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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 27 February 2001 Issue:


Dr. Zimmerman discusses the mental-health benefits for children and adults that result from playing with dogs.
- Margery Glickman, Etceteras editor  

Kids and Dogs at Play
by Matt Zimmerman, Psy.D.

What could be more natural than a child and a dog playing together? Since the beginning of recorded time and likely long before that, kids and dogs have bonded easily and quickly to one another, often becoming best friends or "brothers" within hours of meeting. This should be of no surprise to those who understand the complex social structures on which both of our species are based. Humans form intricate communities and elaborate societies based on social rules and connections, as do dogs. Play serves to teach us many of those social rules and acts as an excellent model for connecting to other social animals. Furthermore, because play is such a natural part of being human, or dog for that matter, there are significant physical and mental-health benefits for children and adults alike.

A dog represents the near-perfect tool for teaching a child important social skills. A child who plays too roughly with his dog, pinches, hits or even yells loudly, will quickly find the game over because his pet most likely will just walk away. On the other hand, following the unspoken rules of playing hard without hurting usually results in a positive response from the dog, and the game (as many of you know) can go on and on. The child has learned from these lessons. He has learned that hurting will end the "social contract" and that aggressiveness is okay within reason and if the contract is respected. Consider how important a lesson that is in a society that rewards assertiveness and aggressiveness to some degree, but punishes breaking the rules. In this regard, playing with our dogs teaches us limits. It is for this reason that pet therapy is employed with children who struggle with appropriate social skills, including those suffering from autism or developmental delay. In fact, some research suggests that pet therapy with autistic children is as effective as any other treatment model being used today.

A kid who plays with a dog is also learning, without his or her knowledge of course, how to connect with others. The child learns to observe social cues in the dog, for instance whether or not the dog is in the mood to play. Sometimes this is easy to determine, but at other times subtleties need to be noticed, such as whether or not the dog is tired, in need of a water refill, or has to go out. In these cases the dog usually will not engage in play. Social cues are also necessary to observe during play. Again without awareness, a child-dog pair forms a cooperative style of play. This becomes obvious if you watch the same dog play with two different children and notice how differently the dog plays. Sometimes a family dog will expect to wrestle with one child, but will only bring the fetch ball to another child. Sometimes the stylistic differences are more subtle. Either way, the child is learning to pay attention to a significant level of detail that will help him or her later in life, whether trying to make friends, talk to a teacher or coach, interview for college admittance or have a professional discussion with a boss. Reading the facial and body language of a dog is essential, since they have no words. Reading the facial and body language of an 11-year-old peer is essential, because so much of social acceptance is based on accurately comprehending such information. When it comes to people, of course, the task is more complex, because words and nonverbal language do not always line up. This is important information to a child also, and will often serve to protect against embarrassment or rejection.

In addition to all the learning that takes place for a child when playing with a dog, there are substantial health benefits. First of all, and perhaps most important, is fun. Fun is a basic human need, regardless of age, and those who deny themselves of it frequently develop some type of physical or emotional health problem over time. And in this era and culture in which fun can be viewed as frivolous or a "waste of time," it is all the more important. Playing with a dog simply feels good. There are clear physical benefits as well. Dog play provides much exercise to a child and, because it is so rewarding to children, play sessions can last for a good duration. Because there are more and more leisure choices for children, such as ample video games and computer activities, it can be harder to motivate children to exercise. A dog is a natural draw for children, and if a parent gets involved in the play also, an amazing bonding experience can take place. Dog play is a major stress reducer, too, and when stress is reduced there are significant health benefits. Stress can cause fatigue, compromised immunity, headaches, general aching in the muscles, gastrointestinal difficulties, rashes, warts, increased blood pressure and is a major contributor to the development or worsening of many more serious illnesses. Therefore, a reduction in stress through dog play can increase energy and reduce pain and risk of disease. A child who practices stress reduction through play will learn the difference between what it feels like to be stressed and what it feels like to be relaxed. Regardless as to whether or not the child ends up owning a dog as an adult, he will always be drawn to lower his stress level simply because he knows it feels good.

So encourage your children to play with the dog, and feel free to get yourself involved in the mix, too. And when your child is making friends easily, working out a problem or conflict with a teacher, or applying successfully for that first job, know that your family dog, all slobbery, panting and goofy, helped in an immeasurable but substantial way through play.

-Dr. Matt Zimmerman is a licensed psychologist in private practice at Feiner & Associates, located at 2291 N. University Drive, Pembroke Pines, Fla. He provides grief counseling and pet euthanasia counseling on an individual basis. He can be reached at (954) 962-3855.

Submissions to Etceteras should be e-mailed to Margery Glickman at [email protected] .

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