The relationship between dog ownership, dog play, family dog walking, and pre-schooler social–emotional development: findings from the PLAYCE observational study



Regular physical activity provides children with health and developmental benefits. This study investigated if active play and walking with the family dog was associated with better social–emotional development in young children.


We surveyed 1646 parents to ascertain if families with pre-schoolers owned a dog, and the frequency per week their child went on family dog walks or actively played with their dog. The parent-report version of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) was used to measure children’s social–emotional development.


Children from dog-owning households had reduced likelihood of conduct problems (odds ratio (OR) = 0.70; 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.54, 0.90), peer problems (OR = 0.60; 95% CI: 0.46, 0.79), and total difficulties (OR = 0.77; 95% CI: 0.59, 0.99) and increased likelihood of prosocial behavior (OR = 1.34; 95% CI: 1.06, 1.68) compared with children without a dog. Within dog-owning households, family dog walking at least once/week (OR = 1.45; 95% CI: 1.02, 2.08) and active play with the family dog three or more times/week (OR = 1.74; 95% CI: 1.16, 2.59) increased the likelihood of prosocial behaviors. Family dog walking at least once/week also reduced the likelihood of total difficulties (OR = 0.64; 95% CI: 0.42, 0.96).


Our findings highlight the possible physical activity and social–emotional developmental benefits of family dog ownership for pre-schoolers, and that these benefits may present in early childhood.


  • Young children from dog-owning families had lower peer problems and conduct problems, and higher prosocial behaviors than children from non-dog-owning families.

  • Children of dog-owning families who walked or played with their dog more often also had better prosocial behaviors.

  • Positive social–emotional development was associated with dog ownership, family dog walking, and dog play in young children.

  • Highlights that the social–emotional benefits of owning a dog may begin early in childhood.

  • Due to the high level of pet ownership in households with children, these findings suggest having a dog and interacting with it through play and walking may be important mechanisms for facilitating young children’s social–emotional development.

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We thank the children and parents who participated in the PLAYCE study for their time and commitment. We also acknowledge that this study, in part, was funded by the the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) Grant no. HAB17-017, and the Western Australian Health Promotion Foundation (Healthway) who supported the original PLAYCE study. H.E.C. is supported by an Australian National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellowship (#100794). E.J.W. is supported by an Australian Research Training Program Scholarship. The funding bodies had no role in the design of the study and collection, analysis, and interpretation of data or in writing the manuscript.

Author information




H.E.C. designed the study and oversaw acquisition of the data. E.J.W., L.L., and H.E.C. analyzed the data. E.J.W. and H.E.C. drafted the article. All authors interpreted the data and provided feedback on drafts of the paper, approved the submitted version, and have agreed both to be personally accountable for their own contributions and to ensure that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work, even ones in which the author was not personally involved, are appropriately investigated, resolved, and the resolution documented in the literature.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hayley E. Christian.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Patient consent

Written informed consent was obtained from all participants in the PLAYCE Study. Consent conformed with the University of Western Australia Human Research Ethics Committee approval (RA/4/7417) for this project and the Australian Government’s National Statement on Ethical Conduct of Human Research 2007 (updated 2018).

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Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Patient consent Written informed consent was obtained from all participants in the PLAYCE Study. Consent conformed with the University of Western Australia Human Research Ethics Committee approval (RA/4/7417) for this project and the Australian Government’s National Statement on Ethical Conduct of Human Research 2007 (Updated 2018).

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Wenden, E.J., Lester, L., Zubrick, S.R. et al. The relationship between dog ownership, dog play, family dog walking, and pre-schooler social–emotional development: findings from the PLAYCE observational study. Pediatr Res (2020).

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