Children and Dogs

Dog ownership is higher in households with children than in those without, and the dog would seem to play an important role. In his early writings, Dr Levinson suggested several benefits of dogs, believing firstly that they acted as friends to children or even sibling substitutes for the only child, and secondly that they were a source of play and learning which could help the child's development. The  dog would also be a common  focus of interest  and conversation between parents and children, and it could make the child aware of responsibility to animals, and the facts of life such as body functions and sex. Finally, since dogs have short lives, grief over the death of the dog could help a child to cope with subsequent grief at the loss of a close relative.

Surprisingly few studies have been conducted on pets and children, but those completed largely support Levinson's views. The French researcher, Professor Hubert montagner, has studied young children aged two to six years, using video observation techniques. He found much touching of the dog by the children, and nine times out of ten the child and not the dog initiated any lengthy periods of body contacts, with only children touching more. Studies at Vienna University of older children, aged eleven to sixteen, revealed significant differences between those owning pets and those without. The former group was likely to be more popular at school and to have more friends visiting them at home; ownership of a pet probably helped to teach children the skills of non¬ verbal communication, and this was one factor in their popularity.

Ownership of pets as a child can substantially affect adult attitudes, and differences are apparent even with very young children. A survey of attitudes to dogs and cats amongst school children aged five to seventeen years in Glasgow revealed that eighty-seven per cent liked dogs, as against sixty per cent who liked cats. Younger children tended to have slightly more positive attitudes, but ownership was the determining factor, with ninety-seven per cent of children who formerly or currently owned a dog liking them as against seventy-three per cent for those who had never had a pet.

The cultural impact of past pet ownership on present and future ownership had already been shown by Dr Serpell. For example, only a small minority of owners had had no pet during their childhood, and almost half with experience of childhood pets had one as an adult. Perhaps more striking was the loyalty shown to their childhood pets with nearly all having the same type of pet with which they had grown up.

Growing up with a pet of some kind is much more common than growing up without one. The idea of a dog completing the family seems to be a prevalent concept given that dog ownership is higher for families with children than for couples or single people of comparable age without children. An American
Study of the behaviour of dog-owning families found that the dog could be an important 'go-between' within the family, as well as performing particular roles for different members. For the men, it was noticeable that some would touch their dog repeatedly, something they would never do in public with another person. The children played with the dog, and some used it as a confidant in times of trouble. Frequently adults would engage in playful wrestling bouts, tugs or fetch games with the dog, but generally there was more variation in the behavior of the parents;some were close to their dog and would often touch it, talk to it, or start a game, while others were almost indifferent. The latter behavior is apparent with several dog owners and almost always occurs when the dog is primarily the partner's pet and not their own.

In Britain, a questionnaire survey was conducted among dog-owning foster families on the assumption that such families, previously vetted and found well-functioning by the social services, would prove especially knowledgeable on the human-dog relationship. On analysis, it appeared that all members of the family, adults, natural and foster children, derived benefit from the companionship of the dog, but that the extent and the nature of the benefit varied. Foster children  were reported  to gain most; accepting and being accepted by the dog as a companion helped their relationships with other members of the family. While this probably reflected the sociological problems many foster children experience, the parents were at the same time aware of the help they could derive from the social therapy of the dog.

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