Georgina Blaskey reveals why animals and children are better together
We all know the old adage – a pet is not just for Christmas, it’s for life – and how often have we used this as an excuse not to give our kids the present they want over and above anything in their local toy shop? But evidence shows that having a pet at home is so beneficial for kids, you may wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
Recent research demonstrates that the responsibility of feeding, walking, grooming and playing with a pet can influence other aspects of a child’s life. Professor Lance Workman, a psychologist from the University of South Wales whose previous research has explored different aspects of animal behaviour, says, “I firmly believe that pets provide an invaluable taster for adult life. If you care for a pet, this helps you to develop compassion, and to realise you have a responsibility towards others. And later on in life, we can transfer those skills to our relationships with friends and partners.”
Animal ownership also raises the happiness factor. “Studies have shown that if you’ve got a cat or a dog in the house, it boosts the production of feel-good serotonin and dopamine,” says Professor Workman. “Serotonin is released when we feel happy and content, and dopamine is released when we anticipate a reward. One lab study also discovered that people can stave off the negative feelings associated with social rejection simply by thinking about their pet.”
That’s powerful stuff. When I asked my seven-year-old son Noah what he enjoys about having our cocker spaniel, Luna, he told me: “She comes to me if I am upset or angry, like she’s trying to say, ‘what’s wrong?’ And she’ll jump up if I’m doing something else, like playing on the computer; that makes me feel special, and she feels so snuggly!”
Dogs still comfortably occupy the number one spot in UK homes, followed by cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, but fish are growing in popularity, with twice as many children today taking care of fish compared with when their parents were children. Balancing exposure to technology with animal contact is a no brainer – I’d rather see my brood playing with a pet than glued to a screen – and it’s well established that pets can relax children, too. I often see mine lie down with our dog and stroke her repeatedly – an act equally therapeutic for both parties involved. Having a pet also teaches children new emotions, co-founder of West London dog walking and dog boarding company DogDaddies Roy Colpaert explains: “Having a pet teaches the children about life and death, love and loss, care and empathy, alongside teaching children responsibilities to care for and respect animals.”
The company of a pet can even improve social skills. “People with pets are more likely to be sociable than those who don’t have pets, and they’re viewed as more sociable, too,” adds Professor Workman. When we walk our dog, we stop and talk to fellow dog owners all the time. Even at the school gates we’re stopped – often by families we may not know. “I like it when everyone makes a fuss of her,” says my son. “She’s loved so much by everyone at school and I feel really proud of her.”
With a 10-year-old daughter in the house who has the stress of copious amounts of homework and an advance party of hormones shooting around her body, having a dog has been a welcome distraction. According to Animal Smart, “playing with or petting an animal can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol.” The presence of an animal in the room can not only help children concentrate and learn, but also help them overcome their anxiety, according to research by Sandra McCune on human-animal interaction. “In one set of studies, children were able to perform tasks faster with a dog present.”
But what breed suits your family? DogDaddie’s Roy Colpaert family-favourites are Labradors or French Bulldogs, but recommends if you’re worried about fur allergies to go for a Cockapoo or Cavapoo instead.
Bringing dogs into the classroom can also make a huge difference. Pets As Therapy’s Read2Dogs scheme helps thousands of children a week by encouraging them to read to our canine friends. “Many children seem naturally comfortable in the presence of dogs,” observes CEO Cheryl Tissot. “Parents and teachers can use this special relationship to enhance literacy skills and encourage reading in a relaxed environment, with dog and child sitting together. The dog acts as a non-judgemental listener and offers comfort to the child who may find reading difficult
Finally, there are, of course, the health benefits. One of the reasons people can be put off owning a dog is the commitment to the daily walk, but dragging my family outside on dark, wet days when we may well not have left the cosiness of the living room otherwise has its upside. “I love how we climb trees, visit the playground or bump into friends when we take Luna out,” says Noah. “Even when I moan about going, I always enjoy it when we get there!”
How to choose a pet
• Pets At Home runs a series of animal workshops at its stores nationwide to introduce you to different pets and explain how to look after them.
• Borrow My Doggy gives families a taster of what owning a four-legged friend entails, with owners in your local area.
• Your child’s school may have a pet that needs looking after in the holidays, so why not volunteer?
• Neighbours often need help with a cat, fish or small furry friend. Offer to help clean the cage and feed them when they next go away.
The pet boutique has just launched its Purplebox – a subscription plan for dogs. purplebone.com
Offering day care, boarding, training and a dedicated puppy crèche in West London. dogdaddies.com
Very Important Pets
These guys can take care of everything from fish feeding to dog walking. veryimportantpets.co.uk