How children learn important life skills by interacting with dogs

[emaillocker]As dog owners, we are so focused on teaching our dogs new things, that we often forget to look at what our dogs can teach us as human beings. One thing that adults can learn from dogs is to live more in the moment. But children can learn so much more from dogs, such as important and valuable social skills that they will need later in life.


Countless research has been done about the relationships between humans and dogs, with most of it focusing on how dogs learn from humans, and how our relationships with dogs help us to cope with everyday life and all its stresses. But most of the research only includes the study of older children.

A new study, which looked at how toddlers can benefit from having and interacting with a family dog, found that the children learnt many skills, and that there were many benefits from such a relationship. The research paper – The relationship between dog ownership, dog play, family dog walking, and pre-schooler socio-emotional development: Findings from the PLAYCE observational study – noted the results of 1,646 parents, with children and dogs, studied. The authors of the paper, Elizabeth J Wenden, Leanne Lester, Stephen R Zubrick, Michelle Ng and Hayley E Christian, wanted to find out how the relationships, and in particular walking and playing with the dogs, impacted the development of the children.

The study suggests that young children who are more active are provided with “health and developmental benefits, including healthy weight, improved bone health, cardiovascular fitness, and enhanced motor, cognitive, social, and emotional development.”

The results of the study show that: “Children from dog-owning households had reduced likelihood of conduct problems, peer problems and total difficulties, and increased likelihood of prosocial behaviour, compared with children without a dog.

“Within dog-owning households, family dog walking at least once a week and active play with the family dog three or more times a week increased the likelihood of prosocial behaviours. Family dog walking at least once a week also reduced the likelihood of total difficulties.”

Some of the findings from the study:

  • Young children from dog-owning families had lower peer problems and conduct problems, and higher prosocial behaviours than children from non-dog-owning families.
  • Children of dog-owning families who walked or played with their dog more often also had better prosocial behaviours.
  • Positive social-emotional development was associated with dog ownership, family dog walking, and dog play in young children.
  • Social-emotional benefits of owning a dog may begin early in childhood.
  • Due to the high level of pet ownership in households with children, it would appear that having a dog and interacting with him through play and walking may be important mechanisms for facilitating young children’s social-emotional development.

Local expert

Animaltalk asked Nicoleen Coetzee, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, exactly how children learn from dogs. “Children start, at the age of six months, to learn social skills. So, from there on, they learn without us even realising, and from dogs as well.

“Babies can learn from observing their parents, as well as other people, interacting with animals. That’s why it is important that the parents demonstrate to the baby how to interact with a dog. This also teaches children pro-social behaviour, and how to establish bonds. They also learn about the concept of being gentle with others,” explains Nicoleen.

“When we interact with dogs, our bodies release the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with attachment formation. So, children become attached to the family dog and, as a result of the sense of belonging children experience, they interact more with the dog, which, in itself, becomes a learning process,” she says.

But, when something goes wrong in the developmental years and the child is not taught to respect other living beings, or how to behave around a dog, there can be serious problems later in that person’s life. Nicoleen adds that correlations have been established between children abusing animals and then later turning to criminal behaviour. “Most serial killers are known abusers of animals.”

Social skills

She further explains that children who are gentle and display pro-social behaviour tend to treat other living beings with respect and empathy, which, in turn, makes people want to befriend them –  and this is how the children’s social skills help them later in their lives.

“Research has shown that childhood trauma can scar an individual for life. A child exposed to trauma will develop neural networks enforcing the belief that they are not worthy of love and affection. It takes years of therapy to replace these negative pathways with positive neural networks. This is what makes especially well-behaved dogs such excellent companions – they display unconditional love,” adds Nicoleen.

Biggest lesson

The main lesson that a child should learn at a young age is to respect a dog and his space, and allow him to be a dog. “For instance, children should not pull the dog’s tail, ears or hair. A disgruntled dog will growl, show his teeth, flatten his ears or remove himself from the situation, and may even ignore the child afterwards.

“Some parents scold the dog, which is wrong, since the child needs to know that everyone has boundaries that must be respected. A child who learns to respect animals will show respect towards other humans,” says Nicoleen.

Responsible pet owner

Bringing a dog into the family shouldn’t only be about teaching a child various lessons. It is extremely important to be aware of the huge responsibilities of having a dog. Not only will the dog need the best food that you can afford, he also needs medical care throughout his entire life. And this includes annual vaccines after his first year, regular parasite treatments, annual health checks, and maybe pet insurance as well. The dog will become a part of the family, and will have various needs that will have to be met.

Children can be taught how to take care of the dog by feeding him twice a day and making sure that he has fresh water to drink but, ultimately, it remains the parents’ responsibility to ensure that the chores are done every day. It is also important to consider the age of the child – one certainly cannot expect a pre-schooler to do these daily chores.

Furthermore, it remains the parents’ responsibility to teach the child what is right and what is wrong when it comes to respecting dogs and other living beings. If the parents lead by example, by pure observation, the child will learn how to treat and take care of animals correctly.

Safe environment

Both your dog and your child need to feel safe. You can create safe environments for both by setting boundaries – and this needs to be done even before a new dog is introduced to the family.

Depending on your child’s and your dog’s ages, you can also create physical and time boundaries, like allowing your pup to nap undisturbed in a crate and teaching your child to leave the dog alone during this period. This is one way in which your child learns to respect other beings’ space and time.

Another important lesson to teach your child is learning to read a dog’s body language, and knowing when he feels annoyed, threatened, or needs some time alone. If he shows any of these signs, your child should respect that and back off.

Children have a natural instinct to hug someone they love. But most dogs don’t appreciate being hugged and children should learn from an early age not to hug animals. Dogs who don’t like hugs may respond in various ways and, unfortunately, biting is one of them. Ultimately, it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure that the child doesn’t hug the dog or climb onto him. Rather teach your child to invite the dog into his or her space and let the dog sit next to them. This way, the dog can decide how close he wants to get to the child.

Dog body language signs to be aware of

These signs may indicate that your dog is uncomfortable with a situation. Don’t ignore them and never scold or discipline a dog who displays them:

  • Whale eye (when the white of the eye is visible).
  • Yawning
  • Lip licking.
  • Looking away.
  • Flattened ears.
  • Showing teeth.
  • Growling.
  • Snapping.

Be open-minded and look at the signs in the context of the dog’s entire body. Your dog will often ‘warn’ you in advance when he is feeling uncomfortable. But if a dog is scolded when he shows the signs, he might skip the warning signs and fast-forward to the only other action he knows to protect himself – biting.

Family involvement

By treating the dog as part of the family and taking care of his basic needs (like feeding him, making sure he is warm and comfortable, and has fresh drinking water), your child will learn to take care of living beings.

By involving the child in various activities, like playing with and walking the dog, you will teach him or her how to interact with others, how to work as part of a team, and countless other lessons we possibly aren’t even aware of.

You could also involve the child in taking the dog to puppy school and training him. The child will then learn how and when to treat the dog, and how to show love in a positive way. And, in the process, your child will be more active, and therefore healthier, as well.

Being a part of a family and feeling a sense of belonging are extremely important for a child, and these things create a safe environment for both the child and the dog. [/emaillocker]


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