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Claudia Zenner & Gail Melson | How dogs affect children

JEANETTE: I did not grow up with a dog myself, but had animals around me all the time, and I know it had a good effect on many aspects of my life. Therefore, I wanted to find out more about the human-animal relation. I have talked to one parent and one professor. Let’s start with the parent. 

Claudia Zenner from Germany has been doing agility for more than 20 years. Claudia did not grow up with dogs herself, but got a Staffordshire Bull Terrier as soon as she moved out from home. They started doing agility and qualified for national teams and world championships. They even won a gold medal with the team, and she has been at the top level with several dogs ever since. 

One of the Zenner family’s dogs is a 7-year-old Kelpie. He is the former competition dog of Claudia’s husband Jörg, but now he’s running with their 7-year-old daughter. 

CLAUDIA: They grew up together, and since my daughter was 5 years old, they started to do some agility. Now she’s 7 and is ready for competition, and yes, they are doing pretty good. 

JEANETTE: Who wanted to start with agility? Was it your daughter, or was it you as parents that thought it would be nice for her to try? 

CLAUDIA: If your kid is sharing the same interest and the same hobby, of course you like this very much. But it was not us to tell her, “Okay, get the dog and start agility.” It was just her, because we are an agility-addicted family. We are crazy about the sport, and we are on the training field very often. We do a competition almost every weekend. Since she was a baby, she’s with us all the time and she grew up with it. 

One day she said, “Okay, I want to do agility too. Can I just join the training?” So it all started. And she was really talented and got better and better and better. 

JEANETTE: I guess it’s either/or because some kids growing up with agility get sick and tired of it. Do you have any tips and tricks for other parents with kids to avoid this? 

CLAUDIA: You never can tell how it will develop, but I think it’s very important not to tell the kid “you have to do this and that.” Let it go and see what will happen. I guess it’s very important to tell the kid this is an animal and how to treat the animal and how to take care of the dog, and don’t be so stressful and strict. They need to have fun, and it’s not important to be good at the sport; it’s important just to have fun with your dog as a team partner. Then they understand that it is not about winning, it is about being a team and having a good time. 

JEANETTE: Doing this sport, does it affect your kid in any way, positive or negative? 

CLAUDIA: I think my kid has become much more self-confident. She is proud of what she is able to do together with the dog. She’s very talented with the dog and has a special sense of how to handle the dog in agility. In my opinion, agility affects all kinds of development, like more focus, more concentration, better learning, socialization, movement, and even body control. She’s very eager to learn more of what she’s doing, not only in agility. 

JEANETTE: Do you see any changes from before she started compared to now? 

CLAUDIA: Oh yes. Like I said, since she was a baby, she has been to the agility class regularly with us. Because we are on the field and in training so often, she joined our trainings and competition and she started very early with agility – she was 5 years old, and she was very eager to learn more and more. 

Now, after 2 years of training, she was ready for competition. Her development was huge. In even 6 months from her first start till now, she is gaining so much more self-confidence. Yes, the development is really, really huge. She has gained so many agility skills in such a short period. This is just amazing. 

Of course, this affects her daily life. Usually, she would rather back off as situations get more complicated, and now she’s able to handle daily life situations more easily. She’s very open-minded now towards other people and cares for others. She has learned to deal with failures. If you work with an animal, things very often go not always as planned. We teach her, don’t be mad at the dog. It is always your fault. Rethink your handling. This is an important lesson for the kids. 

JEANETTE: And the handling is how you move to show the dog the way on the course. 

CLAUDIA: Yes, that’s true. In agility, you guide the dog only with your voice and your body movement. The dog doesn’t know the course because the course is always different. It’s up to you to show the right way. If the dog takes the wrong way, like a wrong obstacle or wrong tunnel, it’s your fault because you’re not showing the right way for the dog. 

