We do not have a family dog. Chalk it up to lack of time, money, space, and desire to have a family dog. But we are dog people. My wife grew up in a pack of yellow labs and I cohabitated as a child with a toy-and-furniture-gnawing husky, a cagey Australian shepherd, and a temperamental boxer. Given those experiences — mostly positive — and the sheer amount of research on the psychological and health effects — also mostly positive — of growing up around a dog, I wonder whether I’m doing my children a disservice by holding off on a hound.
It’s a realistic concern, according to Hayley Christian of the School of Population and Global Health in Australia. Christian recently concluded an as-yet unpublished study on family dogs and her findings are in line with previous work indicating that children stand to gain from growing up around canine companions. “We simply looked at the kids with a dog, and those that did not have a dog. Even in a very young age group, those with a dog were more physically active,” Christian told Fatherly. “Those with a family dog were also doing better developmentally, particularly with prosocial behaviors, when they interacted with adults and other children.”
“We found similar relationships among all households with pets,” she clarifies. “But, when we narrowed it down and asked whether it was the dog, the cat, or some other pet, we found that it was the households with the dogs that reported the best social and emotional development.”
That dogs would have a unique, symbiotic relationship with human children is hardly surprising from a historical or evolutionary perspective. There’s evidence that humans and dogs have been living together, in harmony, for 30,000 years (scientists suspect that cats, by comparison, have been kept as pets for less than 10,000 years). “It’s a really old bond,” says Leslie Irvine, a sociologist at University of Colorado Boulder and author of several books exploring how humans and animals interact. “They respond to our facial expressions, and a long history of collaboration with us has made them super sensitive to human ways of interacting. We have co-evolved.”
For most of our shared history, however, dogs were service animals, consigned to the outdoors and responsible for herding, hauling, or hunting. It was not until the 19th century that dogs moved indoors and became pets. An economy sprouted up around products and services for dogs. That economy grew and grew and grew. Recent reports suggest that consumers now spend $70 billion each year on pet food alone. Perhaps driven by this economic investment and the inevitable emotional investment, the notion of dogs as members of the family took hold. A sign of how far things have come: The horrific term “fur baby” has achieved popularity over the last several years.
The result is that dogs are often very much part of the family structure, tasked with emotional labor and serviced by family members willing to alter their schedules and homes to accommodate canine needs. “The dog creates the dynamics of the household, or contributes to them, as much as the human members do,” Leslie says.
But, on a deeper level, studies suggest the family dog may have an influence on the general wellbeing of family members. In 2015, the American Board of Family Medicine published a lengthy review of the known health benefits of dog ownership. They presented evidence that dogs enhance feelings of happiness, security, and self-worth and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation on a daily basis. Dogs encourage social trust, civic engagement, neighborhood friendliness, and an overall sense of community. Studies have shown that elderly people who own pets have diminished need for medical services as they age.
For children, the health advantages are even more well established. Infants who grow up around dogs have stronger immune systems and show improved psychosocial development as toddlers. Adolescents with dogs have an easier time coping and recovering from trauma, and are more likely to report regular social interactions and a sense of community. One of the most significant health impacts, however, is that children with dogs engage in more physical activity. “Kids with dogs walk more, play outside more, and are more likely to meet physical activity recommendations,” Christian says. This leads to improved cardiovascular health and lower rates of obesity.
An ancillary finding about physical activity that is worthy of note: Parents are generally more willing allow children to walk around neighborhoods independently if they have a dog in tow, according to a 2016 study by Christian and colleague. “At a young age, usually around eight, simple opportunities such as being able to walk to school or the corner shop, present themselves,” Christian says. “Parents are much more likely to allow a child to be independent in the neighborhood if they have the family dog with them. This is important not just in terms of physical activity, but also in developmental benefit. In the end, they grow up to be more well-rounded citizens, because they know how to gauge and judge their environments.”
There are, of course, caveats. For instance, one oft-cited reason for getting a dog—to teach children responsibility—does not necessarily conform to the evidence base. “A lot of parents get dogs, thinking that their kids are going to learn how to be responsible,” Irvine says. “Most often, the mother ends up providing most of the care for the dog, and the kids get away with doing very little.” And, while many studies show that dogs generally increase prosocial behaviors among children, the evidence is far from definitive. “I would like to say pet ownership makes people more empathetic, but it’s inconclusive,” Irvine says. “For every study that finds having a pet makes people more empathetic, another one finds out that it has no effect.”
More troublingly — though not necessarily for the worst — family dogs provide children with what is often their first exposure to grief and loss. How parents handle the moments prior to euthanasia, or the news that a pet has died, makes all the difference in whether this is a painful learning experience or a traumatic loss (though the death of a dog is often both).
“Pet death can be felt deeply by children,” explains Nora Schuurman of the University of Turku, who has studied how the death of a dog can impact the entire family. “Hiding it, or the approaching euthanasia, from children can affect their trust in their parents. Traumatic experiences of animal death in childhood can also affect human-pet relations for the rest of the lifetime. In some cases, for instance, people do not want to have pets ever again, in others they want to make sure they have absolute control of what is done to their pets.”
Pet dogs may also carry health and developmental risks. They can infect family members with disease and cause injuries; they can drain family resources, both financial and emotional. Which means that, despite the apparent benefits of having a dog, the decision to bring one into the family should not be taken lightly. “It’s pretty easy to look at a situation and say that this is not a good situation for a dog,” Irvine says. “No one is home all day, domestic violence, financial hardship.” But if your family has room for a dog, it may be time to pay a visit to the local pound.
Now, my dog-less family may be in the minority—60 percent of U.S. households own a family dog—but we’re not alone. With good reason. Like millions of Americans, we lived in a cramped city apartment for the first few years of our marriage. Now, like millions of different Americans, we live in a suburban townhouse without enough space for anything that hasn’t been inbred into a teacup. Also, time and money are concerns for us. With two children under the age of three sapping our energy (and money), we lack the financial and emotional resources to a give a dog the home that it deserves. Besides, for all their advantages, dogs can be a pain. House training. Walks in the rain. Worms.
“There are many wonderful reasons to have pets in our lives,” Christian says. “But we need to also think carefully about the responsibility involved, and make sure we’re up to that.”
Perhaps my family just isn’t up to it, yet. But when we are, it would probably be a good idea to bring a dog into the home. Given the developmental benefits, I’d say my kids deserve it.