Children who grow up with dogs are more physically active than children without dogs. An Australian research team has now examined this connection in more detail and published their results in the “International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity”.
Regular exercise promotes children's physical and mental health. That's why the World Health Organization recommends that children aged one to four should be physically active for three hours a day. Between the ages of 5 and 17, children should get at least an hour of moderate to intensive exercise every day - for example through play or sports.
But many children do not manage to get enough physical activity every day. Can a dog in the house help? Many studies show that children who grow up with dogs are more active than those without dogs. Children and young people who often walk and play with their dog are more likely than others to achieve the recommended amount and duration of physical activity.
Activity of 600 children examined
But do children only become more active when they get a dog? Or are more families getting a dog if they already lead an active lifestyle? How exactly children's behavior is related to owning a dog has hardly been analyzed so far.
The research team led by Emma Adams from the University of Western Australia examined how the acquisition, ownership and loss of a dog influences children's physical activity. To do this, it used data from exercise monitors and parent statements from an existing long-term study (2015 to 2021) on the activity of 600 children aged two to seven. During this period, 204 children had a dog at all times, 58 got a dog during this period and 31 had their dog die in the meantime. 307 did not have a dog.
The authors found that children who consistently owned a dog were more physically active than children without a dog. Girls with dogs did an average of eight more physical activities per week, such as playing outside, walking, or playing with the dog, than girls without dogs. For boys with dogs, that was seven more per week.
Death of animals leads to less movement
When children got a dog during the study, the number of these weekly physical activities increased by seven. The researchers were able to observe an increase in light activity, particularly among girls. They spent just over 52 minutes more time each day doing light exercise and play, including slow walking and doing crafts.
In contrast, children whose dogs died during the study were less active than before. The number of physical activities per week decreased by eight for boys and ten for girls. Here too, the authors observed that girls' behavior was more affected than boys'. After their dog died, they spent a good hour less time each day doing light physical activity and playing than before.
"Children who have lost their dog may be less physically active because they are still grieving for their dog," the researchers explain in their study. "Studies have shown that people often try to cope with the loss of a pet by avoiding certain activities." Among them are those that are reminiscent of the dog. If walking with the family dog is not replaced by other activities after its death, it is quite possible that children will exercise less.
Risk of chronic diseases could decrease
"Overall, our results suggest that acquiring and owning a dog has a positive impact on children's physical activity," the authors conclude. The study provides the first evidence that getting a dog can lead to an increase in certain types of physical activity. According to the authors, having a dog in the family could also reduce the long-term risk of chronic illnesses in children.
How often and for how long children are physically active can depend heavily on the breed, age and size of the dog. Therefore, these features should be taken into account in further studies.