JEANETTE: Your daughter seems to be a natural at this, maybe because she grew up with it, but she’s adjusting very nicely to the dog and everything. I saw her running at the B.A.C.K. That’s a big competition in Germany. She was running the finals, and they had a great run. It was a fault on the contacts, as far as I can remember, but the rest was flawless. How was it for her to have that experience, to compete with some of the best handlers in the world in front of a big, big audience? 

CLAUDIA: This was a great experience. Like 6 months earlier, she wouldn’t do it, and now she was qualified for the final, because in Germany the kids are invited to run the final course. It’s a very good support for the kids. She was so excited. I was thinking this course is way too much for her and the dog. I was a little bit worried. She answered me, “Oh Mom, don’t worry. We can do it.” This was very cute. She has a very special feeling for the dog, and the dog is also very, very nice and very kind to her. He is watching the kid very good. They are already a perfect team. So this is very good to see. 

Of course she was very excited to run in this final at this international competition, but she was doing so perfect. She was showing off so much, it was just very impressive. She started; from Jump #1 to the end, it was just – she had a plan, and she was running it, and she was sure the dog would follow, and she nailed it. It was just amazing.

JEANETTE: Now she just qualified for Grade 3. That’s like the elite class in agility. Now she’s competing against adults and some of the best ones in the world as well. How do you think this will be for her? 

CLAUDIA: Oh, yes. [laughs] 

JEANETTE: It looked only easy because maybe she’s used to winning and everything until now, but now she gets some serious competition. 

CLAUDIA: Yes, it’s true. She started in Class 1 and did all the qualifications for Class 2, and now the qualifications for Class 3. To be honest, we didn’t imagine she would even do it so fast, in such a short time. Now she’s, yes, in Class 3, running with the adults. 

Of course, it’s now our job to teach her it is not about winning. It is to be a perfect team, to have a very nice teammate with you. She needs to learn this. We need to explain every time. Now it’s getting more complicated, and maybe she will not win even if she has a clean run. It is all about the feeling. If she is having fun with the dog and if she is enjoying the run, then that’s all that counts. 

JEANETTE: How is the relationship between your child and the dog outside the agility course? 

CLAUDIA: They are, even outside agility, a perfect team. They have daily life together and they take care of each other. 

JEANETTE: Do you see any difference in how the dog is behaving around your daughter compared to you guys as adults? 

CLAUDIA: He is adjusting to the kid. When the kid slows down in the course, he will adjust perfectly and slow down too, and he even waits for her. He’s very nice. In one course, she fell down, and he stopped immediately, watching her, being sure she was okay, and then he started to run again. It was so nice. 

JEANETTE: Would he do the same if it was your husband falling? 

CLAUDIA: No, of course not. When he was running with my husband, he was a totally different dog. He’s not an easy dog. As a Kelpie, of course he’s very, very big. It was not easy to run with him in the agility course. But now he’s a totally different dog with my kid. This is really amazing. 

JEANETTE: What do you think the future will hold for your daughter and her Kelpie? 

CLAUDIA: They just started to compete in agility, but in Germany we have some junior championships, and maybe she will go for that. Maybe next year or in some months. We will see. Next year there is even the Junior European Open, but this is a little bit too much for her right now. We want her just to grow as a team and to get even more self-confidence, and maybe they’re ready for this big event a little bit later. It’s very important not to overdo it. 

JEANETTE: You did not grow up with a dog yourself, but now you’ve seen your daughter growing up with this amazing dog. Do you think every kid ideally should grow up with a dog or a pet in general? 

CLAUDIA: In my opinion, every kid needs a pet for its own development. If your kid can have a dog, then it’s better. They can learn for life social behavior and special needs of the animal, respect and kindness, and of course, responsibility. And they learn patience and how to train an animal. I think the combination of a pet and sport is perfect. Of course, agility is our life. If our kids love dogs as much as we do, everybody’s happy.

JEANETTE: Then the question is, can this be backed up with science? I called Gail Melson, Professor Emerita at Purdue University in the USA, to find out. She has a PhD in developmental psychology with a focus on children. When she started doing research in the 1980s, there was hardly any information to find about the relationship between kids and animals. She has changed that and collected some of her findings in the book, Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. 

