Dogs May Help Kids With Socioemotional Growth
Have you ever wondered if companion animals have an effect on how kids learn and grow? A team of researchers set out to answer this question in what might be the first study to find a potentially beneficial relationship between engaging with the family dog and socioemotional development in preschoolers. Although the researchers didn’t establish a causal relationship between these factors, it provided a good foundation for future work in the area of companion animals and child development.
It is well-documented that consistent exercise is beneficial for childrens’ physical, mental, and emotional development, and previously, researchers have found that having a companion animal facilitated exercise in adults. Likewise, past research had found that children who spend time with their family’s dog may exercise more, and there is a possible link between time spent with dogs and socioemotional development.
The authors hypothesized that dog guardianship facilitates physical activity in children who have a family dog. They posed two main research questions:
- What is the nature of the relationship between having a dog and preschoolers’ social and emotional development?
- Beyond just having a dog, is regular active engagement with a dog associated with improved social and emotional development in preschoolers?
To answer these questions, the researchers conducted a secondary analysis of the Play Spaces and Environments for Children’s Physical Activity (PLAYCE) study, which was a cross-sectional, observational study about preschoolers. The PLAYCE study measured many different variables, including screen time, age, and interactions with the family dog. The key variables of interest for the current study were having a family dog, physical activity associated with the family dog, and socioemotional development.
Having a family dog and dog-facilitated exercise were measured by asking one parent of the preschooler being studied. The parent would indicate whether or not their family had a dog, how often their preschooler interacted with the dog, and what type of interactions their preschooler had with the dog. The preschoolers’ socioemotional development was also reported by parents via the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). This measurement tool allows researchers to understand if a child’s behavior is normal or abnormal in terms of their social and emotional development.
Results showed 42% of the families who participated in the PLAYCE study had dogs. Within the families who had dogs, 77% of the preschoolers played with the dog at least three times per week, and 53% of preschoolers walked with their dog at least once per week. The researchers created comparison groups based on these overall results that they use for the analysis that we’ll discuss below.
- Preschoolers who played with their dog at least three times per week vs. preschoolers who played with their dog less than three times per week.
- Preschoolers who walked with their dog at least once per week vs. preschoolers who walked with their dog less than once per week.
On the social and emotional development side of things, 20% of preschoolers had poor development according to the SDQ scale.
There were also some more detailed results that answer the research questions. Let’s start with the first research question: What is the nature of the relationship between having a dog and preschoolers’ social and emotional development? It turns out that simply having a family dog is associated with decreased odds of preschoolers having overall social and emotional development problems (overall refers to the total SDQ score, not sub-scales).
Now let’s tackle the second research question: Beyond just having a dog, is regular active engagement with a dog associated with improved social and emotional development in preschoolers? According to the analysis, preschoolers who walked with their dog one or more times per week had lower odds of poor overall socioemotional development compared to preschoolers who walked with their dog less than one time per week. Also, preschoolers who played with their dog at least three times each week had higher odds of prosocial behaviors compared to preschoolers who played with their dog less than three times per week. However, there were no other significant differences between the groups for overall socioemotional development or other sub-scales.
Overall, the researchers confirmed their hypothesis that having a dog and engaging with him or her is associated with improved social and emotional development as well as prosocial behaviors in preschoolers. There were several limitations of the study that are worth considering. Firstly, the PLAYCE study was cross-sectional, which means we cannot establish causation between social and emotional development and interacting with the family dog. It is possible that families who have dogs are more supportive or more emotionally nurturing compared to those who don’t have dogs, which could explain the correlation. Additionally, the data were gathered through parent reports, which could be subject to biases such as recall bias or self-serving bias.
The authors suggest that future research should focus on different companion animals and their effects on socioemotional development in children, levels of attachment between children and their companion animals, and other areas of child development.