What Pets Can Teach Kids

By Stanley Coren on November, 15 2007
It is only recently that science has caught up with Benchley and demonstrated that there are many things that children can learn from living with a pet – particularly with a dog or a cat. There seems to be a natural attraction that draws young children to pets. Companion animals quickly catch their attention – they like to watch them and are curious about what they are doing and whether they can communicate with them. This has been demonstrated many times, such as in the classic research by psychologist Aline Kidd of Mills College in California and her husband Robert Kidd, who studied children and their pets. They observed how infants and toddlers, ranging from six to 30 months of age, behaved towards their pet dogs and cats as compared with a lifelike battery-operated toy dog or cat. The babies smiled, touched, followed and made sounds that appeared to be attempts to communicate with the live animals (especially the dogs) much more than they did to the toy ones. Psychologists suggest that the attractiveness of animals comes from the fact that their behaviours can be both predictable and unpredictable. Much research shows that children’s learning is best when it occurs within a meaningful relationship, so because of their immediate positive feeling toward animals, kids are motivated to find out what their pet will do next – and how to make the behaviours more predictable.

SOCIAL SKILLS IMPROVE
One study conducted in Germany confirms the idea that kids are learning from their pets. In fact 90 percent of parents surveyed thought that the family dog played an important role in teaching their young children social skills and improved the child’s quality of life. This study helped to explain the special status of pets, since it found that 80 percent of the children interviewed considered their dog to be an important friend and confidante.

Psychologists June McNicholas and Glyn Collis of the University of Warwick in England found that when it comes to the social networks of children, “cats and dogs frequently ranked higher than many human relationships.” In another survey of 338 children, McNicholas found that:
  • 40 percent of children sought out their pet if they were upset.
  • 40 percent looked for interactions with their pet if they were bored.
  • 85 percent regarded their pets as a playmate.
  • 53 percent liked to watch TV or videos with their pet.
In other research, when children aged seven to 10 years were asked to name their ‘10 most important individuals’, family pets virtually always made the list.

LEARNING IMPROVES
How does this caring relationship for a pet translate into learning?
Quite simply, in the same sort of hit-or-miss fashion that characterizes most social learning. Children learn that if they pinch or pull the tail of their pet, it acts distressed and runs away. If they pet it, talk nicely and quietly and give it treats, it comes to them, plays and acts happy. Seeing how others respond to our behaviours is the process by which we develop empathy – the ability to recognize, perceive and, indirectly, even feel the emotion of someone else. A person with highly developed empathy can put himself into another individual’s shoes; he can also more effectively interpret the moods, thoughts and emotions of others.

INCREASED EMPATHY
Many studies confirm that children with pets have higher degrees of empathy. In research at the University of New Mexico, Robert Bierer studied children aged 10 to 12 years and considered the effects of dog ownership on their social skills. He summarized his research by saying, “People have known for years that dogs are good medicine for children. What I found is that pre-adolescent children with pet dogs have significantly higher self-esteem and empathy than children without dogs. These higher ratings in self-esteem and empathy hold true whether the dog is ‘owned’ by the child or by the entire family. Just having a dog in the house makes a difference, regardless of whether the family is headed by a single parent, the mother works outside the home or the child has siblings.”

A study of 455 school children between the ages of 11 and 16 extended this research by isolating one of the skills that is behind this increased empathy. It found that children with pets (dogs and cats) had a better ability to understand nonverbal communications in general, and that included a more accurate interpretation of the body language and emotional expressions of the people in their lives.

LEARNING TO NURTURE
How the child learns empathy from interacting with his pets may now be clear, but where does the increased self-esteem and feelings of competence reported by Bierer and other researchers come from? It comes from the very nature of pets who depend on human care for their survival and happiness. Pets provide children the opportunity to learn about, practise and become interested in nurturing living things. The need to nurture, help or care for others seems to be a basic human instinct, even in young children. Kids without younger siblings spend more time caring for their pet, and 92 percent of eight to 10-year-olds who had part of the responsibility for pet care felt that this was an important and special part of their relationship with the animal.

LIFE-LONG LESSONS
Research done at Oregon State University shows how pet care benefits children. It taught a group of preschool kids how to look after a puppy. Children who were regularly involved with caring for the puppy ended up being more socially competent. Generally speaking these kids felt better about themselves and were better able to understand other children’s feelings.

An interesting, unexpected benefit was that these children also became more popular. Dr. Sue Doescher, a psychologist involved in the study, said, “It made the children more co-operative and sharing, because they had to put themselves in the pet’s position and try to feel how the pet feels. And that transfers to how other kids feel.’’

Elizabeth Ormerod, chair of the Society for Companion Animal Studies, summed up our current knowledge saying, “For many years, the valuable role of pets in children’s development has been recognized. But recently, the positive health, educational and therapeutic benefits of having pets have been scientifically investigated and acknowledged. Children tend to form very special attachments to companion animals and develop greater empathy for other people, which helps to improve human and animal welfare in society.”

A DOWNSIDE
There is a potential downside to bringing a pet into your home when you have children. Not only is the interaction between the child and the pet important, but parents set an example. Companion animals are not inanimate objects. They are living and feeling beings that you choose to bring into your life. Suppose that you give your child a pet on a whim, but then later cause the animal to ‘disappear’ by sending it to a shelter. That means that you are teaching your children that emotional relationships are cheap and expendable. Similarly, if you continue to live with the pet, but show your frustrations and impatience through heavy-handed training methods and punishment, you teach your children that violence is an acceptable means to an end. Children who have lived in families that got rid of their pets are, as adults, more likely to do so themselves, and those whose families used punishment on their pets are more likely to use similar forceful methods on their own pets and children later on.

However, if you bring up your dog or cat by showing care and understanding for the pets, establishing clear boundaries for behaviour, yet still having room for unconditional love, you are drawing an emotional blueprint for your children that they can follow all the days of their lives. PC

By Stanley Coren| November, 15 2007

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