You’ve no doubt heard stories of soldiers and dogs who have forged strong bonds on the combat field, reuniting at home to become, well, family. Now, new research from Tufts suggests that the children of deployed soldiers may benefit from a close relationship with a dog as well.
Megan Mueller, PhD, a research assistant professor at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, made the finding when she administered surveys to 286 high schoolers and middle schoolers in military families as part of research entitled the Positive Engagement Together (PET) Study. Some of the 286 teens and tweens had at least one parent who was actively deployed while others did not.
The aim was to see how well bonding with a pet, in the majority of cases a dog, correlated with each child’s positive development, stress level, and adaptive coping strategies. This was a particularly important population to study because it is already well-known that youth in military families face unique challenges, Dr. Mueller wrote in the journal Applied Developmental Science. For instance, they must cope with higher-than-average rates of having to move, which can impact both social and emotional development.
Before they examined the impact of having a pet, Dr. Mueller and her Tufts colleague Kristina Callina, PhD, found, first of all, that children of deployed soldiers reported experiencing significantly more stress than children whose military parents were not in conflict zones. They then found that for youth who did not have a deployed family member, coping scores for both social activities and proactive orientation did not differ appreciably between those who had an attachment to a pet and those who did not. Simply put, for children whose military parents were out of harm’s way, having a close attachment to an animal was not associated with participating in social activities or taking advantage of opportunities and responding as effectively as possible to negative events.
But for those boys and girls who did have a deployed family member, a greater attachment to a pet did correlate with better coping strategies; children of deployed parents who were not bonded with a pet did not fare as well in those areas. The researchers make clear that it wasn’t just about having a pet. It was the quality of the relationship — the level of attachment — that was most important in showing positive emotional adaptation.
Because the benefit appeared to be a social one — getting along with people in different spheres and using relationships to cope — the researchers theorize that perhaps “a social relationship with an animal could serve as a ‘bridge’ to developing and maintaining peer relationships during a time of stress. In addition,” the researchers point out, “existing research suggests that animals can provide a way for people to connect with each other around shared interests.” Finally, feeling emotionally supported by a positive relationship with a pet may be a means by which young people can feel more positive or proactive about tackling stressful issues rather than crumbling under the weight of them.
Dr. Mueller takes pains to point out that her research did not establish a cause-and-effect link between forging a close bond with a dog or other pet and coping better with potentially overwhelming life stressors. “It may be the case,” she writes, “that youth who already have a stable, positive family system are more likely to obtain a family pet and foster a positive relationship with” it. But she says the conclusions her research has drawn are definitely fodder for further investigations, especially in light of the fact that almost two million children have parents serving in the U.S. military and that more than two in three active service members have been deployed in conflicts since 2001, most of them more than twice. In other words, if having a dog in the household and encouraging a child to bond with him can help him or her engage in more positive coping strategies like taking part in social activities and going forward with a “can do” attitude, a pet dog becomes an easily obtainable resource for increasing resilience in the face of what could otherwise be rather crippling stress.
Prequel to the military research
This is not Dr. Mueller’s first study to suggest that a close bond with a pet such as a dog enhances a child’s development in a positive way. Early last year, she published research that looked at 567 post-high school young adults ages 18 through 26 who had been part of a national 4-H study since as far back as the fifth grade. What she found was that animal owners, including dog owners, had what are known as high “contribution” scores compared to those who had not had an animal growing up. A relatively high “contribution” score means the person spends more time helping others like friends and neighbors, providing service to their communities, and acting in leadership roles — terrific indicators of positive development in children and teens as they mature into adulthood.
The results have broad implications. “The finding that emotional attachment to an animal was related to more global connections to family, peers, and community demonstrates that” such connectedness “may be related to the various…support systems associated with youth feeling engaged” in their families and communities, Dr. Mueller writes. “Similarly,” she says, “there’s a positive relationship” between attachment and a sense of competence that suggests that helping to take care of an animal as part of a close bond can increase one’s self-perception of his or her capabilities and therefore encourage the child to enter into both social and academic pursuits and go on to excel.
While this study, like the study of children whose parents are in the military, cannot prove that having a close attachment to and taking care of an animal increases feelings of competency and a willingness to reach out, the associations it makes between the two are more than intriguing. Other research has already indicated a link between human-animal interaction and lower levels of depression and has identified a bond with an animal as providing positive emotional support in addition to being correlated with self-esteem. Tie those findings to the fact that as family sizes are decreasing children are more likely to grow up with a pet than with a younger sibling or grandparent, and it gets easier to connect the dots.