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Millions of families know how rewarding dog ownership can be – but for the first time, a new study has examined the quality of life for a pet dog owned by a family with children.

There’s now extensive scientific research showing the benefits pet dogs bring the families, including improved family functioning and wellbeing for those with children with neuro-developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD. For all children, dogs can provide companionship, encourage exercise and family activities, and teach them about responsibilities.

But what do the dogs get out of it?

Until now little attention has been paid to how living with children affects a pet dog’s quality of life, but a team of animal behaviour and welfare specialists from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences are examining this question. In a recent study, funded by animal welfare charity Dogs Trust, the team interviewed parents who owned a dog – half with typically developing children and half with children with Autism or ADHA, with all children aged between four and 10 years old.

The research revealed that the child-dog relationship has a number of benefits for the dog, including a sense of routine, more time for fun and play, and companionship.

Dr Sophie Hall, a Research Fellow specialising in human-animal interactions at the University of Lincoln, said, “Our study involved 36 dog-owning families, who all highlighted some key benefits that their pet dogs receive from living with young children. For example children provide close companionship for pets as well as imposing a sense of predictable and consistent routine in the home, in terms of feed and walk times, which we know is extremely important for a dog’s wellbeing. Of course, children also play regularly with their pet dogs and activities such as throwing a ball and doing assault courses represent really valuable opportunities for exercise and positive mental stimulation.

“The study also highlighted some potentially negative impacts on the pet, which it is important for parents to be aware of when bringing a dog into a home with children.”

Signs of distress

As well as highlighting the positives, the research showed the potential negative affects on dogs and the need for parents to be aware of the signs of stress in their dog.

A negative impact could be brought on by a child having a tantrum, with parents reporting that their dog runs away, shakes or hides on these occasion. Parents also observed a change in their dog’s behaviour if it became ‘over stimulated’ – such as barking, becoming agitated, or seeking a place to escape – when their children were very noisy. Other events that could cause potential distress for dogs in homes with children could include rough play or accidents such as collisions with toys or pulling the dog’s tail.

The study suggests that in a home with young children, dogs should have a ‘safe haven’ that they can escape to if needed, and for parents to understand the obvious and subtle signs of distress and to teach their children these signs. These include wide eyes or lick lipping.

Dr Hall added, “The positive and negative aspects of the child-dog relationship were similar in families with typically developing children and in those with children with a neuro-developmental disorder.

“As such, providing they are aware of key risk events and how to cope with these, and ensuring adequate supervision, parents should not necessarily be dissuaded from acquiring a pet dog because of their child’s developmental issues. As we know, pet dogs can really enrich family life and support child development and wellbeing.”

The results will now be developed further by the team to develop a new tool to help monitor the quality of life of pet dogs in family homes. It is hoped that this tool could help to prevent potentially dangerous situations, which may lead to dog bites, and help owners to maximise the benefits of dog ownership.

Findings from the study has been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

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