Kids and Dogs: Playing, Walking, and Emotional Development

Some pre-schoolers living with dogs display more prosociality than dogless kids.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

Twelve years ago, I published a kid's book called Animals at Play: Rules of the Game. I was thrilled that Jane Goodall supported this easy-to-read discussion of how nonhuman animals (animals) play by writing: 

"Marc Bekoff’s ideas about fair play stress the significance of cooperation and justice, aspects of behavior desperately needed in the world today ... Read this book, share it with the children in your life, and incorporate its lessons into your classroom, family room, or board room.”

Using stories accompanied by illustrations of animals in action while playing and having fun—from dogs, cats. elephants, great apes, monkeys, and rats to squirrels and polar bears—I explained how animals communicate, cooperate, and learn to play fair, and what happens when they break the rules of the game.

One unexpected outcome of publishing this book was that I began receiving emails from teachers and school counselors asking questions about how what we know about play in animals can be used to teach youngsters lessons about how they should play with others, including their companion animals.

I often began by noting that across many different species, individuals engage in fair play. For example, they apologize when they've played too roughly by doing something that effectively says, "I'm sorry, I was only playing." In a sense, they're asking for forgiveness and learn to trust one another. They'll also tell others, "I'm going to play roughly, but it's really play." 

The science behind these explanations can be found in Jessica Pierce and my book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals and in numerous other places.1 Basically, when dogs and other animals play, they follow the Golden Rules of fairness and stick to mutually agreed upon codes of conduct.  So, too, do human youngsters.

As Psychology Today writer and researcher Peter Gray notes, "Fairness makes play possible, and children learn fairness in play." When playing fair, there is a shared sense of morality. Morality, as we define it in Wild Justice, is a suite of interrelated, other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions. Those patterns have evolved in many animals. Of course, play might rarely escalate into serious fighting, but studies show these attention-getting events are extremely uncommon, despite claims to the contrary

One of the clearest places to see how specific social rules apply is in animal play. Because of my interests in play in animals and how kids relate to companion animals, including dogs, and animals in general, a new study by University of Western Australia's Elizabeth Wenden and her colleagues published in Pediatric Research called "The relationship between dog ownership, dog play, family dog walking, and pre-schooler social-emotional development: findings from the PLAYCE observational study" caught my attention. An excellent summary of this research can be found in Kristen Rogers' essay, "A family dog could help your preschooler learn social and emotional skills, study finds."

This essay is available online and is a pretty easy read even for nonprofessionals. The researchers were interested in learning if actively playing and walking with a family dog were associated with "better social-emotional development in young children."2

To learn more about possible relationships among these variables, they analyzed 1646 surveys "which included measures of socio-demographic factors (child sex, age, and siblings, parent highest level of education, work status, and family structure), sleep30 and screen time,31 family dog ownership, active play with the dog, family dog walking, and child social-emotional development." (Numbers in the quotation refer to references in the research essay.) 

Their results can be summarized as follows: 

  • Young children from dog-owning families had lower peer problems and conduct problems, and higher prosocial behaviors 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 behaviors.
  • Positive social-emotional development was associated with dog ownership, family dog walking, and dog play in young children.

Their data also show, "the social-emotional benefits of owning a dog may begin early in childhood. Furthermore, due to the high level of pet ownership in households with children, these findings suggest having a dog and interacting with it through play and walking may be important mechanisms for facilitating young children’s social-emotional development." 

Pixabay, free download
Source: Pixabay, free download

Walking clearly provides physical exercise and different forms of social bonding. Focusing on play, it's clear that although play is fun, it's also serious business. When animals play, they are constantly working to understand and follow the rules and to communicate their intentions to play fairly. They fine-tune their behavior on the run, carefully monitoring the behavior of their play partners and paying close attention to infractions of the agreed-upon rules. Four basic aspects of fair play in animals are: Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you're wrong. When the rules of play are violated, and when fairness breaks down, so does play.

The study by Dr. Wenden and her colleagues is extremely important, and there also are significant public health implications.3 It's important to recognize that not all kids benefitted from sharing their home with a dog, so living with a canine companion isn't a panacea for avoiding or solving various sorts of problems.

The researchers note, "Our findings highlight the possible physical activity and social-emotional developmental benefits of family dog ownership for pre-schoolers, and that these benefits may present in early childhood." (My emphasis.)