GAIL: The field of psychology, until recently, really focused on relationships that children had with other human beings. I became interested in the relationships that children have outside of the human species. Of course, that takes me to an interest in animals, and particularly knowing that in not only Norway, but through much of the world, pets are very much a part of the household, of the home that children are growing up in. So it would be natural that this would be a relationship that could be very important. 

JEANETTE: Did you grow up with any animals yourself? 

GAIL: I did grow up with a dog named Trixie. She was of course very much part of our family. But I think my professional interest really began in a little bit of a different way in the sense that as I was studying social and emotional relationships in children, one of the relationships that I was really interested in was the idea of nurturing. 

We very much think of that as something that adults do for children, and of course, they do. But I was interested as a person who focuses on child development, what happens in childhood that maybe might make an adult a better nurturer, a better caregiver, a more compassionate and more nurturing person? Is this something that develops at childhood?

This was really an academic question, but I discovered, just as I did when I was interested in non-human relationships, I discovered there was very, very little research. So I began a research program with a colleague on the idea. We called it the development of nurturance. What goes on in childhood? We never thought about pets and we never thought about animals because we just thought about maybe kids who are around babies, that might be something. We weren’t sure, but we never thought about it. 

We did studies of children, both observing them and videotaping them and interviewing them, about nurturing others. When “others,” we thought of other human beings, mainly little babies. What we found in that research was by the age of 5, children had a very firm gender bias, which was kind of shocking to us. Girls were very interested in nurturing and caring for little ones, and boys not at all. 

We interviewed young children and one said to me, “Taking care of a baby, that’s a mommy thing.” This is a little boy. [laughs] “I’m a big man.” It didn’t seem to matter that his dad was there taking care of – he had plenty of models, plenty of examples. We were kind of distressed by that because we felt that in our society, and in fact in the world, we need everyone to be a nurturer, a caregiver, somebody who is attuned to helping others.

I remember vividly talking with colleagues about our results, our findings, and how disturbed we were. One of them said to us, “Well, what do you think about taking care of pets? They must be in so many homes, and obviously you’ve got to take care of them if you don’t want them to suffer and die. I wonder if you’ll find this gender problem with that. Certainly it would be an opportunity to learn about nurturing.” A big light went off in our head, and we said, “Oh my goodness, yeah, that’s so interesting. I wonder about that.”

In the days before Google, we actually went to libraries to do what a researcher always does first, which is look at the existing research, and we discovered not a single research study on this question. Not one. I was very surprised because I soon discovered that, my goodness, children are growing up with pets – of course, mostly dogs and cats, but other pets too – in the majority of households in the United States. So we’re talking about millions upon millions of children. How could this be that everyone is ignoring this? 

So this was a great stimulus to beginning this research. At the beginning, of course, we were interested in this idea of this nurturance. We started not looking at animals, but then this stimulated us – one of our first discoveries I think still is something very important for people to think about: that gender effect that we found when it came to taking care of human babies was completely absent when it came to taking care of pets. 

Boys and girls didn’t see it as a mommy thing, a daddy thing, a girl thing, a boy thing. You just could take care of your dog or your cat or whatever the animal was, and it had nothing to do with being masculine or feminine. We called it a gender neutral area of learning about nurturance – and frankly, the only one we could identify. That means it’s potentially very significant in childhood, especially to boys. They don’t have a lot of opportunity to be involved with nurturing and caregiving.

JEANETTE: What differences did you see between the kids growing up with pets compared to the ones that did not have any pets? 

GAIL: One of the things that’s very interesting there is that children who were growing up with pets, their understanding of not only their own animal that they’re growing up with, but more generally – even pets that belong to other people – I would say is more sophisticated.

