Despite high levels of pet ownership in the United States (Melson, 2003;Walsh, 2009), research on the impact of human-animal interaction on physical and mental health is still in the early stages, especially research considering the impact of childhood pets. The key question of this grant is whether supportive relationships with pets can compensate for difficulties in other close relationships in preadolescence. Although there tends to be consistency in the quality of children's relationships with different human partners, children's and adolescents'reports of the quality of their relationships with parents is unrelated to the quality of relationships with their pets (Covert et al, 1985;Kurdek, 2003). Thus, pets may be a resource available to children who most need them. Because we are particularly interested in pets who can readily interact with children, and who are likely to provide them with unconditional love and support, the study will focus on children's interactions with dogs. We propose to examine the effects of children's relationships with their dogs on emotional and social adjustment in a sample of 100 9 to 11 year-old children. Using a variety of methods-- including questionnaires from children and teachers, behavioral observation, and heart rate monitoring- we focus on how and for whom pet dogs can function as support figures. More specifically we will address 4 questions: 1. Do children who have more positive interactions with their dogs also experience less loneliness and social anxiety and show fewer conduct problems? 2. Are these associations stronger for children who report low quality friendships, suggesting relationships with pets can buffer children who have problems in their peer relationships? 3. Are these associations stronger (i.e., buffering) for children who report more insecure attachments to their mothers and fathers? 4. Are children's responses to a social challenge task more adaptive when their pet dog is present, and is this especially true for children who have close relationships with their dogs or lower quality relationships with friends or parents? The significance of the proposed study is that it provides an opportunity to test whether relationships and social interactions with pets can serve as a buffering mechanism for preadolescents who are experiencing difficulties in relationships with parents or peers. If pets have a salutary effect then it would suggest new directions for treatment of children with adjustment difficulties (and possibly such treatments might be more acceptable to families than other alternatives that are more demanding on parents).
The later middle childhood years (ages 9 to 12) are a time of social challenge for children. A key developmental task is acquiring sufficient support from relationships to buffer against the negative outcomes (eg, loneliness, conduct problems) associated with interpersonal relationship difficulties. The proposed study, which tests whether relationships with pets can serve as a buffering mechanism for preadolescents who are experiencing difficulties in relationships with parents or peers, could suggest new directions for treatment of children with adjustment difficulties.