As a kid my best friend was my dog. He walked in the woods with me, he swam in the lake with me, and he slept next to me in the bed of the station wagon. My dog was a friend, a playmate, and a refuge from warring parents. He got lost and was found. He was injured and healed. My dog even got old and died. Through him, I learned about life.
Children have a natural attraction to live animals. When young children (2-6 years old) had dogs and birds in their classrooms, they kissed the dogs and talked to the birds but ignored stuffed animals (Melson, 2003). Children who live with animals also have a better understanding of biology. According to E.O. Wilson, there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems which he calls biophilia. Children love animals and as city dwellers they are so often detached from living things. So many children grow in concrete jungles devoid of plants and animals.
Children trust and confide in their pets. When asked to name the 10 most important individuals in their lives, 7 to 10 year olds included 2 pets along with their parents and grandparents (Melson, 2003). They talked to their pets and told them when they were feeling angry, happy, sad, and even shared secret experiences. One study showed that when compared to parents and friends, elementary aged children perceived their pets as loyal “no matter what” “even if you get mad at each other.” Children saw their pets as more loyal than friends. Everyone needs social support and pets are a form of social support for children.
Children can learn responsibility, nurturance, and a sense of being needed from a pet. The animal is smaller, more vulnerable than they are and depends on them for survival. Someone needs them. A pet can be effective in therapy when nothing else works. I was treating a teenage girl who was flunking out of school and fighting with her friends and family. Nothing seemed to help. In desperation, her parents sent her to a residential treatment program in Utah. There she was assigned to care for a horse. This horse brought her back to life. The horse needed her and gave her a purpose. Her grades started to improve and she tolerated her parents, because now she was important. Someone needed her.
Given how important pets are to children, it is surprising there isn’t more solid research. Researchers in this area often lament this fact. But, data or no data, there are many good reasons to get your child a dog. Children learn about biology and life from dogs. They learn responsibility and nurturance. Dogs are playful, warm, and fun. Dogs are non-judgmental and children confide in them. They make loving and accepting friends. Kids learn many things from animals but in my opinion the single best reason to get a dog is what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia, to feel connect with other living beings.
Melson, G.F. (2003). Child Development and the Human-Companion Animal Bond. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(1), 31-39, DOI: 10.1177/0002764203255210.