Psychology Today writer Hal Herzog considers why the so-called "pet effect" meme has spread rapidly and widely, despite there being many exceptions to broad and uncritical evaluations of how various companion animals supposedly enrich our lives. The simple and obvious fact is, companions animals don't always have positive effects or relieve stress

Along these lines, I remember talking with a group of fourth-graders about the ways in which animals play. They had read Animals at Play, watched videos of dogs and other animals playing, and had two study periods in which they discussed what they learned with their teacher. When they were given a break, one boy went out to the playground and started playing roughly. He yelled, "Look, I'm playing like an animal," and his teacher rightly said, "No, you're not, come watch the videos again." He did and realized that indeed, he wasn't playing like an animal."

Where to from here?

It's essential that the relationship between human and nonhuman works for all of the animals involved, nonhuman and human. As I point out in "Do Pets Really Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us?" companion animals aren't panaceas for lifting one's spirits. In addition, there's no reason to bring another living being into the equation when it's likely you won't get what you need from them and they won't get what they need from you. This is a lose-lose situation and bad for all involved.

Taking another animal into one's home and heart is an enormous decision with many important responsibilities and obligations, also noted by Ms. Rogers.4 All the walkers and players need support and love. Given what we now know from some excellent research, wide-ranging claims that nonhuman companions can be cure-alls for this and that condition across the board are overblown. It's essential to carefully look at available data. What works and doesn't depends on who the humans are, who the dogs are, and the nature of their unique relationship. When it works for all involved, it can be a win-win with various shared benefits. 

Stay tuned for further discussions of how living with companion animals can benefit some youngsters and humans of all ages. There's still lots to learn in this extremely important and exciting field of research. 

References

Notes:

1) Essays about the importance of social play for kids, fair play in a wide variety of nonhuman animals, and how they follow the "golden rules of fairness" can be seen here

2) The overall results for this study read: Children from dog-owning households had reduced likelihood of conduct problems (odds ratio (OR) = 0.70; 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.54, 0.90), peer problems (OR = 0.60; 95% CI: 0.46, 0.79), and total difficulties (OR = 0.77; 95% CI: 0.59, 0.99) and increased likelihood of prosocial behavior (OR = 1.34; 95% CI: 1.06, 1.68) compared with children without a dog. Within dog-owning households, family dog walking at least once/week (OR = 1.45; 95% CI: 1.02, 2.08) and active play with the family dog three or more times/week (OR = 1.74; 95% CI: 1.16, 2.59) increased the likelihood of prosocial behaviors. Family dog walking at least once/week also reduced the likelihood of total difficulties (OR = 0.64; 95% CI: 0.42, 0.96).

3) "Overall, our findings suggest that the benefits from owning a pet (dog) may commence early in childhood. We found that pre-schoolers from dog-owning families had less peer problems and conduct problems and higher prosocial behaviors than children from non-dog-owning families. In the dog-owning group, pre-schoolers who walked with their dog at least once a week or played with their dog at least three times a week had significantly higher prosocial behaviors than those who did not. Pre-schoolers who walked with their family dog at least one day per week also had significantly lower total difficulties. Further research on the different developmental benefits of other pets in early childhood is warranted as well as longitudinal studies to confirm the casual relationships between different types of pet ownership and early child development and the mechanisms through which pets may facilitate positive child developmental outcomes."

4) Numerous references about how bringing another animal into one's home and heart entails taking on huge responsibilities and obligations that can be a significant  life-changers can be seen here

Bekoff, Marc. The Need for "Wild" Play: Let Children Be the Animals They Need to Be

_____. Play, Play, and Play Some More: Let Children Be the Animals They Have the Right to Be

_____. When Dogs Talk About Play They Take Turns Sharing Intentions. (By going to the dogs we can learn about patterns of cooperative turn-taking.)

_____. Do Pets Really Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us? (Pets are choosy about who they love and don't always reduce stress.)

_____. Easy Ways to Connect Kids to Animals, People, and Nature

_____. Are You Ready to Give Another Animal the Best Life Possible?

_____. Are You Really Sure You Want to Share Your Life With a Dog?

_____. Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog

Gray, Peter. When Children Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness. (Fairness makes play possible, and children learn fairness in play.)

Herzog, Hal. Why Has the “Pet Effect” Meme Spread So Rapidly?

_____. The Sad Truth About Pet Ownership and Depression

_____. Can Pets Relieve Loneliness In the Age of Coronavirus?

Pierce, Jessica and Marc Bekoff. Moral in Tooth and Claw. Chronicle of Higher Education. October 18, 2009. 

Shyan, Melissa, Kristina Fortune, and Christine King. "Bark Parks"--A Study on Interdog Aggression in a Limited-Control Environment. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 6, 25-32, 2003.