From personal experience, Robert Bierer, Ph.D., knew that dog ownership had a positive effect on young lives. He had owned dogs all his life. So when he began studying the effect dogs have on kids between the ages of 10 and 12, he figured he'd see the same positive impact.
That assumption was a safe one, given the vast amount of findings that show the emotional and physical benefits of pet ownership. The human-animal bond has proven to be a measurable benefit for both, helping to overcome physical or mental problems.
But he wasn't prepared for the data that he collected from preadolescents.
According to the study, conducted last year among middle school students in Albuquerque, N.M., dogs have a uniquely powerful impact on children between the ages of 10 and 12. In no other age group is the effect so enormously positive. The study notes that dog ownership is positive for children of all ages, but the weight of the impact surprised Bierer.
"I've always known animals were good medicine for kids," he said. "But I never thought that there would be such a profound effect."
The study's findings show evidence that the unconditional, positive love that comes from a dog allows children to feel valued in a unique way. In effect, the child can become the "parent" to the dog. Importantly, children in this age group are old enough to take care of many of their dogs' needs. To a large extent, the dog depends on the child for love and attention.
The child in turn becomes sensitive to the dog's emotions. The nonverbal cues that a dog uses to signal his feelings teaches a child to watch for body language, rather than just relying on speech. This sensitivity is transferred to others.
Showing empathy – being aware of the feelings of others – "is an important foundation when a child's peer group becomes more central," Bierer said. In an age when the average 10-year-old spends just 11 to 33 minutes a week in uninterrupted conversation with parents, developing empathy is doubly important. "They can practice empathy with their pets," he noted.
Dogs were selected because they consistently prefer the company of people, and children tend to bond with dogs more than any other pet. The study involved 126 children, 93 of whom owned dogs, from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities in the Albuquerque region.
The children were given a series of 72 questions that probed their relationships with themselves and others. Regardless of background, preadolescents who owned a dog showed much more self-esteem and empathy than non-dog owners. "Basically, the kids felt good about themselves for taking good care of their dogs," Bierer said.