We did interviews with children, asking them about the thoughts and emotions, the feelings, that a dog might have. Not their own dog, but a friendly dog that they had a chance to play with and get to know. If they had a pet at home, they were more likely to attribute to this dog that they were just getting to know more psychology, more emotion. In other words, they saw this animal as a more complex being than a child who did not have an experience growing up with pets. 

The other thing which I think is very important is we asked children questions about what we called the moral standing of the dog. By moral standing, I mean, what are your views about what is morally and ethically okay in terms of treatment of this animal? We found that children who were growing up with animals had a stronger view of the ethical and moral obligations. 

JEANETTE: Are there any other benefits from growing up with a dog? 

GAIL: I do think that we saw that at least potentially, growing up with a pet can have an effect on your views on animal welfare issues. 

JEANETTE: And these skills and emotions also transfer to other humans?

GAIL: We don’t really have the research that would allow us to conclude, “oh yes, that happens all the time or most of the time.” But I think it’s a very, very important question. 

We found another important benefit: the idea of emotional support, especially when a child might be feeling some stress. The idea here is that in the home, of course human family members, but also non-human pets, are available, they’re in the home. Especially with dogs, they’re very, very happy to see you. When you need a feeling that someone is there that cares for you, you can often derive that feeling from a pet. I would say dogs are especially good because of their evolved bond with the human family. 

So we have found in our research that children do remarkably often turn to their pets when they are feeling emotions of sadness or anger or needing some support, and they do feel as though, even though the animals cannot tell them “I’m there for you” – there is a very big research literature on the importance of human social support for people. Not only children, but adults all through the lifespan. We know that one of the most effective say medications for people is social support, and one of the greatest threats to health is social isolation. 

This is, again, an area where non-human relationships was ignored completely until recently. Nobody thought to look at social support coming from something that’s not another human being, and yet we now know that grownups, too, adults and children, derive very often feelings of emotional support from the pets that they have in their household. 

JEANETTE: Service dogs are getting more and more common. 

GAIL: Yeah, emotional support animals. That’s in a way making that kind of relationship “official.” You could say that in many ways, the animals that are pets in children’s homes are functioning as emotional support animals in an everyday way for many, many children. 

JEANETTE: In some schools you also have classroom pets. 

GAIL: Yes, exactly. We’re seeing this whole idea moving into other areas, into visiting children at hospitals, having animals in classrooms, animal-assisted therapy, which has a component of that feeling of emotional support – so the idea has spread and has a lot of applications now. 

JEANETTE: Is there any difference between dogs and other types of pets? Is there something special about dogs, or is it only the dog owners that like to think so? 

GAIL: [laughs] I think the answer is yes and no. We know that dogs are, in a way, uniquely responsive, uniquely attuned to other humans in the family. That’s their pack. In that sense, they’re highly interactive in a way that even cats – I know cat lovers will maybe not like this statement – are usually not. 

And of course, children have other pets. They have turtles and birds and snakes and guinea pigs and a great variety, and sometimes – often – more than one species in the same household. 

One thing we found in terms of the emotional attachment or the feelings of support is children are really able to get that from a wide variety of species. Even though you might think the dog would be really good because he can sense when you’re sad and come over and lick your hand and make you feel better, children can pour out their heart to their guinea pig, who maybe is not listening and doesn’t understand, but you can have a feeling that they’re a creature that is there, accepting you and listening to you. 

So I think the benefits of pets are very broad across species. 

JEANETTE: Pets can also teach you some important lessons of life, can’t they? 

GAIL: 80% of all children – and this is in many countries – have their first experience of death with the death of an animal, a pet because of course, the lifespan of almost all animals is shorter. We know this is an important at least opportunity in the family for understanding and dealing with death, and with illness, for that matter. 

I would say that what the research is showing is that how children either benefit from this or don’t benefit has everything to do with the other human beings in the house, especially parents. We say in English it’s “a teachable moment.” If an animal is sick or an animal has died, there’s an opportunity for discussion. There’s an opportunity to talk about feelings. But not every parent will use this opportunity. Some parents may try to hide the experience from their children. They think it’s going to be too upsetting. 

