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Do your kids want a dog? Science may be on their side

Kids who have dogs get a boost in physical activity - especially young girls.
Kristina Kamburova Photography
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Kids who have dogs get a boost in physical activity - especially young girls.

A new study finds that getting a family dog is linked with a big jump in physical activity in younger kids – especially in young girls. The finding is part of a growing body of research investigating how dogs can boost health, not just for kids but for people of all ages.

In the study, Australian researchers followed 600 children over a three-year period, starting at preschool age. They tracked the kids' physical activity using monitors that measured things like how fast, long and intensely they moved. They also surveyed parents about their children's activities – and whether they had a family dog.

Half of the children didn't have a dog. About 204 kids had a dog the entire time, while 58 kids got a dog during the study period — and sadly, 31 kids lost a dog. That created a natural experiment for researchers to see how dog ownership affected the kids' activity levels.

Perhaps not surprisingly, both boys and girls in the study engaged more frequently in activities like dog walking and playing in the yard after getting a dog. But the impact was particularly pronounced in girls.

"What we found is that adding a dog to the household increased young girl's light intensity, physical activity by 52 minutes a day — or almost an hour. So that's quite substantial," saysEmma Adams,a doctoral candidate at Telethon Kids Institute and the University of Western Australia, who led the study. "It could make a meaningful difference to their health and wellbeing."

Conversely, girls whose dog died during the study saw a big drop in their daily light intensity physical activity — by 62 minutes a day. The findings appear in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

"This new study is exciting because it's the first that I've seen using a longitudinal study" — one that follows kids over time — "designed to try to understand how acquisition of a dog affects changes in physical activity," saysKatie Potter, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose research focuses on leveraging the human-animal bond to promote physical activity.

Potter notes that, while the body of research is limited, other studies have also suggested that dogs may have a bit more of an impact on girls' activity levels.

"We're not sure why — if it's something about how girls and boys differentially interact with or bond with their dogs. So we definitely want to learn more about this," Potter says.

Studies show girls experience a bigger drop in physical activity as they get older than boys do. Potter says if researchers can find ways to use dogs to get — and keep — girls moving more, that could have a real impact on public health.

There's much more research linking dog ownership to health benefits in adults — such as higher activity levels and better heart health-- than there is in children. But research into using dogs as a health intervention in children is growing.

One reason why is that most children and adolescents in the U.S. don't get the recommended daily amount of physical activity, says Megan MacDonald, a professor of kinesiology at Oregon State University, who has studied the physical and emotional benefits of dog ownership in kids.

"As researchers, we are often looking at interventions, trying to come up with ways to get people to get started with exercise," MacDonald says. And having a dog really helps, "because they end up being sort of the model for us and triggering our behavior to go out and walk or exercise or play with them."

After all, rain or shine, a dog has to be walked, and she says having a dog in childhood could help kids create healthy habits around physical activity.

And the potential benefits aren't just physical. "We know that there are so many other benefits that go along with [having a dog]," MacDonald says.

For example, research has found that petting a dog — even if it's not their own — can reduce stress in school-age kids and improve their executive functioning — the cognitive processes that allow us to do things like plan, stay on task and block out distractions. Other studies have found links between pet ownership in childhood and awide range of emotional health benefits, including greater self-esteem, improved empathy skills and reduced anxiety and loneliness.

"I think that emotional piece of it is really important, too," MacDonald says.

Of course, dogs are a big responsibility, and owning one is not for everyone. But for dog lovers, welcoming a furry friend into the family could have multiple benefits. "There's just something about the bond between humans and animals that I think people just can't get enough of," Potter says.

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh

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Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.