When I was five, my great-aunt beckoned me close and whispered a fabulous lie to me: that animals could talk to each other only at midnight on Christmas Eve. Being a child who believed the fairy tales of dragons, knights, and fairies were true, I completely believed her. That night, I forced myself to stay awake until midnight to listen to my pet parakeets talk. Of course, I was disappointed as animals cannot speak English. However, that never squashed my intense love for animals.
Although I never had a dog as a child, I did have parakeets and I adopted the cocker spaniel that lived on my Grandmother’s farm. When my own children were old enough, I began what my husband likes to call the “Butterfly Cycle,” which is really me just filling our house with caterpillars (“for homeschooling”), two guinea pigs, and then the formal presentations to make my case for a family dog.
As my kids repeatedly watch "Pets" on Netflix, I am happy to say that I am now expecting – my pup is due to arrive just in time for autumn, my favorite season ever. And in the spirit of my intense, animal-loving excitement, I would like to share a few cold hard scientific facts why our kids are the first to benefit from man’s best friend.
Physical health benefits
Dogs and leashes go together like peanut butter and jelly. Imagine a crisp fall morning with a light fog settling as you stroll down the sidewalk with Rover. Dogs may “force” you to get out of the house and get a little bit of exercise, so naturally dog ownership might increase health due to morning and evening walks. Beyond that, dog (and even cat) ownership offers several physical health benefits:
An Australian study, inspired by British and American research in the 80s, studied the extent of pets and overall human health. The study noted that families with pets, on average, made less doctor visits. In particular, pet owners were significantly less likely to suffer from sleep problems, such as falling asleep. I imagine that a small child (and adults) feels safer with Fido on the night watch.
The same Australian study listed above also noted improved heart health among pet owners, especially cat and dogs. The study analyzed heart attack rates and revealed that dog or cat owners were less likely to succumb to heart attacks. This benefit is a combination of increased cardiovascular exercise plus decreased stress levels from having a companion. This benefits even kids who are, for the most part, stuck at desks all day at school. Going on a walk with their dog helps balance their exercise to sitting ratio.
For those who suffer from epilepsy, a sudden attack can leave an individual in a dangerous position when the seizure starts. Amazingly, some dogs can sense the onset of a seizure. Families with epileptic children benefit from this type of dog, who can alert them with enough time to get the child to a safe position before the seizure starts. The BBC chronicled the story of an Irish family whose Great Dane pinned an epileptic tot against the wall to prevent her from falling during an episode. Their Great Dane predicts seizures about 20 minutes before they start. ABC News also highlighted a service dog that assists in seizure alerts.
Improve verbal skills
Perhaps you’ve seen your local library hosting more frequent “read to the puppies” events? There’s more to it than just fluffy puppies – although that is a huge perk. Studies have noted that being around animals helps children improve their verbal skills by offering them a judge-free zone to work on their speech and talk to the animals.
Emotional health benefits
“They” say that dogs can sense if their owner is feeling blue or experiencing an emotional upset, and that they help restore a positive emotional environment. Dogs can also help teach valuable lessons that improve the emotional health of a child:
When my son was visiting my sister and her Foxhound over the Fourth of July weekend, Foxy quivered with each firework blast. My two boys rushed to her side and began singing their favorite lullabies to her. “We are calming her down, Mama,” they proudly whispered. This situation is nothing unusual, because pet ownership is one of life’s many opportunities to teach empathy. Children often are the dependent ones, looking to us for every single basic necessity. When children become the ones to tend to a dependent creature, they are learning to give the gifts that they have been given, from food to shelter to unconditional love.
Has your child ever “helped” fold a piece of clothing, stepped back at the mangled pile of cloth, and felt so proud of themselves? Practicing life skills is an excellent way to improve self-esteem and confidence. Owning pets is another outlet for children to practice their real life responsibilities, even something as simple as filling Fido’s water bowl each morning.
Animals, especially dogs and horses, offer a wide range of therapy benefits to children. Therapy dogs are known to reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and reduce healing time. Researchers demonstrate great success with therapy dogs especially for children with PTSD or autism. Children unable to connect with a human for support connect to the dog because of a dog’s ability to convey unconditional love.
It’s hard to deny the science: Dogs bring a lot to a child’s life. I know you seasoned dog owners are laughing at me as I await my turn for midnight potty runs and the incessant chewing of a teething pup. Like life and parenting, it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. I’m not denying that someone has to learn to use the pooper scooper – but hey, that can be a life lesson in and of itself.
So if you’re considering inching your way into the pet world, consider the Butterfly Cycle.