It’s so scary as parents to hear in the news about children getting bitten by the family dog – evidence suggests that these incidents are on the rise! But we also know that dog ownership is so beneficial for the development and mental health of our kids. This blog is aimed at giving YOU the information you need and the solution! Keeping dogs and kids happy and safe feels like a minefield.
Estimated 50% of children bitten by dogs during their childhood. Over ¾ of these have historically been by the family dog, however if we look at dog bites which lead to a hospital visit, over 90% of dog bite incidents on children from 1998-2018 were in the home (source: English Hospital Episode Data). There is a difference with gender with peak age risks for girls being 5-9 years old and for boys 10-14 years old.
The lowest age group of all for hospital admissions due to dog bites is less than a year (Tulloch et al 2021) which suggests that a major risk factor in dog bites is the mobility of children and their interaction with the family dog.
Children get more satisfaction from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters, according to new research from the University of Cambridge (Cassels et al 2017). Children also appear to get on even better with their animal companions than with siblings.
The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental
So this recent research, along with many others shows us that there is increasing evidence that household pets may have a major influence on child development, and could have a positive impact on children’s social skills and emotional well-being.
Pets are almost as common as siblings in western households, although there are relatively few studies on the importance of child-pet relationships.
‘‘Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says Matt Cassels, a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry, who led the study. “We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”
“While previous research has often found that boys report stronger relationships with their pets than girls do, we actually found the opposite. While boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys, perhaps indicating that girls may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.’’
“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study. “The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”
“Our findings indicate that dog ownership may benefit children’s development and wellbeing and we speculate that this could be attributed to the attachment between children and their dogs. Stronger attachments between children and their pets may be reflected in the amount of time spent playing and walking together and this may promote social and emotional development.”
It’s just another reason to adopt a pup for your children…
Dogs and mental wellbeing
They reduce stress & anxiety
The act of stroking a dog has been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety. As we stroke, cuddle and play with our pet, the amount of serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone) we release increases, while the levels of cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone) lowers. Studies also found that petting a dog for 15 minutes can lower your blood pressure by 10%.
For many children, including neurodiverse children, this is a powerful tool to help soothe them during moments of stress or panic, and can be particularly useful if your child is prone to meltdowns and bouts of aggression.
It’s also great news for a foster child moving in with a new family. It can be a stressful time moving to a new home, with unknown people. There’s the fear of the unknown, wanting to be accepted and fearful if it doesn’t happen. Then there are other worries, like being unsure of the rules alongside the stress of leaving family members. This all adds to the feelings of anxiety, but with a dog by their side to fuss and stroke, this anxiety could fade away.
They increase independence
Going outside or on public transport can be a stressful situation for both parents and children, but especially those with autism, ADHD, or ADD. If you have a dog for your ADHD child, they are more likely to stay focused and less likely to engage in impulsive behaviours when out and about in public, which not only keeps the child safe, but also puts parents at ease too. Over time, this helps to increase independence and open up more opportunities for your child to confidently engage with the community.
They encourage exercise
Dogs love nothing more than a walk, playing fetch and all things outdoors. Encouraging children to take part and play with a dog will help burn off excess energy for all children, but especially those with ADHD. Exercise is also proven to release those ‘happy’ hormones we spoke about earlier, so if your foster children are exercising and playing with a dog regularly, this could have a positive effect on their overall happiness and demeanor.
They strengthen the immune system
It might sound a little unnerving to know that if you live with a dog, you live with their bugs too! After all, that’s why we encourage children to wash their hands after giving a dog fuss. But the reality is, it doesn’t matter how clean we are, or how clean we keep our pets; when you live together you share the same microbiome – the millions of bacteria that call our bodies home.
Living with a dog means our immune systems are working to keep us safe from any harmful bacteria they may give to us, especially if your dog likes to lick, whilst also introducing us to other forms of good bacteria.
Paediatric studies have shown that children who grow up with dogs have better immune health than those who don’t. The results of which means those with dogs fall ill less often and when they are poorly can often bounce back to health faster.
They can protect against eczema & asthma
Some studies have shown that dogs actually protect children at risk of eczema. One study showed that children who didn’t live with dogs are 4 times more likely to develop the condition than those that do.
Research has also shown that children who have a birth parent that suffers from allergies or asthma are less predisposed if they have early exposure to dogs. Even if a child’s birth parents don’t have asthma, there is general consensus that children are less likely to develop the disease with a dog around.
Dogs and child development
They teach children empathy
Being caring and kind isn’t a skill we are born with – it’s something we learn. Depending on a child’s early life experience, some may not have had the same opportunity to learn empathy naturally, as they may not have had many kind and caring role models to learn from.
Pets can help to give all children real hands-on experience of how to put another’s needs first, which can be especially helpful to parents who are teaching kindness, empathy, and caring via example.
Giving children small jobs to help care for a pet can help them to learn responsibility. Feeding, filling up the water bowl, helping to brush their hair, and going for walks with them all help children to understand what it means to care for another. This means children can directly see the impact their actions have on a pet, such as the happy wagging tail of a dog at feeding time. Teaching a child how good it can feel to be kind is a crucial part of their development, and dogs are natural teachers!
Dogs and relationships
They make socialising easier
Dogs are good for children with ADHD and autism as sometimes it’s just their presence that’s needed to make everything okay. Some children can find socialising difficult, but having a dog with them helps to make social situations easier to deal with, especially as dogs are a natural talking point. There’s less pressure to make small talk, as the dog is often the focal point of conversation.
They reduce feelings of loneliness
Childhood can be a lonely at times – kids are forever falling out with each other which can lead to children feeling isolated, but the dog is always there.
This means all they offer is companionship without ever telling a child off or giving instructions, which can provide a great sense of security for children. A dog can help them feel important because they receive unconditional affection, helping to boost their self-esteem which is an important starting block for positive emotional health.
They’re a friend for life
Most importantly, a dog is a friend for life. The bond between a child and their pet is irreplaceable, and it’s truly magical to witness. Your child will never be alone, which is often their biggest fear, so pairing them up with a special buddy to help them thrive and become confident young adults could be the best decision you ever make for them.
So what can parents do??
The evidence is pretty conclusive! Owning a dog is great for kids both in terms of physical and emotional development. But there are risks if the relationship isn’t managed properly.
Family dog training!!
All To Play For provides a comprehensive family dog training package which includes sessions either in person or via zoom for both parents and children, and online materials specifically for kids as well as adults.
To find out more book a call: https://calendly.com/alltoplayfor/phone-consulation?month=2022-05 and we can discuss how our programmes can work for you, your kids and your dog.