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Child's best friend: How growing up with a dog can benefit your child

Children who grow up with a pooch are less likely to have conduct issues and are better able to navigate change and trauma, writes Eva Hall

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Conan (5) and Devlin (2) Kavanagh at home in Rathfarnham, Dublin with their dog Bowie. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Conan (5) and Devlin (2) Kavanagh at home in Rathfarnham, Dublin with their dog Bowie. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Edel Farrell and daughter Layla (10) 
with assistance dog Google. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Edel Farrell and daughter Layla (10) with assistance dog Google. Photo: Steve Humphreys

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Conan (5) and Devlin (2) Kavanagh at home in Rathfarnham, Dublin with their dog Bowie. Photo: Steve Humphreys

We already know that dogs are a human's best friend. Now a recent study suggests that growing up with a dog can have a powerful psychological impact on children from an early age.

The Australian study, published in the Pediatric Research journal, found that children who had grown up with a dog were 30pc less likely to have conduct problems, and had better pro-social behaviours than children who didn't have a dog.

The study highlighted that the social-emotional benefits of owning a dog, walking a dog and playing with a dog, may begin in early childhood.

According to Dr Judith Butler, Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) course coordinator at Cork Institute of Technology, pets teach us valuable life lessons, such as trust, responsibility and empathy.

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Edel Farrell and daughter Layla (10) 
with assistance dog Google. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Edel Farrell and daughter Layla (10) with assistance dog Google. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Edel Farrell and daughter Layla (10) with assistance dog Google. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"It is scientifically proven that interaction with pets has significant benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, releasing endorphins which have a calming effect, reducing loneliness and decreasing anxiety," she says.

Dr Butler, who is also the President of OMEP Ireland, an ECEC charity, says: "Studies have shown that children with pets have higher self-esteem, improved social skills, and are more popular with their peers.

"In my experience, some children who are experiencing difficult, unpredictable transitions or trauma in their lives can also benefit greatly from having a pet."

Gina Murray, a crèche manager from Dublin, recently suffered a loss when her father passed away. Gina, her husband Conor and their children, Conan (5) and two-and-a-half-year-old Devlin, are proud to call greyhound-retriever mix Bowie a part of their family.

"My father passing away was really tough when the kids were isolated during lockdown, because they're so used to being social," says Gina. "But having Bowie around meant we still had a routine to keep."

Gina and Conor had 11-year-old Bowie before Conan and Devlin arrived, so he's always been a part of their lives. "They absolutely adore him and he adores them," says Gina. "Conan's a sensitive little soul and if he thinks Bowie is sad, he'll cover him with a blanket or give him extra rubs. But it's actually a reflection of how Conan is feeling himself. If Conan is stressed, he'll gravitate towards Bowie.

"I see children all the time because I work in a crèche, and Conan and Devlin are extremely social and outgoing.

"They're full of love and empathy and are happy to mix with people, I put a lot of it down to the dog. You have to be social when you have a dog because when you're out walking, you get stopped by people all the time wanting to know the dog's name. And the kids are confident enough to speak to people.

"Their sense of responsibility is much bigger. They know Bowie needs a walk every day, that he needs to be fed, he needs company.

"We'd probably be much lazier if we didn't have the dog. We go to the park but it doesn't mean a trip to the playground every time - the kids know that Bowie has to get his exercise."

Dr Butler says research suggests that adults who own dogs are more physically active, taking approximately 25pc more steps per day, and that "a higher level of child attachment to a dog is associated with increased child physical activity".

This has never been more true for the Farrell family from Dublin, who rarely left the house with daughter Layla until they got assistance dog Google. Layla, who turns 11 next month, was diagnosed with autism aged two. Seven-year-old Google, a goldendoodle, was assigned to Layla when she was three.

Layla requires 24-hour care and parents Edel and Stephen Farrell, as well as Layla's brother, Karl (21), and sister, Chloe (18), have to take extra precautions to ensure Layla's safety. They keep a keypad on the front door and locks and chains on the windows.

"Layla has severe autism. She is a runner, constantly getting out of the house," says Edel. "As a baby you couldn't let her out of her buggy. So when it got to the stage where she was too big for a buggy, this was where Google came in. I didn't want a dog that shed hair or smelled as Layla is very sensitive to smells."

Edel applied to My Canine Companion, a charity which places assistance and therapy dogs with children and young adults living with autism. The charity paired them with Google.

"Poodles and golden retrievers are said to be two of the most intelligent dogs. Google is a mix of both. He's placid, doesn't shed, doesn't smell and is hypoallergenic."

"Layla didn't show much affection towards him straight away," explains Edel. "She didn't show affection towards anybody. She had to learn, and Google taught her how to care, love and hug."

Google was trained with My Canine Companion and Edel and Stephen had to keep up the training at home. As Layla began to warm to the dog, the Farrells' lives started to open up again.

By attaching Google to Layla through a safety harness, or by allowing Layla to use a handle, the little girl now walks side by side with her assistance dog and her family.

For the first time since Layla was born, Edel was able to plan a family holiday. "We packed up the car and went to Cork with the dog - which we'd never done. He also came to Lanzarote with us on our first family holiday abroad."

Edel also acknowledges the benefits of having Google out in public if Layla feels overwhelmed. Anything from the smell of perfume in a shop to the pattern on the floor could overwhelm Layla, to the point where she can throw herself on the ground.

"She's a big girl and you can't always get her up which causes people to look. When you have a child that looks like everyone else but has loads of issues, having the assistance dog takes away from all that because they see the dog's coat that reads 'Do not pet me I am working'.

"If we're out in the shops and things are getting too much for her, she holds onto his head or she'll hug him and feel his coat. I think every child with autism should get a dog; they help in so many ways."


A dog's life

⬤ Getting a dog is a major responsibility and financial undertaking. Before you consider bringing a dog into your family, Dogs Trust Ireland has outlined steps to ensure you obtain your dog responsibly.

⬤ Consider rehoming a rescue dog (there are plenty to choose from).

⬤ Do your research: Having a bouncy, happy, playful puppy is a very enjoyable experience and dog ownership can be very rewarding, but it is a lot of hard work, and a lifetime commitment which can sometimes be forgotten in all the excitement!

⬤ Be aware of online adverts: Sadly, not everyone can be trusted, and there are thousands of unscrupulous breeders out there who make a good living peddling sick puppies via online adverts who may have come from a puppy farm.

⬤ How old should a puppy be? They must be at least eight-weeks-old to leave their mum - this is now a legal requirement.

⬤ Have the puppies had any vaccinations? Puppies should be vaccinated at 6-9 weeks of age and then again at 10-12 weeks.

⬤ Is the puppy Kennel Club registered? If so, make sure you are given the registration certificate and pedigree when you pick up your puppy. See dogstrust.ie and mycaninecompanion.ie

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