We all want to give our children the best start in life and that usually revolves around healthy eating, good education and good physical and mental health. All wrapped in love.
There is a surprise secret weapon that will give you some serious leverage in most of those aspects and that is dogs. There has been plenty of studies that have dug into the benefits of dog ownership for adults but of course those benefits are transferable to children as well. In fact, in some ways, because of the excellent foundations that can be laid down with dog ownership, it is more important for them.
What dogs do to positively impact youngsters comes naturally to them. Love, play and exercise. They are the hardest working pet at keeping children in a good place. In fact, children between 7-8 years have ranked pets rather than humans as their main providers of comfort and self esteem (McNicholas J, Collis G M 2002 Children’s representations of pets in their social networks).
Their constant companionship in sickness and health can be vital to children. They also offer unconditional love that just feels different from parental love. There are no expectations, criticism or complaints from dogs and they are extremely forgiving. You just don’t have to try when you’re with a dog and children more than anyone appreciate this stress free relationship. There's a good reason why they are frequently used in animal-assisted therapies.
Our basic human need for love can be experienced through stroking and hugging (not too tight) a dog which immediately calms and soothes a child.
Also having another soul to care for can help towards the feeling of being needed and therefore by extension, loved. Moreover, it contributes to feelings of self esteem and gives children a sense of responsibility. The play that happens naturally when you have a dog in residence means an increase in serotonin and dopamine. The neurotransmitters that are key when it comes to regulating mood, together with appetite, memory and sleep which is another vital component to good mental health.
Exercise also has a big part to play and burning off excess energy together with being out in the fresh air and sunshine leads to increased oxygen filled blood, improved quality sleep and better concentration. Especially great for children with ADHD.
When we are stressed, we have all experienced the benefits of offloading issues by talking about them. Unsurprisingly children often find it easier to talk to dogs. Let's face it, there are some things you just don’t want to discuss as a child with adults. Having that feeling of consistent love and support also reduces loneliness and depression.
In a study conducted by the Bassett Medical Centre (2015) it was found that having a dog in the home decreased the probability of childhood anxiety. With 12% of children with dogs being found to have anxiety as opposed to 21% of children that do not have dogs. Interacting with a dog can reduce cortisol levels which lessens the physiological (normal) responses to stress.
What is particularly special is just how long lasting and far reaching they can benefit us. We know that there is a direct correlation between a happy gut and a happy human and the natural transfer of bacteria from dogs to humans has been found to boost both the immune system and gut microbiome . This means that because of the importance of the gut in conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental disorders, with a healthy gut biome and a robust immune system the occurrence of these conditions in adulthood is dramatically lessened.
Growing up isn't so bad when you've had a dog to show you how and the superpowers a child learns from a dog like love, empathy and loyalty make them better and happier human beings. To quote Brené Brown " Strong back, soft front, wild heart" and that's what we like to think they teach children. Always and forever, in dogs we trust.