pet dog have higher levels of physical activity.)
According to Yale Medical, being responsible for a dog makes children feel proud, and that in turn leads them to take better care of themselves.
Dogs chill kids out
“Gentle” is a word we often use around our toddler, especially when he is interacting with animals. Even back in his preverbal days we taught him that dogs only like gentle touches, and, according to Yale, children really do become more gentle and calmer when they are around a dog.
Studies suggest therapy dogs help pediatric cancer patients maintain stable blood pressure, pulse rates and anxiety levels, and similar results have been seen in programs that see children who are reluctant or anxious readers read to dogs instead of people.
This is again, probably down to oxytocin, as “interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels most likely through oxytocin release, which attenuates physiologic responses to stress,” researchers note.
Dogs are good for kids’ health
The impact a dog has on a child’s health can start even before they are born. One study out of the University of Alberta suggests having a pet in the house during pregnancy and the first few months of a baby’s life lowers their risks for developing allergies or struggling with obesity later in life, and reduces the transmission of vaginal group B Strep (which causes pneumonia in newborns) during birth.
It basically comes down to gut bacteria. Dogs are dirty, but there’s some good stuff in that dirt.
Dogs are just awesome
My dog got me up and walking when I had the post-baby blues, and these days he motivates me to get my toddler outside (which is good, because he needs almost as much exercise as the dog). I didn’t go to Yale, but I can tell you my dog has had a big impact on me, and on his human “brother.”