Why Kids Prefer Family Dogs To Family

New research yields fresh insight into the unexpectedly powerful bond between children and their pets.

kid and bulldog by swimming pool

The Air Bud franchise proves that “kids love dogs” is a powerful meme in Western culture, but scientists have long been working to sniff out the real-world origins of that cliche. Why do children love dogs? It’s a big question requiring a massive amount of delicate social research. That work has not uncovered both evidence of how bonds are forged and unexpected data on the surprising strength of those relationships. Now, academics are demonstrating that children may forge stronger bonds with family dogs than with family — specifically siblings. If pop culture provides hypothesizes that there is something distinct and durable about puppy love, scholars may be on the verge of finding proof.

A 2017 study by Cambridge researchers looked at the interactions of 12-year-olds and their pets in 77 British households. The children were asked about the quality of relationships with the members of their families, including pets. That quality was measured in four different dimensions: satisfaction with the relationship, feelings of companionship, communication, and conflict. Of those parameters, the kids reported less conflict with pets than their siblings, but also, surprisingly, more satisfaction. That’s an academic way of saying they felt a stronger bond with their pet than with their brother or sister. Importantly, researchers noted that in the hierarchy of pets, kids were most bonded with dogs, followed by cats.

“The most fascinating finding was particularly around disclosure,” says study author Matt Cassells. “That element is about how much you talk to your pet or your sibling about your problems. It was really striking to find equivalent rating between pets and siblings.”

Cassells notes disclosure is already known to be a good thing for psychological well-being in humans. In fact, simply putting thoughts and feelings into a journal can be therapeutic. Cassells posits that compared to a diary, or even a sibling, a dog offers a better sounding board. He theorizes that’s because dogs can make eye contact, offer expressions, and show empathy (or appear to show empathy), they are generally viewed as sympathetic. Maybe they are. More likely, they are engaged in an entirely different sort of emotional exchange. But the lack of true understanding doesn’t diminish the power of the interaction on both sides.

“Another advantage that pets have over siblings is that they don’t respond. They don’t judge and they don’t talk back,” says Cassells. “A sibling will communicate their actual feelings and those will sometimes be hostile.”

What makes the emergence of the specific behavior — kids disclosing to canines — particularly remarkable, is that most children are not instructed to open up to spaniels. The behavior that leads to strong bonds doesn’t need to be taught.

Dr. Gail Melson, Professor Emerita in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University, has been studying the interaction of animals and kids for much of her career. She writes about those relationships in her “Why the Wild Things Are” column on Psychology Today. Melson points to several factors that have caused children to be so bonded with dogs, beginning with the concept of biophilia. When he published Biophilia in 1984, Harvard professor E.O. Wilson was claiming that he’d discovered a concept core to the continuation of life on Earth.

“If you just look at the word, it looks like: a love of biological things, but it doesn’t mean that,” Melson says. “Built into our brains is an attentiveness to other forms of life…. There’s a study of babies under the first year of life, who are presented with a living animal and a wind-up toy. The attention and interest go to the living animal.”

But that’s just one link in the leash. It explains why the kid wants to be with the dog, but not how that relationship is reinforced and strengthened. Melson says that western culture, not evolution, deserves credit for furry cosleeping.

“For hundreds of years we’ve accepted a kind of link between children and animals,” she says. “We’ve tended to see them as similar. Part of raising a child is taking something that is wild and making them part of civilized society.”

Both babies and animals are considered “imperfectly socialized” creatures we have to train to be part of our families. Melson explains the parallel developmental path between animals and children has caused Western society to see them as interchangeable analogs. Hear the words “fur baby” just once, and this point is forever seared into the brain.

Because of this we reflexively push kids and animals together, both physically and symbolically. This results in baby-meets-puppy media and pajamas lousy with cartoon zoo animals.

Melson is also mindful of the fact that dogs’ minds work differently. She notes that the evolution of prehistoric wolves into modern pets was mutually beneficial for both human and animal. As Canis lupus familiaris emerged, they became valuable tools. What was a professional relationship — wolves learned to coordinate hunts with humans — warmed into something friendly. Dogs came closer to the fire.

“Dogs evolved to be part of the human family,” Melson explains. “The evolution of the wolf into the dog took place beside human evolution. So the natural environment of the dog is with human beings.”

Once the symbiotic relationship was formed, dogs took on more specific working roles. But dogs in post-industrial Western society live in a largely post-work world. They’ve been able to adjust largely because the qualities that once made them valuable to their owners — attentiveness, ability to follow direction — makes them adept at emotional labor.

“When a dog comes into a family now, they’re coming into a role already set up for them as a companion,” says Melson. And they are thriving in that role. So, instead of retrieving game for hunting ancestors, they now fetch sticks and balls to the delight of kids everywhere. And instead of paying attention to subtle cues from a shepherd, they watch and listen attentively as a child tells them their secrets.

And it appears that the relationship between dogs and families is here — here being disproportionately the western hemisphere, but increasingly the world. The American Pet Products Association estimates that some 60 million American households own dogs. And they note that as baby boomers have aged, Millennials have joined the pack. Younger adults now make up the bulk of dog owners. Dog culture will continue from there. The Air Bud movies? Maybe not.