As children go back to school and the seasons begin to morph from summer to fall, we sat down with Adnan Zai, Advisor to Berkeley Capital Beachwood, to talk about an element of child success that many people may not have thought about before: owning a family pet. Although many people agree that it is nice to own a cuddly playful pet, not everyone realizes the myriad benefits for young people. From better health, improved social skills, and a healthy dose of empathy, owning a family pet is a powerful choice to help children grow up.

Mary Kraven: As schools are back in session, the BBC reports that a longitudinal study of 4,000 children at ages five and seven yields some interesting results: “Pet ownership was associated with fewer peer problems and more prosocial behaviour. In separate research they found that children aged 2 to 5 with a family dog were more active, spent less time on screens, and slept more on average, than those without a pet.”

Many people, especially those who are not dog lovers, may think that a pet is just a nice idea, but current research is indicating that it is a monumental milestone for young people who grow up with a pet.

Hayley Christian, associate professor at the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Western Australia in Perth, is studying the effects of pets on children reaching their developmental milestones. “We can actually say that children having pets and interacting with them over time in early childhood does seem to cause these added benefits in terms of their social-emotional development.” Christian is also a senior research fellow at the Telethon Kids Institute.

Do you agree with Christian’s findings? Has this been your experience?

Adnan Zai: Yes, I do believe that pets are very powerful for the growth of young children. As a young child, I owned several pets, notably dogs, and that truly did encourage my social-emotional development, not to mention my physical development. Caring for pets taught me empathy, and I would interact with my dogs and the people in my neighborhood on walks. The fact that studies prove that owning dogs leads to better developmental outcomes in children is something we always experienced but never really had a name for growing up.

I read recently that students even perform better on memory and classification activities when a dog is in the room. The power of animals and the calming effect they have on children and adults is being recognized more and more. Maybe schools should allow students to bring their pets!

Mary Kraven: There are still naysayers who think that animals are just animals. However, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is very clear on the monumental impact of pet ownership, and especially how owning a dog can improve children’s other relationships.

According to the AACAP, “Developing positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. A good relationship with a pet can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion, and empathy. Pets can serve different purposes for children.” How do you feel about this explanation?

Adnan Zai: Because of the pace of the modern world and the lingering effects of the pandemic, children are still struggling, especially with their self-esteem and confidence. Interacting with a beloved pet offers a listening ear, a sturdy companion, and the chance to love and be loved. These are great qualities to develop as children grow, and a pet is a very non-threatening teacher.

Mary Kraven: Pets also have a special role if a child is an only child. Along with the obvious, that the child has someone to play with and interact with, Christian says that  “Parents are more likely to allow their child to be independently mobile [for example, run an errand alone] if they went with a sibling or a friend. And guess what else? A dog.”

Adnan Zai: Yes, there is a built-in companion if kids have a dog. This is also a positive in cases such as foster parents. If a child is placed with a foster family, a dog can help the child ease into their new situation. There is such a feeling of the unknown or unease when a foster child arrives in a family, but dogs speak a universal language of calm.

Mary Kraven: These positive relationships and health benefits start when children are young. However, adults can truly reap a wide variety of benefits from owning a pet as well.

A 2019 analysis of nearly 4 million people in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom found that “dog ownership was associated with a 24% reduction in dying early from any cause. If the person had already suffered a heart attack or stroke, having a dog was even more beneficial; they were 31% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.”

Does this sound plausible to you?

Adnan Zai: There is a lot of stress found in the daily life of adults, and having a dog around for companionship, exercise, and stress relief is an excellent idea, no matter what someone’s age. Notable studies in several hospitals have shown the positive effects of a dog on adults’ physical health and well-being.

Mary Kraven: Thank you for your insights, Adnan Zai. Though originally many people might just think of dogs as a “man’s best friend,” study after study is now showing that a dog can teach children empathy and compassion, as well as offer them more confidence. There are also health benefits for children and adults alike that cannot be ignored. To this end, families who do not have a pet should seriously consider getting one.