There are high levels of pet ownership in the United States (Melson, 2003; Walsh, 2009), and the potential for companion animals to promote physical and mental health (Crossman, in press). Yet, research on the impact of human-animal interaction (HAI) on physical and mental health is still in the early stages (Griffin et al, 2011. This is especially true in the area of pets and child development, as pets are studied less than therapy animals (Esposito et al, 2011). One barrier to progress is that there currently is no single conceptual framework used to describe children's relationships with pets, making it difficult to integrate findings from different studies. In addition, there are substantial methodological limitations to the research, in that studies have typically relied on child or parent surveys that have not been validated against actual interactions between children and their pets. Another issue is that almost all studies have examined pet relationships without also considering children's human relationships, and thus do not address the potential unique influence of pets, including their protective or mitigating influences on psychological health. Finally, studies have not considered negative qualities of pet relationships. To address these limitations, the proposed study focuses on six qualities of children's relationships with their pet dogs: Affection, emotional support from pet, companionship, nurturance of pet, pet as substitute for people, and friction with pet. These qualities will be assessed with multiple methods (self-report, observation, and daily diaries). Pet dogs are targeted given that they may be especially likely to provide children with unconditional support (Walsh, 2009) and can engage in responsive interactions that promote bonding (Jalongo, 2015), and we focus on children 9 to 12 years of age given that family ownership of pets is high at this age (Esposito et al, 2011).
The specific aims are: 1. To develop a conceptual framework and a conceptually guided set of measures (questionnaires, observations, daily diaries) that can be used to describe children's interactions with a pet dog. 2. To examine convergence among the measures to evaluate their validity. 3. To further evaluate the pet measures by examining their associations with children's relationships with parents and friends and with child adjustment (behavior problems, thriving, and positive affect). We more specifically test: (a) is pet relationship quality related to relationships with parents and friends, (b) is it related to adjustment, even after controlling for human relationships, and (c) can positive relationship with pet dogs buffer children from effects of low quality relationships with parents or friends. The study of children's relationships with parents and peers grew rapidly once new, well validated measures emerged (e.g., of attachment, parental responsiveness, peer sociometrics, friendship quality). If the grant aims are achieved, this study would provide a new set of theoretically informed measures that could stimulate further research on the mental health consequences of pets.
Despite high levels of pet ownership in families with children, and the potential for companion animals to promote mental and physical health, research on pets and children has lagged in comparison to research on therapy animals. One barrier to progress has been the lack of validated measures to assess the quality of pet relationships. The goal of our study is to test a new set of measures of pet dog relationships that could be incorporated into future studies of children's relationships and mental health.