Kids lobbying for a pet dog have a new argument to add to their arsenal. A new study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that children with pet dogs were more active than their pup-free peers. According to NPR, the paper followed 600 pre-school age children over a three-year period, roughly half of whom didn't have dogs. A significant number (204) had dogs all three years, while others (58) added one to their families or lost a dog (31) during the study. Using activity monitors, the researchers had unique insight into how much exercise the kids got, and whether having a dog during some or all of the three years influenced how much they moved.
While a longer trail of research has followed how dog ownership affects physical activity in adults, studying how this dynamic affects children has picked up. Scientific American reports that only 21% to 28% of American kids meet the target of one hour of moderate to intense play per day. Dog ownership has potential to move that needle in an organic way. "As researchers, we are often looking at interventions, trying to come up with ways to get people to get started with exercise," says Megan MacDonald, a professor of kinesiology at Oregon State University who was not involved in the study. She added that dog ownership 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."
While families with pet dogs had more activity overall, the findings were most profound for girls. Lead author Emma Adams tells NPR that "adding a dog to the household increased young girl's light intensity, physical activity by 52 minutes a day, or almost an hour." On the flip side, daily physical activity dropped by 62 minutes when girls lost their pet. She plans to look further into how pet interaction differs by gender, especially as girls' physical activity drops more than boys as they get older. Other benefits of dog ownership on children include reduced stress and anxiety, along with higher self-esteem and empathy. Study author Hayley Christian's earlier work found that kids with dogs shared more, Telethon Kids reports, among other pro-social behaviors. (Dog breeds influence their life expectancy "spectacularly.")