It really does depend, I would say even in general – I often try to emphasize that the significance of the animal in a child’s life depends a lot on the parents. The adults who parent the child help to make it successful or not, help to interpret, to give opportunities. It’s not something that the child in isolation experiences. It’s part of a complicated network of humans and animals together. 

Very often, parents don’t mean to do this, but they will say to a young child, “We went to the veterinarian and we had to put the dog to sleep.” That’s an expression in English, “put the dog to sleep.” You can imagine if you’re 3 or 4 or 5 years old, you don’t want to go to bed because the child understands it very literally – meaning you go to sleep and you never wake up. The way we talk about death is also important, thinking about how the child understands the words you’re saying. 

There are a few topics I think parents have a lot of trouble with: talking about sex and talking about death. Being very careful to be accurate and truthful – that’s hard sometimes, because you want to protect children from negative emotions. That’s a feeling that’s very natural for a parent to have. 

The other thing is we often say meet the child where the child is. Rather than giving a child too much information, waiting for the child to ask questions and then answering that question, but not going beyond it, because maybe that child’s not ready for it. The dog may die and then the child may say, “When is (whatever the dog’s name is) Fluffy coming back?” That’s when the response is, “Fluffy is not coming back because Fluffy died. When a dog or a person dies, they don’t come back, but we remember them. Let’s look at some pictures and some videos of Fluffy to remember Fluffy.” This could be a transition. But Fluffy is not going to physically come back. 

Just addressing what the child is asking, and then maybe weeks will go by and the child may ask another question, and then you can follow that up. I think that’s true for any kind of difficult conversation. 

The last thing I will say is that I’m a parent and a grandparent, and I know how hard it is to watch a child be sad and watch a child be upset. But it’s important for parents to realize that sometimes we all have to experience – it’s natural to experience sadness. If a beloved human dies, of course we’re sad. Of course we cry. The idea that you don’t – well, others will think you’re very unfeeling. 

So being okay with a child’s sadness or negative emotions, and even joining with it – “of course we feel sad about Fluffy” – is something that I think parents sometimes have to work on. But it’s a good thing to remember. 

JEANETTE: That’s some really good advice. Luckily, dogs also give us many good moments and a lot of joy. 

GAIL: Absolutely. 

JEANETTE: Dogs need to be exercised, and sometimes parents let their kids take part in this. It could also benefit the child. 

GAIL: Yeah. That’s an area of current research. We know childhood obesity is a big problem in many developed countries, and if dogs can help children become more physically active – and adults too – that’s a very good thing. 

There’s some research now looking at that. I think we don’t fully know – it’s a bit complicated. It may depend on lifestyle, the type of dog, the kind of relationships in the family. Right now, it’s hard to say “here’s a child who needs exercise; give this child a dog, the child will get more exercise and lose weight.” We can’t say that yet, or we can’t say it now, because it’s also more complicated. 

But at least potentially – I would say the word potentially – dogs can be a help in creating more physical activities for family members. 

JEANETTE: And some kids are growing up to share their parents’ interest for some kind of dog sports. I know a lot of our listeners are active in some kind of dog sport, whether it’s canicross, agility, or whatever. Also, the kids gradually start competing. What do you think about that? Is there anything the parents should be aware of? 

GAIL: I haven’t really looked at that as a scientist, as a researcher, so I’m really not sure. I think anything that is competitive that parents are involved in and then children become interested in, any of those things probably depend on how the family deals with that. It should never be something that a child feels pressure. It should not be something in which they feel that their self-esteem depends on winning a prize. 

But that’s true of any kind of competition. Very often when a parent is extremely enthusiastic about some kind of sport or competition, it feels very natural for them to encourage their child, but sometimes it becomes pressure. But the adult doesn’t feel like it’s pressure because this is something they love. It’s just something in general to think about and to be aware of how the child is feeling about what they’re doing. 

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